Better Thors Aren’t Possible
Spoilers, in every sense.
I had something of a moment watching Thor: Love and Thunder, and it wasn’t in reaction to any of the gags or tonal shifts that have enraged other reviewers and commentators. I have no particular distaste for the screaming goats, or the musical cues, or the subplot about Natalie Portman’s character’s illness. They’re all fine, occasionally humourous elements of what is ultimately a comedy film, and if they’re let down it’s by ropey, undercooked visual effects and a crushingly conservative edit that takes away much of the time in which an audience might laugh. There was a point in the film though that brought my objection into sharp focus, and I would like to describe it to you.
Following along with the aforementioned plot concerning Natalie Portman’s character, Jane Porter, we see Jane learn that she has a fatal prognosis and turn to the mysticism of Thor’s hammer to escape from her certain fate. This fails, however, and Porter continues to suffer after reuniting with Thor himself and coming along to face off against Christian Bale’s villain, Gorr. Portman is taken to the “New Asgard Infirmary”, the local medical unit for the relocated Asgardians of Avengers: Endgame, which we assume will be able to take a knowledgable eye to Porter’s condition. Sadly they have little insight other than to inform the audience that if Porter continues to use the hammer, she will perish. Porter bravely sacrifices herself thus in the climax, earning a place in Valhalla.
Hence follows a brief gag in which Thor — unfamiliar with the concept of a vending machine — steals some snacks to give Porter. The machine is located outside of Porter’s room and is a standard glass-front vending machine showing an array of items in rows and columns, with prices and a coin slot. The provenance of the machine, though obvious, is conveyed through branding on the glass: “New Asgard Infirmary”.
This small detail displaced something inside me. The idea that the magic hospital of the gods charges you for a bag of crisps is so unfathomably depressing that it thrust me back down to earth like a reforged flying hammer. That Jane Porter, given her diagnosis of magic space hammer sickness, would nonetheless have to pay two dollars twenty five for a Diet Coke is a joke on another plane of existence to anything else in Thor: Love and Thunder.
And that’s the moment it dawned on me: nobody in this film believes anything at all.
A scene early on in the film that has received some criticism but mostly bafflement is the one in which Valkyrie, as King of Asgard, attends the opening of a chain Thanos-themed ice cream parlour. Much has been made of the idea that the people of earth would want to joke about a traumatic event in which half the population were briefly believed dead, or whether the image of Thano’s gauntlet would have such penetration in a world in which he was a spectral villain who committed a great evil and not the motion-captured star of a major motion picture. So far as I am aware no Mayor of New York ever attended the opening of an Osama Bin Laden Pizzeria, though I may be mistaken.
It’s not the Thanos-themed ice cream that I find most grotesque in this sequence though. More distressing is the spectacle of the King of Asgard reduced to commercial endorsements: Valkyrie was raised to the position formerly held by Odin himself at the end of Avengers: Endgame, a slovenly Thor not considering himself worthy of the role. King Valkyrie was supposed to be worthy of leading Asgard — worthiness being a major concern of Thor films until that point — and her leadership would restore Asgard to some semblance of glory in exile. In this sequel we first see her cutting the ribbon on a theme park concession.
Asgard in the previous movies was a city of the gods, a heavenly utopia in which immortal beings considered the cosmos. I don’t want to suggest by any means that this should mean they can’t be mocked or made fun of, but there’s something fundamentally perverse about having them appear in this film completely subsumed into a capitalist existence. King Valkyrie has, fundamentally, failed. The film can only gloss this over because Disney films are the only media in existence which do not consider being transformed into a Disney version of your own history to be a living nightmare.
And that’s what New Asgard is — a fixed, calcified history of itself, the Disney cruise ships lurking ominously in the background of the establishing shot. The monument to Thor’s ruined hammer an open-air Tower of London Crown Jewels exhibit. Valkyrie appears in the advert linked above prowling the streets for petty criminals, a King who has become little more than a street warden. It’s not that we should revere the provisionally imperialist, revanchist state that Odin oversaw in Thors 1 & 2, but to see not just the governance but the culture scrubbed clean like this is halting.
