Thursday, 31 December 2020

Thor: The Last Days of Midgard - How to Hold onto Hope in a Dying World

How do we save the environment from the seemingly insurmountable forces of capitalism, an ideology determined to destroy the planet as it extracts every last resource from it?

Intro & Context

Regardless of the blatant and apocalyptic detrimental impacts they have on the very planet we live on, unregulated and rampant business interests will be protected by the state. This should be obvious when the political elite are often in the pocket of oil companies, billionaire tech-bros, and industries who profit from the exploitation and pollution of the Earth. 

While the general population suffers and the planet dies as a direct result of their actions, the business class will continue to strip the world of its resources for short-sighted gains at the expense of our long term future.

It is a problem so insurmountable that even a god cannot fight climate change without being confronted by the impenetrable web of corporate greed and a legal system designed to protect the interests of capital and business. That's the lesson that Jason Aaron's Thor learns in the fantastic Thor: The Last Days of Midgard arc from 2012 (Thor: God Of Thunder #19-25).

Who needs Aquaman to save the ocean when Thor can swim?

However, it is not the lesson I learnt from this comic but we'll get to that. First, some backstory.

Backstory (to the Worst Year Ever)

This year, 2020 if you're reading this in the future (presuming there is a future), I had started to fall into despair at the state of the world and my inability to affect change on it. I was wound tight with stress, feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders and starting to crumble under the pressure. 

The resurgence of populist fascism, the enduring destruction of late stage capitalism, gross immoral inequality, a global pandemic, the fact that the world is literally on fire... and all I could do was watch it unfold on a computer screen. 

It feels overwhelming because it is overwhelming. It is too much and it all seems doomed. It is relentless, a constant feed of bad to terrible news, a desolate wasteland where nothing is able to bloom. It is as though you're in the middle of the ocean and dying of thirst. Cut off and alone, unable to connect or contribute to make things better since you can't latch onto anything or see a way forward.

What can you do when confronting destructive giants far greater and more powerful than yourself?

In the face of this unceasing toxicity, I become cut off. I was unable to be present in the here and now, in my own life. I was too consumed by what was happening abroad in other countries or the latest online discourse, the latest injustices committed by this corrupt state, politician or corporation, and so on, that I was unable to be fully present at work, with my friends, or even my family. 

I was tethered to the endless stream of terrible news that unfolded daily on my Twitter timeline...

And I believe I'm not alone in the loneliness caused by the hellscape that is social media. Too many of us feel cut off. Too many of us feel alienated and disillusioned by the constant suffering in the world and the failure of modern liberal democracies to meaningfully address the issues plaguing the world today. 

Issues of rampant corporate greed, the unequal distribution of resources, the gross exploitation of late stage capitalism, the continuing systemic bigotry of our societies, the inept responses to a global pandemic, and the ticking bomb of climate change. I mean, due to the dominance of neoliberal ideology which places the failures of society on the individual, often these democratic systems which are supposed serve the people deliberately make these issues worse when they aren't too busy ignoring them.

So the central question becomes, "How do we hold on to hope in dying world?". 

What if there is no one to smite since capitalism has no face to punch?

Let's Discuss the Comic

In Last Days of Midgard, there are two story-lines that are told in parallel which mirror and comment on one another. 

The first is Present Day Thor as he gets entangled with ROXXON Energy and its CEO Dario Agger, who, as Thor puts it, "seeks to poison Midgard for financial gain". Here Thor faces challenges not only in physical battle and of the magical variety but also of legal red tape and corrupt bureaucracy set up to protect the business elite. 

The second story-line is set millennia in the future, as old King Thor battles Galactus to prevent him from devouring a barren Earth which long ago died and is now just a dusty, hollowed out husk.

I'm sure there's no pointed commentary about our real-life future being made here.

The two story-lines are told simultaneously, mostly with the future plot adding layers of pathos and dramatic irony on the present day story. 

