“Hatred stirs up conflicts, but love covers all offenses.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
When Paul was offering the Thessalonian believers encouragement when they were struggling with what to think about believing loved ones who had died before Jesus could return, he opened his thoughts to them by saying this: “We do not want you to be uninformed brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.” His point, in a nutshell, is that he wanted these followers of Jesus to grieve like followers of Jesus and not as those who aren’t followers of Jesus. Grieving without hope is not a pretty experience. What’s more, people who grieve without hope know it isn’t pretty. But they don’t know what to do with it. As a result, they tell stories to make themselves feel better. Yet all of our stories are echoes of God’s great story, which means that the world’s stories about grieving often wind up coming close to the truth. In the latest Thor movie, Thor: Love and Thunder, Marvel offers us yet another example of the truth of this observation. I finally got to see it. Here are my thoughts…and by the way, if you haven’t seen it yet, I’m going to fill this with spoilers, so read at your own risk.
One of the things I learned while getting my chemistry degree is that you have to have at least three data points to make a graph that gives a meaningful interpretation of your results. Less than that and you really can’t paint a clear picture of what you’ve done. Well, last January, Marvel came back from its Covid-mandated content hiatus with a series about grief. That was Wandavision. I reviewed that one here. Then, this past May, the Avenger, Dr. Strange, finally got the second part of his story told on the big screen. I posted my thoughts on that one less than a month ago here. It was also about grief. It was actually about Wanda continuing to grapple with the same grief she was wrestling through in the Wandavision series. Those two pieces of content only give us two data points, though. There has been a fair bit of other content released between those two points as well. (Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, Black Widow, Shang-Chi, The Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Hawkeye, Moon Knight, and Ms. Marvel, to be exact.) And, like I said, two points don’t give us meaningful information. But then Thor: Love and Thunder released last Friday and…it’s really a film about grief. And love. Which makes three. Is something going on at Marvel that we need to know about?
Thor: Love and Thunder is…fun. Taika Waititi made it, which should tell you just about all you need to know about its tone. It never takes itself particularly seriously, even in its serious moments. It borders on silly more times than it probably should. Its climactic battle sequence becomes a little too comic-booky, and almost crosses the line of becoming cartoonish. It includes enough references to same-sex relationships to make sure it got past Disney’s woke content guardians. I discovered this morning that all of the shadow monsters in the film were actually designed by children (including some of the children in the film who play a wonderful and, ultimately, pivotal role) and brought to cinematic life by the visual effects team. I’m not sure that it reaches to the level of Thor: Ragnarök, but it’s definitely better than Thor: The Dark World (granting that’s a pretty low bar to clear). It sets up yet another solo Thor film (who knew that of all the original Avengers, Thor would wind up being the one who got the most solo shots?). It introduces the character, Hercules, who is played by Brett Goldstein (from Ted Lasso). If he brings just a little bit of Roy Kent to the character (which, if Waititi is directing again, I suspect he will), he may wind up being my favorite MCU character of all time. But in the end, this Thor movie is just fun.
And I think that’s its problem. In fact, it’s Marvel’s problem.
This is actually worth a quick comment, and then I’ll get on to the point. For the first three phases of the MCU, Marvel had a plan all laid out that was clear and compelling. Everything was building to the introduction of Thanos and the Infinity Saga. All of the movies were about setting up the characters and plot elements that were all going to come together in that truly epic two-part conclusion. And it worked. You stayed with it because you had to know what was coming next. Even in the early parts of Phase 1, before Thanos was really a sure thing, you knew it was going somewhere.
Now that we are into Phase 4 and Marvel has added the element of scripted series via its Disney+ outlet, while they have been telling a bunch of good and fun stories, there’s no compelling theme connecting any of the stories. Yes, there was the promise of Kang the Conquerer in the Loki series, who is going to be making his reappearance as the main villain in the third Ant-Man movie coming up next year (not to mention the second season of Loki slated for a summer 2023 release), but none of the other films have really played into that particular direction. Things are still all generally connected in terms of all being part of the same story universe (including the first mention of mutants in the closing moments of the Ms. Marvel series!!!), but there’s nothing that’s really driving the whole thing forward.
This is a criticism I’ve seen a few different times, and which is becoming louder as we keep going forward without any obvious theme being introduced. Marvel needs to clarify where they are going, or they are going to start losing people. Telling more stories and making them all more obviously woke just so they can tell woke stories is going to quit working sooner rather than later. And, personally, I have too much time and energy and money invested in all of this to see it fall apart because they got distracted by a cultural movement that likely won’t last as long as their storytelling could if they get back to doing it well.
That all being said, let’s talk about Thor. What should come as no surprise if you saw any of the previews or paid attention to any of the pre-show rumors is that Jane Foster makes her grand reappearance as the Mighty Thor. Like her storyline in the comics, she is battling cancer, and Thor’s old hammer, Mjolnir, reassembles itself from being broken to bits by Hela at the beginning of Thor: Ragnarök to give her the powers of Thor and hold the cancer at bay. Her introduction actually makes the whole thing a romantic comedy, a first for Marvel.
The villain for the film is a character named Gorr the God Butcher. He is powered by a weapon called the Necrosword, which has a huge comic backstory that the movie pretty much ignores in its entirety, but which gives its wielder the power to kill gods. And given Christian Bale, who played Gorr, and his public antipathy toward religion, I went in assuming that I would be writing something about how the culture wants to hate gods, but really hates the sin in itself that is so often reflected in the gods we make up. And that element was there, but it wasn’t the main theme like I thought it would be.
