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Thor: Love and Thunder is a superhero rom-com that also aims to engage in theological debate.

As director Taika Waititi puts it, “Where are the gods when we need them?”

The film features a polytheistic who’s who, with deities ranging from Zeus to a god of dumplings. Thor is, of course, the god of thunder, grappling with the duties of these higher powers while battling a villain known as the Gorr the God Butcher – a bereaved father who felt ignored by the god he once became had prayed.

It’s a far cry from the adventures of a rich man in an armored suit.

Beginning with 2008’s “Iron Man,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe took shape around familiar heroes saving the Earth with forces of technology, science, and alien worlds. In 2012’s The Avengers, Captain America (made in a lab) had an issue with a teammate describing Thor and his brother Loki as gods: “There’s only one god, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure sure he doesn’t dress like that.”

A decade later, gods are everywhere as the MCU expands into the savage pantheon created by comic book writers over decades. Conflicts now routinely play out on the celestial plane, with immortals serving a supreme space being (last year’s The Eternals) and mythological figures from ancient Egypt (recent TV series Moon Knight).

“When you’re working with cosmic deity concepts, the themes of the shows and movies tend to revolve around unlocking your purpose. The philosophy becomes existential, and that’s new territory for us in the MCU,” said Brad Winderbaum, head of streaming, television and animation at Marvel Studios and producer of Thor: Love and Thunder.

Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth, must figure out what kind of god he wants to be in Thor: Love and Thunder.


Photo:

Jasin Boland/Walt Disney Studios Film/Everett Collection

In Marvel’s latest blockbuster, which grossed $143 million in North America in its opening weekend, Christian Bale plays a character from a decimated planet whose people have perished, including his daughter. When he meets the god worshiped by his people, he bows. “Our faith in you has never wavered,” he says, “and now we await the promise of eternal reward.” The deity laughs at him. This divine indifference (plus a cursed sword) triggers Gorr’s Vendetta.

In a film that makes tonal leaps from comedy to sentimentality, Gorr is an intergalactic villain motivated by an understandable crisis of faith.

“You understand the anger behind the ride,” says Mr. Waititi.

In a satirical set piece, Thor and his comrades seek help from the gods of the prodigal Omnipotent City. A condescending Zeus, played by Russell Crowe, presides with his lightning bolt.

Mr. Waititi says he originally wanted to add a sectional view of Jesus in the crowd of elite deities. Instead, the filmmakers opted for an indirect name check, as Tessa Thompson’s character Valkyrie references the “god of carpentry.”

“We’re working with a world of fiction,” says Mr. Winderbaum. “We knew that if we included deities that people actually pray to in everyday life, that would be distracting and probably take us off topic.”

Mr Waititi, who wrote ‘Love and Thunder’ with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, says a passing gag wasn’t worth the questions it might have raised: ‘There are far better things to do than defend myself when I Put Jesus in a Marvel movie.”

A decadent meeting place for gods known as the Omnipotent City is ruled by Zeus, played by Russell Crowe.


Photo:

Jasin Boland/Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

It becomes confusing to think about where Christian, Jewish, or Muslim belief systems fit into the fantasy hierarchies. Still, religious leaders and scholars have found plenty of symbolism to delve into, he says Greg Stevenson, professor of Bible studies at Rochester University and editor of Theology and the Marvel Universe. Chapters include Gods Upon Gods: Hierarchies of Divinity in the Marvel Universe and his Spider-Man and the Theology of Weakness.

Superhero stories “are almost all about themes of redemption, sacrifice, good versus evil,” he says, noting that the films have rarely been as overt in their religious innuendos as the new Thor.

Gorr the God Butcher was created by comic book writer Jason Aaron, who has featured the character in a number of Thor books beginning in 2012. Mr. Aaron is an atheist who grew up in the Southern Baptist Church in Alabama and said Gorr has come of age in his religious pessimism.

In “Love and Thunder,” Gorr’s confrontation with the gods boils down to her self-interest in glory and her indifference to the mortals who worship them. “I trusted in a higher power hoping it would save her, and she died,” he says of his daughter.

“This has been a theological challenge for people of faith for centuries: how to deal with unanswered prayer. Does God care?” says Mr. Stevenson, the Bible scholar.

Like the comic writer behind the source material for Love and Thunder, Mr. Waititi is an atheist. “I don’t believe in man-made religions. I don’t believe in man-made gods,” says the director.

Wearing a black bucket hat with a yellow pin, he adds, “I don’t like it when people feel uncomfortable about faith. If it helps you spiritually and understand your place in the world, absolutely. And as an atheist, I still sometimes ask myself, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ Just in case it’s all true.”

Love and Thunder is his second Thor film after his 2017 comedic hit Thor: Ragnorak reinvigorated the franchise. He won an Oscar for the screenplay for his 2019 film Jojo Rabbit, in which he played Adolf Hitler as a boy’s imaginary friend.

The New Zealand filmmaker is Jewish on his mother’s side, although neither she nor her parents were believers, he says. He has Maori ancestry on his father’s side and says he places more emphasis on indigenous beliefs, which include gods representing natural elements.

“Our gods are more like the Greek gods. They have stories behind them and they mess with mortals,” he says.

Mr. Waititi is on the same page as scholars who say contemporary superheroes serve a similar purpose as figures in ancient myths, from Hercules to the Polynesian hero Maui. “There were lessons about how to live in those stories and how to become a better person. Some were cautionary tales, some just for fun,” says the filmmaker.

As for his latest Marvel saga, saying that the resolution for Gorr and Thor includes the first word in the subtitle “Love and Thunder” isn’t a full spoiler.

“I think that’s enough. That’s good,” says Mr. Waititi. “Going deeper just pisses people off and it becomes a boring movie.”

Write to John Jurgensen at [email protected]

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