Thor: Love and Thunder is all about trying to beat death in the face of an uncaring universe. But the film’s vague attempts at philosophical inquiry are sacrificed at the altar of plot, says our reviewer
Another month, another Marvel film is on top of the box office. In the last twelve months alone, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has produced five films and five television series; if you aren’t keeping up, no one would blame you.
Superhero fatigue seems to be setting in, even if people are still coming out in their droves to watch these films. And yet many of these screen-filling blockbuters remain curiously devoid of any meaning or substance. I’ve argued before that they’re like the McDonalds of cinema - sometimes you want it because you know exactly what you’re going to get, but you’re never properly satisfied.
The latest is Thor: Love and Thunder, although they really missed a trick by not calling it Thor 4: More Thor. It is very much more of the same, Marvel being Marvel. It’s funny, fast and forgettable.
What sets this one apart, and worthy of a column here, is that it’s almost theological. This is a plot that almost, almost seems like it has something to say about God - or, at the very least, gods.
The film opens with a tattooed man praying for relief as his daughter dies in the desert. He then meets his personal deity, who laughs at his distress and claims that he can always find other worshippers. The tattooed man promptly kills him with a god-killing sword and vows to kill all the other gods. The film’s villain, Gorr the God-Butcher, is born.
if the gods are like this, do they deserve to die?
If this is already sounding too heretical to take your kids to, it might be. But think of it this way: it’s much the same as reading them Greek myths. The gods of ancient traditions were cruel and self-obsessed, which makes them unworthy of worship but cracking characters when it comes to storytelling. This could be a great opportunity to talk about what makes the God we worship different, about how he did intervene and how he never stopped caring about his people.
Anyway, Thor soon finds out about this God-Butcher and sets off on a quest to stop him. Meanwhile, the love of his life Jane is dying of cancer and now also has superpowers. Thor wants to save her, while also stopping Gorr from his rampage. Their journey takes them to the shining realm of Omnipotence City, the home of the gods of every culture. Zeus is there, played with comic exaggeration by Russell Crowe, along with a panoply of gods from Mayan, Carthaginian, alien and other cultures. There’s even a passing reference to a “Carpenter God”. When Thor gets there, he finds them to be as vain and uncaring as Gorr’s.
One begins to wonder if the villain has a point; if the gods are like this, do they deserve to die?
Little thought is given to the ramifications of this pantheon of deities hanging about in a non-interventionist city. The MCU now has a Jewish hero - Moon Knight (who is also possessed by an Egyptian God, it’s a long story) - and a Muslim one - Ms. Marvel. Captain America was presumably a Christian, while Black Panther visited an afterlife called The Ancestral Plane.
Do these gods and theologies coexist? Who are Ms. Marvel’s prayers going to? Thor: Love and Thunder isn’t terribly interested in answering this question. These gods are not designed to be followed or worshipped - instead higher importance is placed on “found family,” or the people you choose to bring into your life. They, according to the MCU, are the highest calling.
Frustratingly, none of the vague attempts at theology or philosophy seem to mean anything. Ostensibly, Love and Thunder is a film about trying to beat death in the face of an uncaring universe, but it explores these themes with all the depth and impact of a Saturday morning cartoon (no disrespect to SpongeBob).
One character, Jane, is a human, yet she discovers in this that gods of many cultures exist and that they’re largely terrible. Such a revelation would shatter the worldview of any human and yet within five minutes it’s back to quipping and fighting. Can’t get bogged down in anything like themes when there are wisecracks to say and scenes to move on to. Meaning and depth are sacrificed at the altar of plot. The MCU, and by extension this film, is all about “what happens next” rather than “why is this happening.” Marvel aren’t trying to make a statement with their cruel, unfeeling gods. They just needed a plot device.
So what? You might say. This is just a superhero film after all. Enjoy it for the jokes and the action sequences. That’s certainly possible, I had a good time watching it. I particularly enjoyed a sequence on a planet without colour, demonstrating some visual invention. It’s notable for actually making me feel like the characters were in danger. I even thought the ending was quite sweet. So yes, by all means have fun with Love and Thunder.
But I can’t help but want more from the most successful movie franchise of all time, and the films that dominate our screens several times a year. The casualness with which the MCU treats weighty ideas such as death, belief and meaning, will have a numbing effect on audiences. And they do it all in the name of keeping the franchise rolling. This is a film that reveals the existence of multiple gods, kills some, and then shrugs. Maybe we should ask more of the art we consume than an existential shrug.
Wondering if your kids should watch this film? Read Premier NexGen’s review here