Be forewarned, this essay has spoilers, lots and lots of spoilers. Also, it is not a review of Love and Thunder. That’s a discussion for another time. Finally, I have only seen the movie once – I just got back. It will be a while before I can sit through it again, given the emotions it inspired in me. So, if I miss an obvious example or misquote a line, cut me some slack. Details are not the point here.
There are two threads from previous Marvel movies that Thor: Love and Thunder continues to pull. The first comes from Marvel itself. Every movie after 2018’s Avengers: Infinity Wars has been about trauma. At the end of that movie, half of the universe’s population was whisked out of existence, and although they eventually return in the sequels, those who endured the five years of “blip,” suffer from PTSD. Thor himself feels profoundly responsible for everyone’s death and one of the comedic subplots of Avengers: Endgame (2019) focuses on him. That movie’s decision to handle trauma with humor is in stark contrast to WandaVision’s (2021) decision to describe it as destructive myopia.
What makes Love and Thunder different from post-Endgame stories is that it isn’t backward looking. The movie’s heroes are watching a tragedy in real time: the potential massacre of a town’s children. Thor is introduced as the product of his own loss, not working through it. He is hardened to all emotions but the adrenaline-fueled excitement of the fight itself. The plight of the children simultaneously restores his empathy and threatens to destroy him at the same time.
The second thread is the director Taika Waititi’s ever-present focus on sexual orientation and identity. Marvel was celebrated for its very subtle introduction of a character in a gay male relationship in the opening therapy scene of 2019’s Endgame and Waititi responds to that cop-out with a big “fuck you.” One of the major characters in Love and Thunder is bisexual and another is a gay male, albeit a gay-male alien made of stones. And, when the latter finally finds a romantic partner at the end of the movie, that rock creature is given a stereotypical gay-porn mustache for a laugh.
Waititi is masterful at undermining anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment jokingly without being disrespectful to queer people. Which is why the brief argument between Thor and a boy named Axel, about Thor calling him by the wrong name, passes quickly without the audience needing to acknowledge that it’s an allusion to all the transgender folks who have to fight not to be deadnamed.
I point all of this out to emphasize that while the Marvel universe is primarily escapist fun, they have never been about nothing. They have addressed alcoholism, fascism, terrorism, race, parenting struggles, ego, feminism, the cost of war, international isolationism, and more. In Love and Thunder, there is a powerful subplot about Thor’s ex-girlfriend, Jane Foster, dying of cancer. This allows the writers to reintroduce her as The Mighty Thor, a female superhero introduced in 2015. There’s a lot going on here, which allows Waititi to masterfully bury the lede: the futility of America’s response to school shootings.
The movie opens with a dramatic portrayal of a father losing his daughter to drought and hunger, then confronting the god who ignored his plea for help. The god explains that he has no interest in those who worship him, that they are always replaced by others and that—although he never actually uses this phrase—all thoughts and prayers are useless.
In response, the father becomes Gorr, The God Butcher, a being who vows to kill all the gods remaining in the universe. This is the first element in my interpretation of the film: this is not a godless universe. Waititi is not an atheist or an existentialist. He is an accusing figure, condemning all gods for their betrayal of indifference. Thoughts and prayers mean nothing to narcissists.
After this dramatic opening (shockingly reminiscent to the opening scene of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I might add), the movie becomes a laugh fest. We see Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy in battle, bantering as people around them die, and making light of Thor’s separation from the group. We are introduced to Jane trying to cure herself of cancer, and eventually, another fun battle where Thor and his ex- meet as the two Thors. At this point, the movie feels like an action-adventure romantic comedy. That is, until Gorr kidnaps all of Asgard’s chidren and frantic parents start fighting amongst themselves. Everything else in the movie is geared towards finding and saving the kids.
