Sunday, September 24

Love and Thunder’ credit for scenes posing some tough questions

Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” is a giant Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero franchise film about one of the knottiest problems in theology. Its answer to that problem? Watch more MCU films, of course. As you’d expect from Marvel, that solution is more than a little glib. But as you’d expect from Waititi, it’s also surprisingly moving.

The issue at hand is the question of so-called theodicy: How can a “good” god allow the existence of evil?

The issue at hand is the question of so-called theodicy: How can a “good” god allow the existence of evil? “Thor: Love and Thunder” opens with one of the most painful versions of that dilemma: the suffering of a child. The first scenes of the movie show Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale) staggering through the desert with his dying daughter, praying to his god to save her. Gorr eventually meets his deity from him, who is callously indifferent, setting him on his god-butchering path.

The film also highlights another, apparently contrasting, example of theodicy. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a brilliant physicist who has devoted her life to trying to increase knowledge and help people, contracts cancer. There is no medical cure. But the divine intervention of her former lover of her Thor’s magical hammer could help her. Maybe.

These two plot arcs offer two different answers. Gorr the God Butcher thinks there is evil in the world because God (or the gods) aren’t good. Jane Foster thinks maybe the gods are good, but their actions are too mysterious for humans to follow or understand. Cancer and Thor’s hammer may both be part of some larger plan. As a puny human, how can you tell?

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But instead of really finishing that thought, “Thor: Love and Thunder” pivots. This is a superhero action movie, after all. It’s not about pondering big ideas. It’s about bashing bad guys.

And there is a lot of that bashing. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) starts off in space fighting aliens with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Then he whooshes back to Earth, where his people, the Asgardians, have set up a city/tourist destination. There he fights the minions of the God Butcher, with the help of Val, King of Asgard (Tessa Thompson) and Jane Foster, who, with that mystical hammer, also has the power of Thor. Then they all go fight other menaces in other dimensions.

If that plot sounds somewhat perfunctory—well, yeah. Waititi’s last superhero movie, “Thor: Ragnarok,” often verged on deliberate self-parody. This one doesn’t even verge. At times it feels like one of the “Airplane” films. There’s a genre trope; there’s a joke about the genre trope. There’s a genre trope; there’s a joke about the genre trope. Repeat until everyone dissolves in giggles.

The constant deflation isn’t exactly meant to undermine or deconstruct the superhero genre, as in Amazon’s “The Boys.”

The constant deflation isn’t exactly meant to undermine or deconstruct the superhero genre, as in Amazon’s “The Boys.” Rather, Waititi wants to knock you out of the story and remind you that you’re watching a fiction.

The movie also insists on constantly narrating itself. Korg — an animated rocky friend of Thor portrayed by Waititi himself — tells different versions of Thor’s story to different groups of children. There’s also a marvelous sequence in which “Thor: Ragnarok” is restored as an indifferently acted community theater production. Luke Hemsworth, Chris’ brother, plays Thor. (And yes, it’s better than the original.)

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All of this silliness and meta-silliness does, however, ultimately lead back to those big-picture questions. First of all, the silliness and the goal is a conscious distraction. If there’s no answer to the question of suffering, you might as well watch marvelous spectacles, whether that’s Chris Hemsworth’s nude magnificence (which causes several delicate goddesses to faint) or a fight scene with lots of acrobatics and explosions. Marvel can’t explain God. But it can entertain you with god-like superheroes.

But the narrative isn’t just a distraction. It’s also a kind of comfort. The MCU tells the same story over and over, more or less. There is evil in the world, which threatens life and happiness. But eventually, those with great power and great goodness push it back, save (most) people, and restore order. You solve theodicy in this case by insisting, almost ritually, that because the gods are good, evil always loses.

That standard story is pretty glib, and it’s obviously not true. Often, good is ineffectual, powerless or just overrun. Often, no one stops the genocide or unseats the tyrant. Murderers die peacefully in their sleep, and statues are raised in their honor. Kind people are buried in a ditch, and their graves are forgotten or spat upon. Insisting that the righteous always win can be a kind of gaslighting.

That’s the least charitable view. But, again, “Thor: Love and Thunder” keeps nudging to remind you that Hollywood blockbusters aren’t real. The film doesn’t prove that the gods are good and will save you. It’s offering you a story (or stories) not as a guarantee, but as a kind of compassion. Waititi wants you to know that when you’re scared or alone, he’ll show up in that rocky CGI face and tell you about some awesome space Vikings.

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There’s no key that can unlock theodicy. You can’t explain evil and can’t always defeat it. But you can care for each other. One way you do that, Waititi suggests, is through telling one another aspirational stories about hope and heroism and better times. Or, in this case, about love and thunder.

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