written by David Steffen
This article is based in the idea of UTH (Universal Transitive Headcanon); if you are not familiar with the concept you can read more detail about it here.
The long and varied history of Valkyrie and Zen is a story of the power of memory to shape a life whether with by your choice or someone else’s. Born on Earth, Molly Wright (Tessa Thompson) when she was young had her first encounter with an alien lifeform when a Tarantian came into her house. (Men in Black: International, 2019) The Men in Black arrived and wiped her parents memories of the encounter, but she was left with her memories intact and chose to devote her life to finding the secrets of the universe. After twenty years she succeeded in finding the secretive Men in Black organization and convincing them to recruit her where she was dubbed Agent M. Her assigned partner was the smooth-talking Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), who unbeknownst to her was actually Thor of the alien realm of Asgard visiting the Earth incognito. (Thor is of course known colloqiually as a “god” but despite his longevity and durability is strictly speaking an alien not a god. Thor’s inclusion in this film is… honestly more confusing than anything, without some contemplation of how this film might relate to Thor: Ragnarok. We will get to that later.).
It is fitting that the beginning of Molly’s quest for adventure begins with a near-miss encounter with a neuralyzer, a standard-issue tool that all Men In Black agents use to cause civilians to forget their encounters with alien lifeforms. Molly throughout her life encounters manipulation of memory as a mechanism of control.
The exact progression of her story from Agent M to Valkyrie has never been explained in detail (though one can hope for a film disambiguating this important transition in her life!) but if there’s anything that fandom can agree on it’s that a neuralyzer is involved somehow:
- Voluntary Retirement
Did Agent M chose retirement in the tradition of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones, Men in Black, 1997), choosing to dwell among aliens since she had always yearned to learn more of the universe outside of Earth? To me this seems unlikely given her young age and how she seems to be thriving in the role as Agent M.
- Forced Retirement
Did the MiB organization force her out? Again, this seems unlikely without further evidence. She has proven her abilities and her resolve. Without some clear reason why this would be beneficial to the MiB organization, I think we can rule this out.
Did Agent M flee Earth to seek refuge elsewhere? This is not out of the question, but without any concrete evidence this seems to be grasping for straws.
- Sleeper Agent
Is it possible that both the MiB and Agent M voluntarily agreed to have Agent M’s memory erased for some other reason? YES LET ME ELABORATE.
Let’s return for a moment to her partner Agent H, aka Thor. It’s not clear exactly how he ended up as an MiB agent. But given his celebrity status in the organization and the fact that even in the story of MIB: International his memory has been messed with, it seems likely that the MiB organization made some unethical choices in “recruiting” him. Thor was probably exiled by Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to Earth (as he did in Thor, 2011), or perhaps Thor exited of his own volition. The MiB organization saw his potential as an agent given his near-invincibility, strength, and control of weather, and neuralyzed him and gave him a new backstory. Without knowledge of his alien origins, Agent H lives for some time as an agent, and is no doubt watched very closely as it may not be clear if the neuralyzer’s effects are as permanent on an Asgardian as a human.
Between MIB: International and Thor, Thor has ended up back in the realm of Asgard as himself. Again, the exact circumstances are unclear. Most likely someone from Asgard came searching for him and the MiB cut their losses and wiped his memory again and sent him back. It was simply too much of a risk to try to hold him here on Earth anymore, and also too much of a risk to allow him to remember his tenure in the organization. But the MiB also couldn’t let that remaining risk go unchecked either. They needed an inside agent to keep an eye on things on Asgard, someone skilled enough and clever enough and determined enough to be suited for such a difficult task. His former partner, Agent M.
Agent M as herself could perhaps be well-suited for the task, if it were not for Loki (Tom Hiddleston, from Thor 2011 among others). Loki, master of mischief with his mind tricks, and with a vendetta against Thor. What would be the use of wiping Thor’s mind to protect the MiB’s secrets, if Agent M could be so easily found and the secrets pulled directly from her mind? So she volunteered to be neuralyzed and take on an entirely new persona–that of Brunnhilde the Valkyrie (colloquially known to fandom simply as “Valkyrie”, from Thor:Ragnarok, 2017, among others). Powerful so she can take direct action if needed, but one of a team of Valkyries so that she would not individually be the subject of suspicion. Assigned to work with the royal family which allows her to keep an eye on her former partner as well as the conniving trickster Loki. Her memory wiped of Earth and MiB in her history, but with implanted suggestions that would enable her to send coded messages to the MiB if the need arose and with others that could restore at least some of her former memories to allow her to act in full Agent M capacity, she became a deep cover sleeper agent who was consciously unaware of her own mission.
Which worked fine until the Valkyries were all but wiped out defending Asgard from Hela (Cate Blanchett) (Thor: Ragnarok), leaving Agent M stuck in her deep cover as Brunnhilde, shorn from her lines of contact with the MiB and remembering nothing about her original identity and mission. She resided on Sakaar for a time working as a bounty hunter called “Scrapper 142” and drinking to forget her past as a Valkyrie. And perhaps subconsciously hoping to remember her past in the MiB–again, wanting to control her destiny through manipulation of memory is a recurring theme of Agent M’s life.
