This article contains spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok.
Is it ever okay to laugh at death?
This was the question stuck in my mind as I waited for the obligatory Marvel end-of-credits scene after Thor: Ragnarok. Many people/aliens/gods die in the thunder god’s return to the big screen—and I laughed a lot.
Right from its opening scene, Ragnarok is a colorful, campy sendup of the superhero genre, even as its storyline and thematic elements are decidedly morbid. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) greets the audience in voiceover from a cage in the hellish domain of the fire demon Surtur. He’s chatty and smug, joking about Surtur’s appearance before the expected CGI-infused battle begins. This scene sets the tone for the remainder of the film: Even in the midst of hell itself, this is all meant to be a good time.
New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s previous two films, What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, were strong, smart comedies with similarly dark humor about issues of mortality. Shadows is a mockumentary following the undead escapades of a group of vampires living as flatmates. Wilderpeople is essentially a remake of Pixar’s Up, as both stories depict a cantankerous man’s journey of grief following the tragic death of a spirited spouse as he hikes around a jungle with an unwelcome boy.
Following suit, much of the plot (and the humor) in Ragnarok centers on the deaths of individuals and how people respond in the wake of death. Death is even personified in the goddess of death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), the elder sister of Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who appears after the sudden loss of their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Hela is a formidable opponent, and it’s taken all of Odin’s efforts to keep her bay.
That the death of Odin mostly comes across as a non-event is significant here (it’s hardly a plot spoiler as it happens quite early in the story). Thor and Loki don’t truly grieve or respond to their father’s demise as much as they shrug, make a joke, and move on to battle Hela. Other key characters are also swiftly killed off—a bold move for Waititi and writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost. The Shakespearian drama of this dysfunctional Asgardian family as depicted in the original Thor film has been traded for outright humor. Meanwhile, the darkness—in color, tone, and title—of Thor: The Dark World has been discarded for neon pink, purple, and turquoise.
The siblings’ battle results in Hela invading Asgard in order to take her place on the throne of Odin, employing Skurge (Karl Urban) as her sidekick executioner. Loki and Thor are displaced and end up on the planet Sakaar, a garbage dump surrounded by interstellar wormholes, the largest of which bears a name with a crass reference to a certain bodily orifice. In this purgatorial hellhole, Thor ends up as a gladiatorial warrior at the behest of the planet’s ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, who appears to love his scenery-chewing role). Whether the filmmakers recognize the parallels between the film’s gladiatorial spectacle scenes and the film audience participating in a similar venture (yes, I am comparing MCU films to gladiatorial games) is uncertain.
The subsequent battle between Thor and the Hulk hinted at in the trailers is more of the entertaining CGI-punchfest one can expect from the MCU films. The film merges the “Ragnarok” narrative with the “Planet Hulk” storyline from the Marvel comics, thus allowing for Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to be reunited with his Avenger pal and having more of a character arc than just being an elongated cameo. Trapped as the Hulk for the previous two years, Banner’s identity issues run parallel to Thor’s quest to save Asgard from Hela’s violent reign. Both Avengers must wrestle with their true identity as they work their way toward escaping the garbage dump in order to save Asgard. The chemistry between Hemsworth and Ruffalo is palpable; they’re certainly comfortable in their roles as these characters, and it shows in their affable demeanors. Hiddleston and Blanchett round out the cast’s solid performances.
Visually, meanwhile, much of Ragnarok channels the bright hues of the late 1980s and early 1990s, even as its pumping synth soundtrack furthers the nostalgic vibes. It’s worth noting, then, that the most powerful and artfully crafted scene in the film actually addresses death with a sense of pathos and aesthetic vigor. In a flashback scene, an Asgardian warrior, Valkyrie, (wonderfully portrayed by Tessa Thompson) recalls a violent confrontation with Hela which left Valkyrie stranded and despondent with grief. Images of the battle flash across the screen in slow motion, painterly yet cosmic in their composition. It’s the only moment where time and narrative slow down to allow for reflection; as such, it’s one of the most memorable scenes in Ragnarok, even in the MCU as a whole.
The subtitle “Ragnarok” refers to an end-of-the-world event stemming from Norse mythology and adapted from the Thor comics. A fulfillment of prophecy, the Ragnarok event results in the entire world of Asgard being destroyed and reborn anew through water and fire. There are parallels to Christian end-of-the-cosmos interpretations of apocalyptic literature in the Bible—this is the Asgardian’s version of the Book of Revelation. Suffice to say, it’s a weighty event of world-shattering proportions, and the final battle between a new team of “Revengers” against Hela leads to some surprising conclusions—ones which require Thor to take responsibility for his people as a good king should.
If one were to examine just the plot points from Ragnarok, it’d sound like a pretty dismal film. Imagine this: the violent deaths of family, friends, and fellow citizens; the destruction of one’s entire world at the hands of a malevolent invading force; multiple locations which allude to Gehenna-like environments of discard and destruction; existential crises of identity and wallowing in grief. It all sounds quite serious, to put it mildly.
In light of that, I want to recognize the accomplishment of Waititi in his ability to infuse this film with such rich humor and—dare I say—joy. Amid chaos, Waititi offers us the comical (they are called “comic books” after all). There was criticism of previous MCU films for the vast destruction of cities and anonymous lives lost. Such criticism prompted Age of Ultron and subsequent films to overtly portray the need to save lives, to show that each individual person matters and that death is to be taken seriously. Ragnarok swings the tonal pendulum back toward the direction of levity without veering into the snarkiness and underlying nihilism of this year’s other colorful MCU sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Death is a prominent theme in Ragnarok, but it’s not to be taken too seriously.
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.