Evil is hard to understand and hard to stop. You can still take care of each other.
“Thor: Love and Thunder,” directed by Taika Waititi, is a big Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero movie about one of the most difficult questions in religion. What did it do about that? Sure, you should watch more MCU movies. As you might expect from Marvel, that answer is a bit too easy. But it’s also surprisingly moving, which is what you’d expect from Waititi.
The question at hand is the so-called “theodicy” question: How can a “good” god let bad things happen? “Thor: Love and Thunder” starts with one of the most heartbreaking versions of this problem: a child’s pain. In the first scenes of the movie, Christian Bale plays Gorr the God Butcher, who stumbles through the desert with his dying daughter while praying to his god to save her. Gorr eventually meets his god, who doesn’t care about him at all, sending him on his way to kill gods.
The movie also shows another example of theodicy that seems to be different. Jane Foster, a brilliant physicist played by Natalie Portman who has spent her life trying to learn more and help people, gets cancer. No medicine can help. But Thor’s magic hammer could help her if it was sent by God to help her. Maybe.
These two storylines lead to two different conclusions. God the Gorr Butcher thinks that God or the gods aren’t good, so that’s why there’s evil in the world. Jane Foster thinks that the gods might be good, but that people can’t understand or follow what they do. Cancer and Thor’s hammer may both be part of a bigger plan. How can you, a weak person, know?
“Thor: Love and Thunder” doesn’t really finish that thought, though. After all, this is an action movie about a superhero. It’s not a time to think about big ideas. It’s all about beating up bad people.
And there is a lot of this kind of criticism. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the other Guardians of the Galaxy first fight aliens in space. Then he zooms back to Earth, where his people, the Asgardians, have built a city/tourist spot. There, he fights the God Butcher’s followers with the help of Val, the King of Asgard (Tessa Thompson), and Jane Foster, who also has the power of Thor thanks to that magical hammer. Then they all go to other dimensions to fight other threats.
If that story sounds like a bit of a cliche, well, yeah. Waititi’s last superhero movie, “Thor: Ragnarok,” was often so funny that it seemed like it was making fun of itself. This one doesn’t even verge. It sometimes reminds me of a “Airplane” movie. There’s a genre trope, and someone made a joke about it. There’s a genre trope, and someone made a joke about it. Keep doing it until everyone starts to laugh.
As in Amazon’s “The Boys,” the constant deflation isn’t meant to destroy or break down the superhero genre. Waititi, on the other hand, wants to pull you out of the story and make you realise that you’re watching a story.
The movie also insists on telling itself a story over and over again. Thor’s animated rock friend Korg, who is voiced by Waititi himself, tells different groups of children different versions of Thor’s story. There is also a great scene where “Thor: Ragnarok” is remade as a poorly acted community theatre play. Luke Hemsworth plays Thor. He is Chris’s brother. (And yes, this version is better than the first.)
All of this silly talk and talk about silly talk leads back to those big-picture questions, though. First of all, the meta and silly parts are meant to be a distraction. If there is no answer to the question of why people suffer, you might as well watch a great show, like Chris Hemsworth’s naked beauty (which makes a few goddesses faint) or a fight scene with a lot of acrobatics and explosions. God can’t be explained by Marvel. But you can have fun with superheroes who are like gods.
But the story is more than just a diversion. It’s also a way to feel at ease. The MCU tells more or less the same story over and over. Evil is out there, and it threatens life and happiness. But in the end, people with a lot of power and a lot of good will push it back, save (most of) the people, and put things back in order. In this case, you solve theodicy by insisting, almost as a ritual, that evil always loses because the gods are good.
That old story isn’t true, and it’s pretty easy to see why. Good is often ineffective, has no power, or is just too late. Most of the time, no one stops genocide or gets rid of a tyrant. Murderers die peacefully in their sleep, and statues are made in their honour. Kind people are buried in a ditch, and their graves are forgotten or spit on. It can be a form of gaslighting to say that the good always win.
That’s the least kind thing to say. But “Thor: Love and Thunder” keeps reminding you that Hollywood blockbusters aren’t real. The movie doesn’t show that gods are good and will save you. It gives you a story (or stories) not as a guarantee but as a way to show you care. Waititi wants you to know that he’ll show up with that rocky CGI face and tell you about some awesome space Vikings when you’re scared or alone.
Theodicy can’t be opened with a key. Evil is hard to understand and hard to stop. You can still take care of each other. Waititi says that one way to do this is to tell each other inspiring stories about hope, courage, and better times. Or, in this case, love and thunder.