The setup should sound familiar. Our hero is a huge, blond Nordic warrior. Weapon-wise, he favors sledgehammers and lightning; emotion-wise, uninterrogated goodness. His younger brother is an inveterate prankster. The bad guys are a family named Jutul, which is one letter away from the Norwegian word for “giant.” Except this time, you won’t find capes or angry green mutants. Taking their place are—wait for it—portentous climate change references. Watch out!
Netflix’s newest superhero coming-of-age drama, Ragnarok, de-Marvelizes the viking myths for our climate-crisis age of Scandinavian child heroes. It follows Magne, an awkward Norweigan teen who moves to a town called Edda with his mother and brother. Situated in the shadow of a mountain, Edda appears diseased. The glaciers are melting; fish are dying. Bad omens abound. When an old woman touches Magne’s forehead, his eyes change color. Soon, he’s swept up into an ancient tussle between Good and Evil, and the stakes are the fate of the world. Also, he goes to high school.
At its campiest, Ragnarok gives off Twilight vibes. The sinister Jutuls are the wealthiest family in town, so, naturally, everyone at school has crushes on them. The show features standard-issue drama: bike wheels stomped, crushes unrequited, homework assignments tampered with, flasks smuggled into the school dance. Few people seem to think too hard about the supernatural events happening in their midst, even when it gets really strange. (Strangest: At the high school dance, the Jutul siblings put on an oozy hard rock song, their eyes turn yellow, and they do a very odd, borderline-incestuous dance in the middle of the room. The other students watch till it's over, and then clap.) Ragnarok also isn’t just set in Norway—it’s fully Norweigan, language and all. As is usually the case, Netflix defaults to the dubbed English audiotrack, which is (inevitably) a bit wooden. Better to switch to subtitles.
That said, a dash of camp never hurt anyone. Sure, you’ve seen superheroes and/or mythical beings go to high school before, but people keep telling those stories because they work. Small-town teen antics are a bright palate cleanser after a swig of mythological mumbo-jumbo (or hallucinogenic mead served in a cow horn). Magne is oafish but likable. The Jutul family are fun to watch because they are so overtly villainous. They eat live birds whole and rip out reindeer hearts in the nude. The Norweigan landscape is so eerily beautiful it almost doesn’t matter what the people in it are doing.
Actually, it’s Ragnorak’s engagement with its setting that’s most interesting. Magne’s first friend at his new school is an environmental activist, a sort of blue-haired Greta Thunberg with a YouTube channel she uses to expose pollution, glacial melt, and unnaturally gloopy trout guts. Climate crisis talk seems to suffuse just about every class. One teacher asks Magne to make sure his whole project isn’t about how “old white men” are destroying the world. Magne’s response is note-perfect woke teen: “Well aren’t they?” It soon becomes clear that the Jutuls are the ones causing the pollution and the odd weather. Nobody could miss the real-world parallels: Giants of industry in addition to being literal giants, the Jutuls take every opportunity to disparage Edda’s greener residents. It’s barely a spoiler to say that environmental disaster is Ragnarok.
Climate change fiction—sometimes called cli-fi—has been a growing literary genre for some time, but its migration to television has been slow. Shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have certainly made allusions, but only in the last few years has the subtlety washed away. In Big Little Lies, anxiety icon Amabella has a full-blown panic attack after learning about climate change in school. In The Handmaid’s Tale, there are whispers about odd weather, pollution, and the need to cut carbon emissions. In a recent episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor lands on a future Earth so wasted she doesn’t even recognize it. In shows like Years and Years and Occupied (another drama from Norway), the instability of the planet is something like a major character. Ragnarok joins the grim little club in an angsty, eccentric way. It won’t be the last.