In fact, it’s worth explaining here what Marvel means by “god.” They use that word to refer to super powerful beings across the universe who are the creators, sustainers, and protectors of one people or another. They come in all different shapes and sizes and, as we discover throughout the film, are mostly horribly self-absorbed narcissists whose only real differences from any of the rest of us is that they have powers, and we don’t. How this all fits with the mythology introduced in The Eternals (which I reviewed here), especially since two of the Celestials appear at one point in the film apparently hanging out with the other gods as equals, isn’t at all clear. In this, Marvel’s view of gods (including Jesus as perhaps noted by a reference to the “carpenter god” at one point in the film, which is the closest Marvel has come to a direct mention of the Christian God in any of their screen content so far) is really little different from that of the ancient Greeks.
Gorr was the last of his people along with his daughter. We are not given even a clue what happened to the rest of them. But we meet them as they are struggling to survive in a barren wasteland, devoid of all food and water, gradually dying of hunger and dehydration. After holding his daughter in his arms as she finally breathes her last and burying her, Gorr hears the whispers of the Necrosword and somehow makes his way to a nearby oasis that apparently wasn’t there when his daughter was dying. In the middle of the oasis, he discovers the god of his people, relaxing and celebrating a victory over the Necrosword’s previous wielder, and having not a care in the world for the people he had abandoned to death in his utter self-absorption. In his grief and now anger, Gorr becomes utterly disillusioned with not merely his god, but all gods. The Necrosword rises up out of the ground and into his hands as the god is choking him to death for his insolence, and Gorr is empowered to kill him. He then goes on a quest across the universe, killing all of the gods he can find. Thor discovers this and moves to intervene when he discovers that Gorr has set his sights on Asgard. The rest of the movie is about how Thor, Jane, and Valkyrie, work together to stop him from achieving his terrible aim.
But for all of Gorr’s supposed hatred for gods, what is really driving him throughout the movie is his love for his daughter and his grief over losing her. Just like Wanda, but in a different way, he was struggling to navigate a terrible journey of grief. When he got his hands on a power he thought would bring him relief from his pain, he took it and ran with it. Just like Wanda did. Just like, perhaps, you have done. Grief can send us to all kinds of dark places and can cause all kinds of awful pain in our lives, and, through our lives, in the lives of the people around us. Grief is nasty stuff. Grief without hope is even worse. There’s a reason Paul didn’t want the Thessalonian believers to grieve that way. Grief that gets the better of us isn’t befitting of a follower of Jesus because it means we have failed to grasp the hope we have in Christ. It means we have failed to grasp the overpowering love of the God revealed in the pages of the Scriptures.
And, as it turns out, that love is what winds up saving the day. Gorr’s major complaint is that none of the gods really care about their people. They don’t care about anyone or anything but themselves. And, for most of the gods we meet in the film, he’s right. They don’t. But as the line from the trailer that doesn’t actually get repeated in the film notes, Thor is different. He has something to lose. The reason he has something to lose is because he loves someone other than himself. And as far as Thor’s journey goes, the movie is really about Thor learning to love people other than himself. He starts by finally admitting his love – not mere affection – for Jane Foster before she finally dies of cancer (which happens when from out of her love for him, she sacrifices herself by becoming Thor one last time to save his life…and the universe…which saps the last of the strength her body needed to fight the cancer), and carries forward by becoming the adoptive father of Gorr’s own daughter who he resurrects with the dying wish he was going to use to complete his mission of annihilating all the gods in the universe when he finally makes his way to Eternity, a being at the very center of the universe who is apparently the ultimate creator of everything and grants one wish to the first person who finds him in a part of the plot with more holes in it than a field of prairie dogs. The point, though, is that what finally stops Gorr from his efforts to burn down the whole system is seeing Thor’s genuine, sacrificial love for someone other than himself. Or, to put that a different way, what saves the universe is a god who loves. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like another story I’ve heard.
We live in a season of grief. If you want evidence of that, look no further than Marvel which has told three stories about grief in the last year and a half including two major films released two months apart. We live in this season of grief, because we live in a world that is changing faster than anyone can keep up and grief is a natural response to change. At its core, that’s all any grief is. It is a response to change. When our world is changing, we need things that are solid to give us some sort of structure within which we can continue to operate in spite of the pain the changes are causing us. Strong worldviews like the Christian faith offer us such a place of stability, but as our culture continues intentionally moving away from that or any other similar worldview foundation (which is not some kind of an indication that I think all worldviews are roughly equal in value or truthfulness), we are jettisoning all of the sources of stability to which we could otherwise turn to weather our seasons of grief. Those foundations are what give us hope. Without them, we grieve without hope. And when we grieve without hope, while we may not go on universe-crossing quests to decimate all the gods, we don’t usually find ourselves in good places.
What we need is hope. But in order to have hope, we have to have love. The one flows from the other. Hope comes from love, because love – real love, not the faulty substitutes the world offers us – is a reminder that no matter what else is going on around us, there is someone who fully and freely acknowledges and accepts us as we are, but who is also committed to seeing us become the best possible version of ourselves. In the world, there aren’t many folks who love us like that. But in Jesus, we do find such a love. We find in Him a love so great that He was willing to lay His own life down in order that we might have ours to live. And all He asked in return is that we love one another after the pattern of His own love for us. His love defeated sin and death. How about that: A God of love really did save the world. The love of Thor stopped a grieving villain in his tracks. The love of Jesus opened a pathway for you to be saved from your sins. The world’s stories really do echo the one true story. Thor isn’t perfect, but it is a ton of fun, and it offers a wonderful picture of something that’s true: God’s love for you in Christ can save you and give you a place of stability and relief from your grief. That’s pretty worthwhile, and so is your going to see it.
Now, if only Marvel would figure out what kind of story they are telling…