The people of New Asgard have completely foreclosed not only on restoring any semblance of their own society, but on any semblance of a society better than that of Earth — of ‘Midgard’. The society in which Thor’s mother once passed away on a luxurious wooden bed surrounded by silks being waited on hand and foot can no longer even provide a complementary bag of crisps in the hospital waiting room. And they aren’t even unhappy about it — they aren’t unhappy about anything.
The children of Asgard are stolen, and Thor traces their theft to a white-cloaked man called Gorr the God-Killer. Gorr, as we see in the pre-credits sequence, is a man who has suffered a personal tragedy at the hands of his God, a stocky bearded man who would rather cavort with nymphs than rescue a man’s dying child. Gorr takes up a magical blade and kills him, beginning a crusade of assassinations against all Gods that culminates in using the children of Asgard as a lure to secure Thor’s help in using a thematically repetitive wishing device at the centre of the universe to finish the Gods off once and for all. This is the central conflict of the film, and the problem is that Gorr is unequivocally right.
The Gods as depicted in this film are capricious, indulgent lordlings, the picture of feudal sloth. Thor visits the City of the Gods, a second Asgard, where he witnesses Zeus engage in tedious despotic displays of self-aggrandisation to a bored audience. Asking for assistance in retrieving his missing children, Zeus cruelly and selfishly dismisses Thor, who with his companions fights his way out of the council chamber (a visual callback to the Star Wars prequels, with Zeus in place of Palpatine, no less). As a parting blow to the puffed-up imbecilic overlord Zeus, Thor uses a lightning bolt to shoot him through the heart. Zeus falls, dead, from his carriage — he later appears alive again in a post-credit scene, apparently to scrub Thor’s conscience for those of us worried about his immortal soul.
Gorr is correct about the Gods, and Thor agrees with him. They are both at this point God-Killers, dismayed with the corruption of a treasured institution. Fundamentally they do not disagree. They could team up; unique among the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s villains, Gorr does not go out of his way to reinforce his evil credentials, beyond some half-hearted child-menacing. Surely he could be persuaded, or redeemed, or fully embraced. Could the suffering peasant take his place in the reformed city of the gods-on-earth, in New Asgard? He cannot. Gorr dies, death being the penalty for his belief. The ‘necro-sword’ that embodies the idea that a man might slay a god is — conveniently — corrosive and fatal to those that wield it. We may eschew the sword entirely: believing in an idea is corrosive and fatal in the world of Love and Thunder. All we can hope to achieve is looking cool and kicking ass and impressing our dying ex-girlfriend. Thor adopts Gorr’s daughter, granted life by Gorr’s dying wish, and teaches her the vague interventionist values he lives by — without ever changing anything.
In the final post-credits scene, Jane Foster reaches the Halls of Valhalla, where the greatest heroes who fell in battle live on. Foster and Gorr suffer identical deaths. Foster is present, the Gorr is not. Valhalla doesn’t really believe in the cosmic resonance of individual valour — it’s just a place some people end up.
You could continue in this vein; the people Thor assists with the help of the Guardians of the Galaxy at the start of the film see Thor destroy, through carelessness, their greatest city and holy site, but they don’t really care. They still like him. They didn’t really believe in it at all.
What Thor chases throughout the film is meaning, but meaning is never located in actually achieving anything. Meaning is friends, family, love. Thor can tell Jane how he feels but he cannot save her. He cannot really even try.
The political theorist Mark Fisher described his concept of ‘capitalist realism’ as “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it”. It is obviously too much to expect Thor: Love and Thunder to dis-spell capitalist realism for us. It is likely too much to expect for Thor: Love and Thunder to even mildly critique capitalist realism for us. But it could offer us crumbs of idealism. It could offer us a free bag of crisps. It could offer us a paradise on earth that isn’t framed by cruise ships. It does not.
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