What do you do when you’ve made multiple successful films in New Zealand, graduated to Hollywood blockbuster franchise installments while maintaining your idiosyncrasies and then won an Academy Award? In the case of Taika Waititi, the answer is to make another blockbuster where the idiosyncrasies are even more pronounced, to an extent that may amuse and annoy equal numbers of people. The result is Thor: Love and Thunder, almost certainly the silliest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to date.
That’s a tall order, considering the lunacy of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the size-shifting kids’ adventure tone of “Ant-Man,” not to mention Waititi’s own “Thor: Ragnarok.” But Waititi manages to scale new heights of bonkers with disgruntled axes, scornful gods and screaming goats, the last of which rather suggests popular culture eating and regurgitating itself, as the fodder of memes becomes the stuff of movies to become the fodder of memes.
Strangely, neither the premise or indeed the components of Thor: Love and Thunder sound that comedic on paper. We open on a stark, desolate wasteland through which Gorr (Christian Bale, “Le Mans ‘66”) carries his dying daughter. The last of their kind, desperate for water, their entire civilization was based on devotion to their god. Never meet your heroes or indeed your gods is a theme that recurs in the film, as Gorr’s encounter with his deity leads to mass disillusionment, and he thus becomes the God Butcher. From here we flip to Korg (Waititi, “Jojo Rabbit”) recounting the tale of Thor (Chris Hemsworth, “Extraction”) the Space Viking, which includes events from previous films as well as catching us up after “Avengers: Endgame.” The Guardians of the Galaxy make a brief appearance before setting off on their own adventure, leaving us with Thor, Korg and the goats that received as a reward for “assisting” an afflicted civilization. Other familiar faces then join the throng including Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, “Sorry to Bother You”) and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, “Annihilation”), now also known as the Mighty Thor. Cue much banter and awkwardness.
The tonal swerve in these early sequences persists throughout the film. While Thor: Love and Thunder is stuffed with jokes which demonstrate the fine comedic chops of the cast (especially Hemsworth), there are also serious undertones such as Gorr’s genocidal mission, kidnapped children and a cancer subplot. The drama and comedy are not always well-balanced which may put some viewers off, as the dramatic stakes lack weight in a similar way, though for a different reason, as they did in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”
Not that the comedy is not enjoyable, as many of the jokes land and the interplay between the characters is very engaging. This interplay is facilitated by Waititi allowing his actors space to breathe and develop their chemistry. Hemsworth is as earnest as ever, his big-heartedness and heartiness infusing his character with the thunderous (sorry) charm and charisma we have come to expect. Whether swinging his axe Stormbreaker in battle or flipping pancakes, his screen presence is never less than magnetic. There is also a prolonged exposure of Thor’s divine physique, his body presented as both a comedic and dramatic spectacle. Despite being slathered in digital rocks, Waititi’s Korg is as endearing as ever, one moment with him inducing a sudden panic. Portman displays both pain and resolve, demonstrating Jane’s development in ways that are ultimately uplifting. Thompson’s sardonicism and sarcasm add a scabrous edge to the central characters, from her eye-rolling as King of Asgard to her blistering action, especially during a scene where she effectively fights in her pajamas.
In terms of action, the action sequences are as enjoyable as ever. On the one hand, they are up to the usual standards of Marvel Studio’s second units, stunt performers and visual effects artists, but there are also some stylistic flourishes — the spectacle of muscular figures bounding in slow motion and crackling with energy is infused with Guns ’n’ Roses songs (at least four). There is also an interesting twist on the superhero premise of exceptional individuals, as power is shared to produce a rather unlikely army.
Where Marvel films often falter is in relation to their villains, with only a few such as Killmonger, Loki and Thanos proving memorable. Gorr is a pleasing addition to the MCU Rogues’ Gallery, given a complete and sympathetic arc over the course of the film that interweaves effectively with that of our heroes. Bale imbues the lean and almost gaunt figure of Gorr with a sense of pathos and menace, but also a malevolent sense of humor in moments that could otherwise have been too dark.
Speaking of dark, and perhaps ironically in a film so bright and colorful, the single most outstanding moment is monochromatic. It is striking to watch, as color literally drains from the figures on screen and a beautiful black and white sequence ensues. During this sequence, our heroes use their powers to illuminate their surroundings, providing light and also color, creating a rich visual palette that makes the subsequent battle against shadowy creatures all the more atmospheric.
Though these creative flourishes are pleasing, there are various underdeveloped aspects. LGBTQ+ representation is great, but the fleeting moments here can leave one asking if an openly gay superhero, central to the narrative, in a relationship, is too much to ask. A sequence in Omnipotence City includes many colorful figures, including Korg’s god, Ninny of the Nonny, as well as Zeus, played by Russell Crowe ( “Boy Erased”). Crowe gets to be funnier than usual, but it is unfortunate that he decided to use an accent that is probably meant to be Greek but causes him to sound more like Mario.
Viewers’ enjoyment of Thor: Love and Thunder will likely come down to whether Waititi’s humor works for them. The regular pausing of the narrative to tell jokes can be frustrating, and many of the jokes outstay their welcome. While at times the film plays as a romantic comedy, the romance is (heavy-handedly) emphasized rather than explored, which can make it feel perfunctory. Perhaps the film is too silly for its own good and might have been more effective if the dramatic stakes received more weight and the comedy was more disciplined. According to the end credits, Thor will return, but we would likely appreciate him being a bit more serious when he does.