I won’t rehearse the whole film; I want to focus on key scenes. The first is when our heroes visit Omnipotence City, the home of Zeus and the meeting place of all the most powerful gods. It is a congressional chamber of sorts, where each person is permitted to speak. Zeus is a an out-of-shape leader, a slovenly egoist who uses flashy tricks to impress the people. He is only concerned with adulation, and with choosing the location and participants of his next orgy. He rips Thor’s clothes off, exposing his naked body for everyone else’s pleasure (as usual, male sexual degradation is laughed at, contrasted by Thor’s two female companions’ quick reaction to protect their own modesty when Zeus threatens to expose them as well).
Zeus then tells Thor that he doesn’t care about Gorr because he and the other gods are safe in the city, a prophetic moment since Zeus is clearly Donald Trump who, it turns out, told his handlers that he wasn’t concerned about the people carrying weapons on January 6 because, “they’re not there to hurt me.” (Waititi also seems to have anticipated Madison Cawthorn’s claim that government officials invited him to an orgy.) All of this culminates in Zeus’s brief monologue explaining that none of the gods care about other gods’ followers, only their own. They are there to represent those who support them individually, much like the American congressmembers who only care to represent those who donate to them personally.
This is not a corrupt government. That was the topic of the Star Wars prequels, which, despite all the hate, pretty accurately predicted how the U.S. devolved into its current factionalism. This is a morally bankrupt one. One concerned with its own ease, wealth, and sexual satisfaction, and with pleasing the NRA.
The gun-violence motif is fueled when, early in the scene, Thor asks Zeus to lend him his lightning bolt, calling it by the wrong name. Zeus scoffs, shouting “why would I give you a weapon, if you don’t even know what to call it?” (quoting from memory). It is a well-documented tactic of gun advocates to refuse to engage with those who do not know detailed gun terminology. The only way to get the lightning bolt is to kill Zeus—the only cure for a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun—and the movie devolves into a search for bigger more powerful weapons. How can they stop Gorr, our heroes postulate? To be able to overpower him through force. This fails every step of the way.
We revisit the frightened kids repeatedly through the movie, them cowering in a shadowy cage, as our own children cower in darkened classrooms. Thor communicates with them through a vision, telling them that they are brave warriors, that they will prevail, much like we do when we encourage our kids to do lockdown drills and to attack an “active shooter”—what a terrible dehumanizing euphemism—en masse so that some will survive.
Thor is right, by the way, when he says that they are the strongest and most courageous of all the generations. Any time some asshole complains about how soft Millennials and Gen Z are, and how much harder their own lives were, ask them if they had to go to school with a gun at their head every day. Ask them how many of their friends were killed as they heard the gunshots. My daughter and I just got back from visiting her friend in Colorado, right next to Columbine. This eighteen-year-old grew up in the shadow of that famous massacre and even then, another one of the children on her street was killed by a different gun in a different school, her own.
You don’t think these kids are strong? You don’t think the younger generation will endure better than us? You laugh at them because they all need anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs? Perform your false superiority for Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, and the NRA, and go fuck yourself.
But I digress.
The rest of the movie is the story of a failed mission. Every weapon fails; every intervention falls short. No gods appear to help them. In fact, during one of the end-credit scenes, we see Zeus, still alive, vowing revenge and destruction, in just the way Trump must have done when he lost the election. Thor ends up entering Gorr’s chamber alone and sees that his only remaining defense is the captured children themselves (the Mighty Thor will show up to help him, eventually). He approaches them, tells them to gather in a bunch, just as our own kids are taught to do before the attack, and he asks them, “do any of you have any battle experience?” One of them responds, “we’re just kids.”
This. This is the moment that broke my heart. This is the point where I couldn’t have fun anymore. This is the bit that Waititi gets 100% right. Every day, all of us, as we sit on our ass letting the gun nuts have their way, are futilely looking for the kid with battle experience to save the others, because all they have is each other. No one is coming to help them, not the US government and certainly not the Uvalde police department.
