I am reminded of Matt Zoller Seitz’s recent interview with comedian Patton Oswalt about his new standup special, Annihilation—Oswalt’s first since the death of his wife last year. To stand in front of an audience and be honest about one’s grief while at the same time intentionally trying to make them laugh is a unique challenge for the comedic world. Citing C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Oswalt suggests “that [grief] feels like fear.” Stepping either onto a stage or into a movie theater requires a genuine sense of hope, the ability to laugh in the midst of and in spite of the fear that comes with grief and death.
Within some spheres and traditions of contemporary Christianity, levity and laughter can at times be relegated to the realm of the superfluous, placing comedy and the Christian life in combat. Consider, in contrast, the words of Conrad Hyers in The Comic Vision and the Christian Life:
Religious expression at its best functions within a delicate dialectic between faith and laughter. On the one side is the peril of idolatry—the elevation of any finite form or understanding to an absolute, divine status. On the other side is the peril of a relativism for which nothing is sacred. Faith without laughter leads to dogmatism and self-righteousness. Laughter without faith leads to cynicism and despair.
Taika Waititi embodies this dialectic through his directorial skills, as well as his supporting performance as Korg, an alien rock monster. Korg’s hilarious quips about death are the funniest moments in the film, as well as the most sobering. After Thor loses his hammer, Mjolnir, in his battle with Hela, he laments to Korg about the loss as they await their gladiatorial fates: “It sounds like you had a pretty special and intimate relationship with this hammer and that losing it was almost comparable to losing a loved one,” replies Korg dryly in his New Zealand accent. After a brief (humorous) pause, Thor responds, “That’s a nice way of putting it.” And it is. Genuine comfort in grief may come in the form of a rock monster.
Is it ever okay to laugh at death? Sometimes. When threatened by cynicism amid overwhelming chaos, our laughter can be an expression of humorful hope. A rock monster on an alien garbage dump planet ruled by a heavily made-up Jeff Goldblum gives the Norse god of thunder an empathetic response about his personal loss. Such is Thor: Ragnarok—a perfectly silly spectacle, even as it alludes to the weightiest questions about meaning and mortality.
Joel Mayward is a pastor, writer, theologian, and film critic. He is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews researching the intersection of film, theology, and ethics. For his film reviews and essays, check out www.cinemayward.com. Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelmayward.