Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)
Not every god has a plan.
Here’s the thing about Thor: Love and Thunder, the fourth solo outing for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s God of Thunder: pretty much every individual element works on its own, and almost none of it works taken as a whole. That doesn’t mean you won’t have a good time, but your enjoyment will be predicated on what’s more important to you: coherent storytelling and themes or goofy fun. This time we don’t get much of the former but an absolute tsunami of the latter. Is it too much of a good thing? Yeah, I’d say so.
Picking up a fair while after the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019), Thor: Love and Thunder sees everyone’s favorite Norse deity (Chris Hemsworth) leaving off his sojourn with the Guardians of the Galaxy when he learns that a powerful villain, Gorr (Christian Bale), is running around the universe killing every god he can lay his hands (or, rather, the Necrosword) on, and he’s set his sights on New Asgard. Charging in to defend his people, Thor finds they already have a defender, as his ex-girlfriend, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, and yes, her buffing up for the role is impressive) has taken up the magic hammer Mjölnir and the mantle of The Mighty Thor. Gorr kidnaps a passel of Asgardian kids and our heroes, who also include Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and affable, Kiwi-accented, possibly-overstaying-his-welcome rock monster Korg (Taika Waititi), are suddenly on a rescue mission.
Make no bones about it: New Zealand director Taika Waititi saved Marvel’s Thor sub-franchise, following up the fun but low-key Thor (2011) and almost universally reviled Thor: The Dark World (2013) with a sharp pivot — almost a bootlegger reverse — into comedy with 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. It worked a treat, leavening the Asgardian’s self-seriousness with laughs but still offering up plenty of spectacle, action, and emotional resonance. Ragnarok remains one of the films — along with Black Panther (2018), and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy flicks — that the MCU faithful can point to when the House of Ideas gets accused of running a cookie-cutter production line. Just look at what they let this weird Kiwi guy do with one of their tentpole characters! And everyone loves it!
Well, perhaps a finger on a monkey’s paw closed somewhere because, with Love and Thunder, we have what appears to be a director given free rein on a project and a valuable lesson on why limitations are important in artistic exploration. This is a very Taika movie; his fingerprints are on every shot, every creative choice. If you’re not a fan, this will do little to convince you to reassess his work. If you are a fan … well, I’m a fan and have been since Boy (2010), and I struggled with this one.
The essential problem with Love and Thunder is one of tone, and it’s such an extreme example that it throws the endemic tonal issues of the MCU into sharp relief. Maybe it’s all Robert Downey Jr.’s fault, but the MCU has had problems since day one with striking a balance between the inherent ridiculousness of superheroes with the emotional engagement needed for these stories to work, and it’s tried to deal with that through snark, essentially making RDJ’s Tony Stark smartest-guy-in-the-room “get a load of this” flippancy the default comedic setting of the entire franchise. The thing is, it’s a balancing act, and you need to make sure that your emotional beats really land and that the heart of the story is somehow insulated from the instinct to throw barbs at its very underpinnings. Iron Man can quip all he wants, as long as we still buy him making the ultimate sacrifice to stop Thanos (Josh Brolin). The Guardians can be a motley crew of absolute freaks, but Gunn understands the “found family” thing completely, and so when Groot and, later, Yondu (Michael Rooker), sacrifice themselves, it lands like a sledgehammer blow to the heart.
Nothing in Thor: Love and Thunder lands like that. There are “awesome” moments as Thor carves his way across an alien battlefield to the strains of Guns N’ Roses (it’s still wild to me that we have yet to hear Kiss’s “God of Thunder” in a Thor movie) and there are “funny” moments as … well, almost any given moment is meant to be comedic, but there are no moments of emotional catharsis. And you might think, well, maybe that kind of catharsis is surplus to requirements this time around, but I swear to you, the script at least wants us to feel something towards the back end, even if the film as executed makes that impossible.
Waititi spends the whole film telling us not to take any of this stuff seriously, but then the film suddenly wants us to engage with it emotionally, and we’ve been given almost no reason to do so up to that point. Light spoilers: when she’s not being The Mighty Thor (and I cannot for the life of me figure out why she uses that full name in-universe), Portman’s Jane Foster is battling terminal cancer, and while she’s a dynamo when invested with Asgardian magic, she’s still dying.