When she found Thor, some part of her memory reawakened with the implanted suggestions to keep an eye on Thor, and so despite her selling him initially to the Grandmaster, she works with him to escape the scavenger world and return to Asgard to once again defeat Hela–joining the two of them as partners again, despite neither of them remembering having done so before!
Later, after helping to defeat Thanos (Avengers Endgame, 2019) Thor appoints Valkyrie as the leader of New Asgard. The progression her life takes from Valkyrie the newly appointed ruler of New Asgard in Avengers Endgame to Zen (Dirty Computer, 2018) is the least clear point in the progression of her plotline. When next we see her she is living on an entirely different world with the love of her life, Jane 57821 (Janelle Monáe).
One possibility is that, since Avengers Endgame, another political upheaval changed the Asgard political landscape yet again and Valkyrie was deposed from her position (perhaps by a committee of alternate timeline Lokis before their sudden but inevitable betrayal of each other) and exiled Valkyrie to fight to survive under a fascist regime. Another possibility is that she traveled there in secret, perhaps in a quest of self-discovery, after finding the mantle of leadership stifling, and was expecting to leave but was so drawn by Jane that she lingered there and may have missed her chance to return.
By this time she has taken the new name of “Zen” and appears to have given up her warrior ways and by all appearances is living a crazy, classic life with Jane: after a life of focusing on duties and work, she is free to live life for the sake of life, dancing and flirting and spending time together with Jane and Jane’s other love, Che Achebe (Jayson Aaron) and their like-minded friends. Making films, playing instruments, and practicing her art, including a tattoo of a crucified woman with an old-fashioned television head on the inside of Jane’s forearm. She has even become a priestess, performing baptisms and weddings.
In some ways she is very different as Zen than Valkyrie. She shows much less tendency toward violence, even when provoked. The reason may be hinted at with Jane’s words: “I always used to say I would never hurt a fly, but I would put one to sleep”. Zen has turned over a new leaf, and has taken a vow of pacifism. Zen never speaks of Asgard or her leadership there. But she still remembers her Valkyrie days, a continuity which she shows with similar style of facepaint of white lines, a reminder of where she came from, so it appears that it is not another life event involving memory loss. Not speaking of Asgard is a choice.
But even though she is no longer fighting hostile aliens, her life is no less dangerous, because the society that she and Jane live in is oppressive to anyone who is different. She is labeled as a “dirty computer” and targeted by the government for her queerness and rebellion against authority. One by one, she and her friends are captured and scheduled for reprogramming, to work out the so-called “bugs”.
Zen is captured. After all of her struggles to maintain control of her life through memory Molly/Valkyrie/Zen is made to forget. By the time Jane is captured, Zen’s memories have already been taken from her and now she is known only as Maryapple 53 and is working as a torch, assigned as a friendly face to guide people through the reprogramming process. At first, she remembers nothing when Jane speaks to her, but Jane’s recalling of their times together starts to ruffle the programmed facade, and their time together acts in both directions, with the tattoo acting as an important focus for both of them.
Jane is subjected repeatedly to “the Nevermind”, a hypnotic fog that extracts memories and allows technicians to view and erase them, but with Zen’s presence, Jane’s memories sometimes appear again after having been deleted. Zen, still under her programming, advises Jane that it is better to just accept the process and not think. “People used to work so hard to be free. We’re lucky here. All we have to do is forget.” And though Zen does finally remember everything, the credits roll after what appears to be a successful reprogramming of Jane: Jane (introducing herself as Maryapple 54) is assigned to be the torch for Che when it comes his time for reprogramming.
Some of the details of the trio’s capture are unclear. One of these scenes appears to show Jane and Zen escaping as Che is arrested. Another scene shows Zen being captured alone while Che holds a distraught Jane back from rushing in to be captured as well. Unless one of them pulled off an improbable escape this doesn’t quite seem to add up. Most likely this is a symptom of memory damage caused by the Nevermind’s extraction process. One of the Nevermind technicians who push the buttons to operate the extraction comments “What is this? It doesn’t even look like a memory.” Though he seems to be relatively new to the job, not yet hardened to the brain damage he is intentionally causing, he seems to have enough experience to understand that this is not how these things are supposed to go. Later he says “I thought we deleted this beach stuff already” which, again, indicates that something here has gone awry in Jane’s memories that serve as the foundation for our understanding of the story. This could be Zen’s influence at work. Her particular relationship with memory may have made her resistant to the Nevermind, and maybe this has granted some protection to Jane as well.
We may not be able to trust every detail of those memories, but we are never given any reason to doubt the love between Zen and Jane. In the end, their love for each other proves out, and Zen delivers gas masks to the other two as they gas the rest of the facility with the Nevermind, sticking to their pacifist ideals and not harming anyone on their way out even though we could certainly have understood them wanting to.
After the end, and I hope that a revolution is on its way soon to free all the others who were captured before them and who will otherwise be captured after. I hope that Zen and Jane and Che have a long and happy life together being true to themselves and surrounded by loved ones. May they always remember what they wish to remember, and may they always forget what they wish to forget.