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When we Don’t Die in Battle: A reflection on Thor: Love and Thunder

Thursday, 25 August 2022  | Michael J. Toy


 

Spoiler warning: This reflection contains heavy spoilers, including the post-credit scene, for the 2022 movie Thor: Love and Thunder.

 

We live in the shadow of stories.

(Pádraig Ó Tuama, Irish poet and theologian)

 

I dragged my wife along to see the fourth instalment in the Thor franchise, part of the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, on opening night. While I had been a big fan of Australian Chris Hemsworth’s portrayal of the iconic figure since the first Thor movie came out in 2011, I particularly loved the themes, humour and continual character growth in the third film Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Kiwi icon Taika Waititi. So I was excited to see what Waititi would do at the helm for this fourth film.

While the newest installment centres on Thor, the real story is not so much about Thor’s personal growth but about the love he shares with his former flame, Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman). It’s revealed in the course of the movie that Jane has stage four cancer. However, she hears Thor’s magical hammer Mjolnir calling to her, and when she retrieves the broken hammer and lifts it, the fragments reforge into the potent weapon. Furthermore, in a lightning flash, she becomes the Mighty Thor, complete with red cape, stylised armour and biceps. She steps into this new role of powerful superhero with delight. However, not all is rosy, for when she returns to her alter ego, she is still sick, with no diminishing of her illness. Thor, upon their reunion, reveals that, each time she lifts Mjolnir, her lifeforce is drained. So while in the short term she’s powerful and strong, this very power actually hastens her cancer’s spread and prevents her own body’s attempts to heal. Despite this knowledge, Jane chooses to go out with a bang, helping her beloved defeat Christian Bale’s Gorr the god butcher. This final act zaps her of her remaining lifeforce, but also enables her to enter Valhalla, for in Marvel’s depiction of the Asgardian afterlife, entrance is granted only to those who perish in battle.

There is something so inspiring in this story of Jane’s bravery and glory in sacrifice. One of the best things about fantasy stories is the momentary escape from the ordinariness and mundaneness of this world. Jane’s Mighty Thor arc reflects humanity’s internal desire and longing for meaning in death, and it is the very distance from the mundane and ordinary that gives life and energy to the story. In this sense, the story is powerful.

It is in the negative image of these beautiful messages of agency and empowerment in the face of death that we can open a conversation into what it means when our life outruns the existing metaphors around us. Jane’s arc is a tale of agency in the face of death. It is a story of the sacrifice one makes for their loved one. But it is also a story of war, battle and a warrior. And thus, it is also a tale that cannot capture the experiences of most people with chronic or terminal illness or the realities of ageing.

I acknowledge it is not really fair to criticise a film for what it is not. And so, this reflection is not so much a criticism of the film as it is an invitation to examine the ways in which metaphors and narratives shape the way we think about death and dying. In other words, I appreciate the film for what it is and the story it tells. But I also see it as a jumping-off point to explore its themes from another angle. Recently, I’ve been mulling over the language we employ to describe the texture and movement through ordinary life. For the stories we tell and the narratives we consume are not powerless, but rather structure the scaffold of meaning to which we attach our own stories. A good example of this is how the metaphor of war runs rampant in the way we speak of illness or disease, as many have observed before me.

The fourth installment in the Thor franchise, in its very insistent use of warrior culture as the defining trait for living and dying well, invites us to consider the flip side of the metaphor. What are we to do with those for whom this warrior narrative does not work? Indeed, most souls will not leave their earthly bodies on the battlefield. For those whose decline is slow, whose journey is of weakening physical and/or cognitive strength, does this metaphor ‘work’? How can one fight without strength? How can one make life a battlefield for heroic sacrifice when a once simple task like brushing one’s teeth becomes a burdensome and exhausting task? The terrain of ordinary life, when turned into a battlefield, becomes a place of exhaustion and defeat.

Australian feminist theologian Lauren McGrow brings a well-constructed critique to the war metaphor so often used when describing human encounter with illness. She explains: ‘Conflict metaphors also split us off from our own bodies and the realities of embodiment and death in this world. We are disassociated from an alien within that is in fact, the circumstance of our lives’ (see ‘The War Against COVID-19 and Body Theology: A Relational Response’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 37, no. 2, 103-118).

One of the reasons this metaphor has been on my mind recently is my talks with my 94-year-old grandfather. His physical abilities have dramatically decreased in recent months. Mere months ago, he was writing word puzzles and riddles to send out to his Sunday School class during the lockdowns and helping put together lunch bags for school children. But after a fall and a couple of hospital stays this year, he now lives out the daily ordeal of mustering enough strength to accomplish the mundane and ordinary tasks of getting out of bed, brushing his teeth and even eating. The war metaphor just does not meet him in these moments of ageing.

Searching for other metaphors to better frame this experience, I re-read the autobiographical document he wrote a few years ago. My grandfather was born in the year of the dragon, and in Chinese mythology the dragon is not a violent beast to be defeated but a symbol of wisdom, power and authority. Among the oldest images of dragons in Asia are images of the ouroboros, Greek for tail-devourer. These images depict a serpent or dragon in circular posture either chasing or devouring its own tail.

At first glance, with our perceptions coloured by a capitalist pursuit of production and efficiency at all costs, this image may seem like a perfect representation of futility. But futility has not been the essence that has captured artisans and beholders for millennia. Rather, it is the temporality held within the image that gives it its potency. The symbol speaks to the cycle of life, death, rebirth and continual return. It depicts movement — even in the act of seeming destruction, it feeds itself. From a Christian perspective, one may say it even hints at resurrection renewal. But perhaps most powerfully, the ouroboros speaks to the inevitability and beauty of change.

This symbol invites us to consider illness and ageing not as a foe to be defeated, but as a fundamental process within the life-death cycle itself. It does not require of us a fight or a battle. It does not reward only the ‘victors’. It propels us to acknowledge, and perhaps even accept, those inevitable changes that come with being bound to one another within time.

There are many metaphors and symbols out there to be explored. I invite each of us to look for other imagery and metaphors beyond battle and war as a way of confronting the powerlessness we feel with ageing, illness and end of life. In the meantime, consider the great dragon – ever circling, ever changing and ever turning with the tide of time.

 

Michael J. Toy is currently in his second year of PhD studies in Religious Studies at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington studying digital religion in New Zealand. He also serves as Public Theologian for the Student Christian Movement Aotearoa. When away from his desk, he can be found training for the next marathon or searching for the best noodles in Wellington.


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