What makes a god worthy of worship? A heavy question, and probably not one you’d expect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But writer, director Taika Waititi’s latest film, Thor: Love and Thunder, takes aim at that very question. And while Jesus is conspicuously absent (unless that throw-away line about the god of carpentry is about him?), Waititi seems to have been taking notes from John’s gospel. In a time where Christians are known more for packing courts and enforcing our will than for self-sacrificial love, maybe it’s time we learn a bit from everyone’s favorite Space Viking.
Thor: Love and Thunder opens on a man (Christian Bale) and his daughter wandering in the desert. They pray to their god, Rapu, whose sun-like visage they both wear around their necks. Again and again, the man prays for salvation, but his prayers go unanswered. His daughter dies. As he lies by her grave, a voice whispers to him across the dunes, leading him to a lush oasis. At the heart of the oasis, the man discovers Rapu celebrating a victory over a god-slayer. Rather than taking pity on the man, Rapu mocks and belittles him and his loss. In anger, the man grabs the weapon of his god’s vanquished rival. It is the Necrosword, a weapon that can kill gods. The man strikes down his god, and so is born Gorr the God Butcher, who vows to rid the universe of gods.
What good, after all, is a god who won’t (or can’t?) save us from death?
It’s not long before Gorr sets his sights on New Asgard, pitting him against Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Asgard’s king, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and … Thor?! That’s right, Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, having a blast) shows up, wearing Thor’s signature armor and wielding his reforged hammer.
Minor spoilers follow
In Love and Thunder, Waititi deftly weaves together stories of loss: Gorr loses his daughter in the desert and Thor still laments the painful dissolution of his relationship with Jane, who we learn has stage 4 cancer. The film’s central question hangs heavy over all these events: What good is a god who won’t (can’t?!) save us from death?
Nowhere is this clearer than in our heroes’ visit to Omnipotence, where the most powerful and famous gods of all time live — and hide. From Bast and Quetzalcóatl to Zeus himself (whom Thor idolizes), the gods of Omnipotence live in orgiastic luxury, fueled by the sacrifice of humans. Unsurprisingly, they refuse to help Thor and friends deal with Gorr. Thor leaves, disillusioned, warning a friend never to meet their heroes. Before his visit to Omnipotence, Thor sought to model his own godliness after Zeus; now he wants to be a different type of God. The New Testament has some tips for that.
It’s easy, when witnessing the spectacle of Omnipotence Waititi creates, to see how Jesus is a different kind of god. In his letter to the Greek city of Corinth, Paul warns his former-Zeus-worshiping-readers that the cross is foolishness to “those who are perishing,” by whom he means all those whose gods reside at the top of Mount Olympus. To those for whom godhood means being king of the hill — having the most power, the biggest temple, the most worshippers, or the biggest military — Paul’s announcement of a god who was crucified by his enemies would be foolishness indeed. What good is a god who can’t even save himself? How could that god possibly save anyone else?
And yet, in John’s gospel, Jesus insists this is exactly what makes him worthy. When he arrives in Jerusalem for that fateful Passover, he announces that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified … I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:23-32). In these words, Jesus’ disciples heard promises of military conquest. He’s going to conquer and ascend to a throne. But Jesus has already warned readers that he will be raised up not on a throne, but a stake (John 3:14-15).
Jesus made his mark on the world not through conquest and power, but through weakness and presence. This is the one who feasted with sinners rather than condemning them, who spoke truth to power rather than wrapping himself in its robes. The one who wept with mourners and took notice of those everyone else ignored. Thor reveals himself to be this kind of god in small, silly moments when he comforts scared children and learns to share his power. What makes him worthy of love and devotion is not how he smashes Gorr, but how he defends the vulnerable — while being vulnerable himself.
The cross is God’s final answer to the problem of evil. Zeus can’t save his followers from death (even if he wanted to). In a world marked by suffering and injustice, God steps down from the throne of heaven, picks up his cross and carries it ahead of us. In Jesus’ cross, we find not an escape from suffering, but the strength to bear it.
This self-sacrificial politic is missing from public Christian witness. The Christian nationalism fueling the current Supreme Court attacks on the rights of women, non-Christians, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and minority voters is more at home atop Olympus than Calvary. By organizing against, legislating against, and disenfranchising the most vulnerable, Christian nationalists operate not as Jesus but as Caesar.
Love and Thunder illustrates the danger with this ideology: Thor learns there will always be someone more powerful — someone you can’t just punch to death. A god (or movement) who builds their kingdom solely on power will one day find themselves overthrown (just ask Zeus, Jupiter, or Marduk). What we need is a different kind of power altogether, one that comes not from the sacrifice of others, but the sacrifice of self for the good of the most vulnerable in our midst.