In the Present story-line, antagonist Dario Agger is the perfect embodiment of the modern neoliberal tech-bro, full of empty PR spin to obfuscate exploitative business practices. He also makes Elon Musk-like grandiose proclamations of his company's (modest) accomplishments, and expresses an insatiable desire to privatise vital resources from the public good. 

I mean, this is a man who wanted to establish an interplanetary ice pipeline to mine water from one of Jupiter's moons to "solve" the Earth's water crisis. 

I dunno man, you seem more preoccupied with the taking part...

Thor knows that Agger is actively destroying the planet and polluting the air but as Agger points out that neither he or his company "have never been convicted of any wrongdoing by any court in the world". In the eyes of the law, Agger and ROXXON are innocent and it is Thor who is the aggressor by thwarting ROXXON's enterprise by trying to stop them from destroying the planet. 

To be fair, Thor is deliberately destroying ROXXON facilities which hurts their profit margin and makes their shareholders sad. On the other hand, some of those facilities are so completely toxic that they have to be fully automated since no humans can work there, so yeah. Funnily enough, ROXXON cannot claim insurance since the insurance company is refusing coverage since the damage was caused by an act of god. Cute.

Fittingly, Thor is teamed up with Agent Rosalind 'Roz' Solomon of S.H.I.E.L.D's first ever environmental task force for this arc. Agent Solomon is a pragmatic idealist who wants to save the environment and believes it is possible but fully understands it is an uphill battle where you not only have one hand tied behind your back but also a chain around your ankles while your opponent has had a 20 year head start and more resources than you can imagine.

Of course, S.H.I.E.L.D are an espionage, special law enforcement, and counter-terrorism agency in Marvel comics. They are analogous to the CIA, by which I mean they're basically an arm to enforce American imperialism under the guise of counter-terrorism. So, that sucks and is a mark against Roz but she seems to have her heart in the right place.

However, the real take-away from this Present Day plot is how even the mighty Thor is in some ways powerless to stop the machinations of capitalism. 

Agger relocates ROXXON's floating factories to Broxton, a small town next to where Asgardia (the remnants of Asgard on Earth, home of Thor and the gods) is in an attempt to hurt Thor by buying up most of the town, displacing his friends and neighbours. And when Thor tries to fight Agger directly, he is served with a sue notice for damages done to ROXXON Energy.

What good is a hammer against a court action lawsuit?

It's quite interesting to watch Thor try to attack Agger head on, only to be hit with a lawsuit and restraining order, a fantastic example of how corporations will use the law to their own means in order to stifle criticism and activism. The law is on Agger's side because he has unlimited capital and the law is always on the side of those with capital, largely because it was written by people with capital. Funny that. 

Naturally, since this is a superhero comic, Agger turns out to be a Minotaur and hires trolls to kill Thor, which means Thor can smack his face with his hammer. Unfortunately, the town of Broxton is destroyed in the ensuing battle, showing how it is always average everyday people who suffer under capitalism.

Moving to the Future story-line, old King Thor, having seen the millennia since the events of the present day plot, as well as the death of all his friends and allies from that time period, stands in the dust of a dead Earth. Lamenting the loss of his beloved Midgard, who should arrive but Galactus, the devourer of worlds.

Galactus is a perfect metaphor for the unceasing need for perpetual growth and expansion, not to mention the destruction left in its wake, fundamental to the functions of capitalism. Galactus is famously always hungry. No planet, no matter how large or rich in resources, can satiate his burning desire to consume more and more and more until the end of time. He must always have more, constantly travelling the galaxy forever consuming. Just like capital, Galactus must feed.

But Thor says thee nay!

Visually, they made the rather deliberate choice to have Galactus give off bellows of smoke and ash, polluting the air with his mere presence. Oh well, sure there's no wider meaning to be read here.