Natalie Portman is simply fantastic in the role. It’s a matter of record that she had to be coaxed back into the MCU fold after being disappointed with how her character was used in her past outings, and her storyline here lets her be both superhumanly heroic and humanly vulnerable. It’s not exaggerating things to say that Portman does all the emotional heavy lifting in the film. However, it’s worth noting that this plotline is kept almost completely isolated from the manic action of the main plot until it’s time for it to collide with our fun space romp in a way that robs both of their impact.
Up until then, we’ve been dealing with a hero who destroys the sacred temple he’s been charged with defending (a truly baffling gag given Waititi’s Indigenous activism and ongoing issues with the destruction of sacred sites in the real world); magical goats that scream non-stop; a running joke about Thor’s new weapon, Stormbreaker, being jealous of his old weapon, Mjölnir; and a cameo from Russell Crowe as Zeus, king of the gods, in which Rusty plays the Olympian as Con the Fruiterer.
Hemsworth, here bulked up to genuinely unbelievable proportions, plays the Thunder God in full himbo mode: completely stupid, self-absorbed, brimming with hubris born of immortality and omnipotence, and bereft of any pathos. It’s useful to compare how “dad bod” Thor was handled in 2019’s Endgame: a joke that was funny but was also rooted in character. In Love and Thunder, his transformation back to “God bod” is tossed off in a montage, all reason behind it thrown away with it (Waititi also mockingly dismisses the various casualties in Thor’s supporting cast in the same montage).
Fundamentally, Thor as a character has been robbed of any interiority. We can’t feel for him because there is no him; he’s just an action figure for Waititi to bulldoze through a number of massive set-pieces, the big kid’s running commentary on the resultant chaos being transposed as dialogue in the film itself. And while it’s admirable on a metatextual level that Waititi has somehow managed to get Disney to bankroll an entire movie that goes out of its way to show again and again how dumb it thinks the entire MCU exercise is, it may stick in the craw of anyone who might want a movie that’s actually about something.
Chris Hemsworth seems fine with this turn of events, and why not? He gets to be at the center of all this madness, his action and comedic chops on full display. I do wonder how Christian Bale feels about his return to the superhero world a decade on from The Dark Knight Rises (2012); his Gorr starts off as a villain with some very understandable grievances against the divine before being reduced to the MCU version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s The Child Catcher and eventually just kind of petering out. Tessa Thompson, Creed (2015), looks uncomfortable for much of her screen time but does the job required, and almost everyone else is sidelined for the Chris and Taika show: Waititi’s Korg gets a lot of play this time around, and even the Asgardian actors played by Sam Neill, Matt Damon, and Luke Hemsworth (Melissa McCarthy joins them this time around) get a fair whack of spotlight time. Why? Because funny, that’s why, and if that comes at a cost, so be it.
Indeed, “being funny” seems to be the only reason Thor: Love and Thunder exists. With a couple of viewings under my belt now, I can’t discern a coherent deeper theme, and the film wilfully shies away from the thornier questions like, I dunno, “Is Gorr right?” and “What does mortality even mean in the MCU?” It’s not impossible to make a very funny film and still deal with matters of substance, and the best example to hand in this case is literally Waititi’s entire prior body of work. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), a genuine masterpiece, comes immediately to mind. But none of the craft and care baked into every element of that film, none of the pathos, is present here.
Without giving the game away, Love and Thunder eventually arrives at an emotional climax so mawkish, so obvious, so unearned, that it warps everything that has gone before it — and I mean everything, going back to Iron Man in 2008 and perhaps Journey into Mystery #83 in 1962 and maybe even the founding of Uppsala and the sack of Lindisfarne. It’s a truly terrible bit of writing and, what’s worse, on reflection, seems to have been a design goal that was set early on in the process, so it’s genuinely mystifying how, in execution, it feels so tacked on and lazy.
But it is cute. And it is funny. It just doesn’t work, which is the whole movie in a nutshell.
Thor: Love and Thunder will almost certainly rake in the big bucks, and the stans — Marvel, Taika, Hemsworth, or any combo thereof — will be out in droves for it, and if you like it, you like it, and that’s fine — there’s fun to be had with this one, for sure. But it feels like a lesser effort from all involved, all of whom have done much better work in the past, and we should hope that this offering is a temporary aberration and not the new normal.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Travis Johnson