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Angrboda and Thor: Breaking Down the Controversy Around God of War: Ragnarok

Artwork by Rafael Grassetti

After 2018’s God of War released to critical and commercial success, fans have been eagerly waiting to hear more about its follow-up. During last months Playstation Showcase, those fans got their wish with a trailer and presentation for God of War: Ragnarok. And of course, they found a reason not to be happy.

The controversy focuses on how two particular characters from Norse mythology are being represented in the game: Angrboda (played by Laya De Leon Hayes), who will be depicted as a black woman, and Thor (played by Ryan Hurst), who will be plus-sized.

The sensible thing to do in situations like this would be to ignore it. The discourse around the design is clearly rooted in bigotry, as they don’t confirm to usual western standards of beauty. However, seeing as the excuse that many fans give is that it isn’t faithful to the source material, I thought it might be fun to break down the argument, just to see how ridiculous the whole thing is.

Creative licence isn’t anything new in the entertainment industry, and it rarely seems to affect its success: 1995’s Braveheart is simultaneously one of the most critically acclaimed and historically inaccurate movies ever released. The musical Hamilton casted almost entirely non-white actors as historically white figures, but you can bet that 2.7 million Disney Plus viewers can now recite how America gained its independence in excruciating detail. God of War itself has been taking creative liberties with both Norse and Greek mythology for sixteen years (for example, I’m pretty sure there was never a story where a mortal killed a god and took their place.) When it’s entertaining, we allow it: if elements have to be changed to be more enjoyable, or to better suit a modern audience, then it’s okay.

This acceptance of historical inaccuracies makes the backlash for God of War: Ragnarok even more confusing, as the games are based in mythology rather than history- a form of fiction, rather than fact. Two examples of actual bad casting are John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, and Johnny Depp as Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts movies. Both roles were clearly, but it’s clear that one is more significant than the other. With the former, an active choice was made to misrepresent elements of fact. The latter, meanwhile, is an interpretation of another fiction piece of media. The impact isn’t the same.

This is, however, assuming that Angrboda and Thor’s designs in God of War: Ragnarok are at odds with Norse mythology, which just isn’t the case. Our main sources on Norse mythology are the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, neither of which definitively describe Thor’s appearance. Because the mythology started as oral tradition, the details that were preserved and recorded were more often actions and feats, rather than their physical appearance. What is mentioned about Thor, possibly more than other aspect of his character, is his strength. God of War: Ragnarok does convincingly depict this strength in his design, but in a worlds-strongest-man sort of way, rather than the chiselled magazine body so often seen in Hollywood (and indeed, in Marvel’s representation of the character).

Speaking of which, there was an outcry in 2011 regarding the casting of Marvel’s Thor, as the role of Heimdall was being played by black actor Idris Elba. Much like with God of War: Ragnarok, fans were livid that Heimdall was being misrepresented, forgetting the fact that Thor himself isn’t supposed to be blonde nor in especially good shape. Many elements of the film don’t adhere to the mythology, but only particular ones were the subject of backlash: the ones involving race.

Racism and bigotry are often disguised as passion for the source material, the justification often being that they just want to see something interpreted as faithfully as possible. But as we’ve explored, not only do we regularly ignore – and even celebrate – changes made in the name of creative licence, those changes often aren’t as significant as they’re made out to be. Fan anger often doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.