This article contains spoilers for Thor: Love and Thunder.
Back in my days as a metal and hard rock journalist, and when dinosaurs ruled the earth, a lot of bands would trot out a variation of this mantra when they had a new album on the horizon: “The heavier parts are really heavy, and the melodic parts are much more melodic.”
That was an immediate red flag, of course. It meant that the band was still allowed to write and record some heavy material, but the record label was also pressuring them to include more power ballads and radio-friendly tunes in order to sell more albums (if you remember those). For some reason I am reminded of this as I think about Thor: Love and Thunder, which goes to similar extremes in the sense that part of the movie is heavy and dark while the rest is weightless and evanescent to the point of meaninglessness.
Love and Thunder is possibly the least effective Marvel Studios film since, well, Thor: The Dark World. I don’t say those words lightly either. Anyone who has read my work knows that I am a pretty dedicated MCU fanboy as well as a defender of the franchise against its naysayers. But there was no describing the empty feeling I had walking out of the God of Thunder’s fourth standalone adventure.
To be fair, the movie isn’t by any means absolutely horrible; strong performances from the reliable Christian Bale as Gorr and a re-energized Natalie Portman, as well as a handful of entertaining or striking sequences, make it a moderately entertaining effort. Yet for probably two-thirds of its running time, it feels as pointless as it is plotless. The comedy bits are either rehashed from Thor: Ragnarok or linger longer than they should, or both. And Thor himself, while still handled skillfully by a comfortable and confident Chris Hemsworth, feels less like an Avenger and more like a buffoon than ever before.
What happened? After all, isn’t the director and co-writer here, Taika Waititi, the same genius who rescued the big Norse deity from self-serious tedium with 2017’s colorful, zany, and cosmically weird Thor: Ragnarok? The answer is yes, and it’s a genuine mystery how the talented Waititi managed to drop the hammer with such a loud, unpleasant clang this time. But here we are.
A Tale of Two Movies
Thor: Ragnarok previously re-invented the title character, with Waititi correctly assessing that Hemsworth had largely untapped comedic skills that could make the character more accessible and human after what many criticized as the faux-Shakespearean pretensions of Thor and Thor: The Dark World (for the record, we still like 2011’s Thor, due to the movie’s willingness to embrace the character’s comic book origins, Hemsworth’s natural charm, and the stunning introduction of Tom Hiddleston as Loki).
Ragnarok also embraced the weirdness of the comics (particularly the visuals of Jack Kirby and the classic stories by Walt Simonson) in a much more pro-active way than before, while managing to find the right balance between the funnier, zanier aspects (like Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster) and the momentous story of Hela’s (Cate Blanchett) return, and the ultimate destruction of Asgard.
Thor: Love and Thunder never finds that sweet spot. Its two main storylines—Gorr the God Butcher’s (Christian Bale) mission to murder all the gods over the terrible death of his child, and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) dying from cancer even as she wields Mjolnir as the Mighty Thor—are taken directly from writer Jason Aaron’s now legendary run on the comics. But these stories both have a gravitas in the comics that’s missing here because they clash so awkwardly with the comedy this time out.
A lot of Love and Thunder feels like Waititi is just indulging himself and his cast. A large chunk of the film rambles from one gag or skit to the next, punctuated jarringly with scenes of Gorr on his path of vengeance. Bale is fantastic. He might be one of the MCU’s best villains, in fact, but he’s in a different movie. Portman is quite good too, and perhaps is the most successful at walking the narrow tonal tightrope that the director strings up. Hemsworth, on the other hand, while still watchable and charismatic, edges dangerously close to being an outright clown in this film (same with Russell Crowe’s Zeus).
The bottom line is that this is two movies in one: a cosmic adventure dealing (however frivolously) with themes of love, grief, and personal trauma, and a wacky collection of sketches that end up lampooning themselves, draining the movie of urgency and, for much of the time, genuine emotion.
Where Does Thor Go from Here?
As much as I like Thor: Ragnarok, my favorite version of Thor is the one that shows up in Avengers Infinity War. That Thor is funny (I never get enough of him calling Rocket “rabbit”) and tragic (his “what more could I lose?” speech, also to Rocket, is my favorite Thor moment ever). The film finds a nice line between the funnier, kind of dopier side to him established in Ragnarok and the majesty of the character and his powers.
I’m less enamored of Fat Thor in Avengers: Endgame, although the character evolves over the course of the movie into something more profound while still being funny. Love and Thunder seems, in this viewer’s opinion, to do away with all that. The Thor in this movie is sillier, more lightweight, and somehow more inept. While there’s better chemistry at last between him and Portman, it’s undercut by the increased frivolity around them.
As talented as Waititi is—and kudos to him for making Ragnarok a full-blown homage to the beautiful weirdness of the Thor comics—he seems more interested this time around in having fun at Thor’s expense rather than with Thor, and that feeling permeates all aspects of Love and Thunder. This sort of reminds me of how Steven Soderbergh made a fun, witty, smart caper movie with his remake of Ocean’s Eleven, and then pissed it all away with two aimless sequels that served more as an excuse for him and his pals (George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, et al) to take a paid vacation.
That’s how Love and Thunder feels: aimless. It doesn’t connect to the wider MCU at all, except for the brief, wave-and-walk-off appearance of the Guardians of the Galaxy at the film’s outset, and it doesn’t move the ball forward much for either the God of Thunder or the universe around him.
If there is an unprecedented Thor 5—and we’ll find out soon enough whether the box office dictates that—it’s probably time for Waititi to step away and let a new filmmaker take over with a different vision: a Thor that keeps the good things Waititi brought out in the character and his star while reaffirming why Thor is one of the most powerful characters in the MCU and still a damn Avenger.
It won’t be easy, especially since the MCU as a whole right now seems a little adrift. Its bigger themes and narrative post-Endgame still have yet to come into full view. Perhaps the larger storyline of these next few phases will dictate where Thor goes from here as well, as a new team of Avengers will surely assemble and will no doubt need one of its remaining charter members to lead again.
The MCU needs a Thor who is up to that task, not one who FaceTimes in and out of a cage to goof around with kiddos, or who has to console his jealous battle axe. Keep Thor funny by all means, but let’s not turn him into a parody of himself. Look at Ragnarok and Infinity War for what those films did right. A decade ago, no one thought Thor would even get this far, but he can keep going.
Thor: Love and Thunder is in theaters now.