Before they begin their battle, Galactus and King Thor discuss the Earth and why they want to devour or save it, respectively. Thor points out that the Earth is already half dead, and asks why he would even want to eat a world such as this. However, Galactus turns the question back on Thor, questioning why would he want to defend it. Their answers are quite illuminating.

Thor responds that the Earth has saved him more times than he can count while he hasn't saved it nearly enough. Galactus similarly states that the Earth has defied him more times than he can count and no matter its current state, the taste of it will be sweet.

Thor's response points out our duty to the world we live on, to nurture it and take care of it as it provides for us, while Galactus' reply highlights the pettiness and desire for conquest inherent in capitalism's need for perpetual growth and consumption.

It is interesting, that Thor then thinks to himself that it would so easy to let it slip away just by doing nothing. Perhaps it would be a mercy to let the planet be consumed... however, Thor is not the god of Mercy and stands his ground against a being far larger and more powerful than he is.

When standing up to a giant, simply breaking his hand is a victory of immense proportions.

I won't retell all the events of their battle here since it would take too long and distract from the point I'm trying to make but suffice to say, it is epic and a tale worthy of being told. 

Fittingly, Thor's granddaughters, the Girls of Thunder join the battle when Thor is knocked out and attack Galactus, causing some significant damage, even if they ultimately are unable to defeat him without their grandfather's help. It's almost like in order to defeat a monster like Galactus or capitalism, we cannot do it on our own but only if we work together.

Again, this is a superhero comic and Thor retrieves an all-powerful weapon that helps him defeat Galactus, although it is one which corrupts his soul as he uses it. What is fascinating is that during this part of the battle, Thor reveals that it was he that caused the destruction of the Earth by standing by and allowing it to fall. It was his inaction that lead to the death of the planet.

However, at the end of the battle, Thor bleeds from his wounds onto the ground, causing it to grow anew. 

I hope the message isn't too subtle...

But rewinding to the end of the Present Day plot, following the destruction of the town of Broxton, Thor and the Asgardians ask to help the people of Broxton on their terms to rebuild the town, acknowledging the townspeople's agency to determine the type of aid they require rather than it being assigned to them from on high. 

However, they don't completely fix the town before they have to leave since, to avoid further retribution or collateral damage to their neighbours, Asgardia is relocated to space. Lacking homes to live in among the rubble, the people of Broxton ask where they are to live since this land is their home...

Only for Thor to give them a castle from Asgardia to live in, the greatest of all halls in Asgard - his castle.

They lost their home so he gave them his, while acknowledging it cannot replace what they lost...

The Lesson I Learnt From Thor

All of this leads me to the lesson I personally learnt from Thor's struggle to save the planet against capitalism's never-ending desire to consume and expand, regardless of the damage it causes. The lesson was not a major revelation or startling epiphany but it was reaffirming and meaningful. 

It was simply to hope again. That, even though the struggle is seemingly insurmountable, it must still be fought. That, even if you will not win, you need to continue to do what is right. 

Furthermore, I learnt from this comic about a Norse god with a hammer flying through space that, even though I as an individual cannot hope to create the change I want to see in the world, I must do all I can to help better my immediate environment and community. 

That even though a god is sometimes helpless in the face of a system that will always prioritise corporations and profit over people, there can still be hope in the minor victories gained, no matter how small. 

Even if this fight is one long defeat, it is a fight worth fighting.

In conclusion, I realised that although you may not be able to change the world alone but you can collectivise with others to nudge it in the right direction. 

Do what you can while always remembering the Marxist maxim, "to each according to their ability". 

Try to focus on what can be done to improve your local community, connect with your friends, join a union if you haven't, petition your representative on issues you believe in, protest injustice, listen to others, support or join an activist group if you are able, log off social media sometimes, and look after yourself.

We are all we have and a better world is possible.

Happy New Year. Here's to the ongoing struggle in 2021.


Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic for creating Thor: Last Days of Midgard.

Matt Draper for his video on Mad Max: Fury Road which inspired the tone of this article -

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