Marvel Studios have ruled the box office for more than a decade, spinning out movie after movie in the most lucrative franchise since James Bond. At the heart of their financial success, I believe, is their ability to tap into our American zeitgeist, the spirit of our time.
Before I take a look at some of the themes of Thor: Ragnarok, the most recent installment in the Marvel Universe (of which I will offer NO SPOILERS!), let me start by thinking about superhero movies in general.
I don’t know what the count is up to now, but several years ago, we had numbered more superhero movies in the 2000s than we had totaled in every year prior. It is fair to say that we’ve become obsessed with superheroes. But why is this?
I think the answer can be seen by looking back just a few decades. Following the turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s — the Vietnam War, the hippie rebellion, the sudden rise of divorce, racial unrest, and so on — there was a significant uptick in law and order TV shows and movies.
When we feel unsettled and afraid of what’s going on in the world around us, we start stocking up on stories that insert order into our chaotic world. We long for some hero to swoop in and save the day.
It’s no coincidence that the upheaval we’ve experienced since 9/11 is matched by the rise of the superhero. Yes, they’d been around before. But now they are among the biggest and most attended to stories we’re telling ourselves.
We look around and we don’t see any heroes amongst ourselves. When Barack Obama ran for his first term as President, he was lauded as “Change we can believe in.” And his Hope poster was worthy of a superhero. But for all of the good things he accomplished, he fell far short of superhero status.
Living in uncertain times will always have us looking around for help and hope. But this is always dangerous, as those who often offer us big visions and big promises have big egos and bring with them big problems of their own. History is littered with such egos.
OK. Now, for some Thor themes.
Theme #1 — Humor with a bite
The movie is absolutely hilarious. The whole franchise has had humor woven through it, but Ragnarok has taken a page from the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies and dialed up the laughs significantly. The very first scene had the audience I saw it with laughing immediately. We knew there would be plenty of fight scenes, but the opening sequence primed the pump for an all-out comedy.
A friend of mine has often said, “You can take the kid out of middle school, but you can’t take middle school out of the kid.” And Ragnarok has its fair share of middle school humor, especially with its repeated reference to the Devil’s Anus. And having more than my fair share of middle schooler still in me, I laughed every single time.
Most of the rest of the humor was sarcasm and mockery. I laughed at all of it, because it was delivered with such excellent comic timing and punch. But reflecting on it afterward gave me pause.
Sarcasm is the humor for desperate. Mockery is where we go when we no longer trust the authorities in our world. These are the forms of humor we use when the choice is between laughing or crying.
The sarcasm in Ragnarok was brilliant and I ate it up. But it highlighted for me just how much bitter humor I’m surrounded by. So many of those memes posted on social media are just plain ugly in their mocking.
Theme #2 — Lostness and being unwanted
Thor and other key characters spend a significant part of the film on a planet where lost and unwanted things end up. Worm holes are continually dropping junk onto the planet’s surface — all of it lost and unwanted.
And what we’re led to believe is that this is the case for each of the characters who end up there as well. At least, that’s how they think of themselves.
Thor and Hulk are the bulky oafs of the Avengers. They’ve got the biggest bodies and are treated as if they’ve got the smallest brains. In fact, the two of them taunt each other about being the stupidest Avenger. On top of that, they taunt each other about not having any friends.
In our culture of increasing numbers of friends and followers online, we’ve become less and less secure about truly being wanted, truly being loved. Studies have shown that with the advent of the smartphone, teens are less likely to have sex or do drugs but are more likely to be depressed and consider suicide. Their phones are killing their relationships and yet they don’t know how to do relationships any other way.
This is the generation of the lost and unwanted, not because they’ve run away from home or are truly unwanted, but because they simply feel that way. And here we’ve got two beefy superheroes who feel stupid and friendless discovering how to be friends (in the midst of beating each other up).
Theme #3 — The unimportance of place
The final theme I want to point out doesn’t emerge till the end of the movie, but it’s there all throughout.
Hardly any of Ragnarok takes place on earth. In fact, Dr. Strange very quickly kicks Thor out of his city, not wanting him around. Thor also finds himself not very much at home in Asgard, his home city. Only Hella, the antagonist longs to be home. There is more to this theme spelled out in the film, pitting people against place, but I don’t want to spoil anything.
Alan Thein Durning, is his book This Place on Earth, writes about a conversation he had with an aboriginal woman about her place and community. At one point in the conversation, she turns his questions back on him and asks him tell her about his place. After thinking for a while and reflecting on how his career had taken him from place to place to place, he replies, “In my country, we don’t have places. We have careers.”
We live in a new nomadic society, where we follow our jobs instead of sinking down roots in a single place. We are rootless.
In my life, I’ve gone through nine major moves, from one distinct city to another, along with minor moves within those localities. I’ve lived in my current city a bit more than four years. In fact, I regularly ask people in my current city of Bend how long they have lived here. The average response is about three years.
The transient nature of Bend was one of the key reasons why we struggled to start a new church here. Commitments only go so deep when there is no longevity to them.
The biblical view of place is mixed. Adam and Eve were exiles from their initial home, as was their son Cain. And there’s a sense of exilic wandering throughout the Scriptures, which Hebrews 11 meditates on. And yet, there is a call to settle in to the earthly city where God has planted us (see Jeremiah 29:4-7), with a view toward the City that is our final destination and true Home.
I feel this sense of placelessness deeply. When I watched the movie Lion, there were two times during it that I cried. The first was when the main character says, “I’m lost.” And again, later on, when he says, “I’m home.”
I realize that even more than forgiveness, the Gospel is to me about Home. I am prodigal. I long to be where I am known, where I am loved.
Ragnarok laughs in the face of pain. These are sad days. We’ve become a sarcastic, mocking bunch of lost and unwanted and homeless people who are desperate for a hero to come and save us.
Maranatha! Our Lord, come!