Thor solves the problem by giving them all temporary super powers, by making them all into their own weapons. It’s a fantasy movie, after all, not real life. All of their eyes glow with the power of lightning and we see each child shooting electricity from whatever make-believe firearm they could find: a stick, a pole, a stuffed animal.
To Waititi’s credit, this is not the end of the movie. Even with the slight of hand of science fiction, even after making the kids into human guns, they all still fail and Thor finds himself in “eternity” with a dying Jane. Gorr is about to achieve his goal and there is nothing Thor can do to stop him. Thor is stuck hopelessly between loss and tragedy and he falls back, conceding that Gorr won, desperately trying to persuade him not to destroy all of the gods. Thor makes an impassioned plea for the emotion of love, which Gorr finally accepts and asks Eternity, not for destruction of others, but for the safe return of his own dead daughter, who is named Love as well. Thor’s call for empathy has been interpreted as a second chance for Gorr as a parent.
Gorr and Jane die, Thor adopts Love, and as the movie closes, we see all the children of Asgard learning self-defense. The movie ends with Thor making breakfast for Love before the two of them head off to fight their own battle, Love using Stormbreaker, Thor’s old axe. Their goal is to protect the “good animals,” she explains. This felt to me like a climate change reference. We’re never going to be able to fix the environment until our kids are safe today. How can we care about twenty years from now, when dropping off our children at school every day is an exercise in abject horror?
So, if I am right, and Love and Thunder is an allegory for gun violence, what’s the message? I would summarize it as such: we have to stop responding to our own trauma by creating new trauma for others. We have to stop killing to prevent killing, and stop making queer people and those who love them miserable, as a way of making ourselves feel better. The only way to end violence is with love. Trauma and hate feed on each other. Someone has to stop the cycle.
Herein lies the tragedy of the film. Most people who publicly profess love do not offer it. They seek power, offering hate, contempt, and, at best, disregard. It has become a central component of American Christianity that wielding guns is better than turning the other cheek, and that abusing others is an equal substitute for washing the feet of the downtrodden. Jesus may teach love, but he also taught modesty, asceticism, humility, and poverty, and most religious Christians I know reject those as well. Waititi knows this, which is why every god in the movie is discredited. It is why the peaceful solution is only achieved when kids and care, not sectarianism and pain, are people’s primary concerns.
The last time I publicly criticized Christianity, not on a blog or the radio, but in a personal Facebook post, on the eve of the 2020 presidential election, a North Dakota legislator organized a group of fellow churchgoers to insult and harass me, while he pressured the university president to fire me. To his credit, the president didn’t do that, but he did call me at home, at night, to chastise me for not playing well with others. This proves my point, doesn’t it? If the Christian right is willing to mobilize to cancel a harmless philosophy professor because they were personally offended by his (accurate) criticism, but they aren’t willing to put down their firearms to protect the next generation, where do we go? If the gun zealots’ only solution in the face of constant terror is to call for thoughts and prayers in a universe that does not have an interventionist god, how can we possibly grant them moral authority?
Of course, Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on love. Every other major religion professes to build on it, just as most agnostics and atheists do. But none of their approaches to love appear to be succeeding either. Our kids are dying and calling attention to it is so controversial, that Taika Waititi had to bury his commentary underneath what is, in many respects, the goofiest Marvel movie to date. Why? Because being up front with it would get him canceled too, and he is the most subversive mainstream director out there. We need him. He has more work to do.
Thor: Love and Thunder is a guerrilla allegory we can all learn from. I can’t say with any certainty that my interpretation is what Waititi had in mind, but I bet I’m close. These elements were not there by accident. In short, trauma will only end when we stop medicating ourselves by passing our own trauma on to others. Gorr learned and accepted this, largely because he was the first in the film to understand that thoughts and prayers are useless. If there is a God, God isn’t helping us. We’re on our own. Thor would try his best to assist when he could, of course, but we know for a fact hat he doesn’t exist. Love and Thunder are only solutions in the Marvel universe.
Follow the author on twitter: @jackrweinstein