If Taika Waititi is in imminent danger of overexposure, he’s mitigated the coming backlash (thus far, anyway) by delivering one project after another that lives up to, or exceeds, the expectations of its intended audience. Thor: Love And Thunder revisits the cheeky, sentimental tone of the nearly universally beloved Thor: Ragnarok, and propels its eponymous hero into new adventures that bring full circle a journey that started with the very first, much-less-beloved Thor back in 2011.
Natalie Portman and (especially) Christian Bale contribute more than enough capital-A acting bona fides to lend deeper emotional dimensions to Waititi’s loose, occasionally too-cheerful but always visually adventuresome adaptation of Jason Aaron’s stint on the Mighty Thor comic, in which (among other things) Portman’s Jane Foster gains the hero’s powers. Meanwhile, Chris Hemsworth continues to refine his portrayal of the indefatigably confident, well-meaning himbo as he faces a post-Avengers: Endgame identity crisis and works through the residue of a number of past relationships.
Narrated like an irreverent epic poem by his dim-witted gladiator pal Korg (Waititi), Thor remains depressed after the events of the last Avengers, shedding his mead-filled belly to join the Guardians of the Galaxy on intergalactic distress calls, but largely going through the motions of playing a hero. When Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) encourages him to visit his few remaining loved ones in order to center himself, Thor and Korg travel to New Asgard, where Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) is fighting these days mostly against small-government bureaucracy—at least until Gorr the God Butcher (Bale), a grieving father turned would-be executioner of the multiverse’s deities, arrives to kidnap the town’s children.
The two of them race to stop Gorr, and in the heat of battle receive unexpected assistance from Jane, who harnessed the broken pieces of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, in order to become a superhero in her own right. But with New Asgard’s children in peril, Thor and his team decide to make an appeal for help to Zeus (Russell Crowe) and his callous, all-powerful counterparts. In the process, they discover a much bigger threat looming against the gods of all the known worlds, when they realize that Gorr seeks control of Thor’s rainbow bridge in order to connect with an even more powerful being that potentially holds the ability to grant his murderous wish.
While it’s a net positive that Marvel has loosened its stranglehold on the formulas and necessary components of its films, allowing for exactly the kinds of idiosyncrasies that resonate most strongly with audiences, Waititi working without limitations does not serve the film unambiguously well. In particular, the first hour or so—the plot grinding into motion—feels like a bit of a slog, precisely because the filmmaker’s cutesy, irreverent wit feels so labored while cushioning its necessary machinery. There’s a painful absence of “showing, not telling” throughout the whole movie, but maneuvering the characters into place while trying to be “fun” is a challenge that Waititi doesn’t quite surmount. (To wit, for a premiere-night audience seemingly primed to lap up everything Marvel served them, there was a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm during these set-up sequences in the screening that I attended.) The fact that during this time, Waititi plays “Welcome To The Jungle,” one of the most over-used musical cues in modern movie history, exemplifies its comparatively flaccid energy.
And yet, once Crowe shows up in “Omnipotent City” as Zeus—the god of gods—in a gilded palace occupied by deities for every conceivable species, culture, and cause (including, hilariously, bao buns), Love And Thunder finds its footing, and then some. Festooned in a comically oversized Greek accent and golden breastplate, and surrounded by comely “Zeusettes,” as they’re listed in the end credits, Crowe gives the role exactly as much buffoonish authority as it, and the film, needs. By contrast, Gorr becomes increasingly terrifying as the powers of his vengeance-fueled sword continue to poison his anguished soul. It’s that juxtaposition that rights the film’s balance of humor and drama swirling around Thor and Jane as they reconcile their past, explore their divergent presents, and decide if they can build a future together.
Bale is a harrowing, intensely rooted opposite to Crowe in terms of his performance, and he elevates and legitimizes what has become an understandable but tiresome impulse to make villains as sympathetic as their heroic counterparts. In fact, Gorr is easily the most interesting and sympathetic Marvel adversary since Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in Black Panther. That Bale seems to relish the opportunity to absolutely terrify his child captives in the role only makes Gorr more entertaining to watch and invest in.
Despite Sam Raimi’s many accomplishments with Doctor Strange And The Multiverse Of Madness—up to and including having Strange fight the film’s final battle using his decomposing corpse, draped in a cloak of shrieking souls—Waititi manages to outpace him with distinctive imagery that may disturb and upset some viewers expecting only Thor’s effervescent brawn. Notwithstanding the serpents and spider-like monsters that climb out of the shadows to do Gorr’s bidding, a pivotal fight takes place on a dusty, color-drained orb rendering everything black and white, and the villain’s repeated emergence and recession into darkness feels unsettling every time, especially with Bale’s eyes glowing a hollow, ominous amber.
Portman delivers the goods as “The Mighty Thor,” kicking ass alongside Hemsworth even if her inaptitude for catchphrases offers a solid running joke as she develops her heroic bona fides. Even back in 2011, the actress outclassed the role that she was given, but Waititi finally gives the character enough complexity to make Thor worthy of her, and uses the backbone of Aaron’s source material to juxtapose crowd-pleasing acts of toughness with the mortal’s irresistible humanity. Sadly, and perhaps as a necessary consequence of Jane’s return, Thompson’s previously mesmerizing Valkyrie gets shifted to an elevated sidekick role, so audiences may be left wanting her to participate more actively than she’s allowed—a problem highlighted by the script’s choice for that to be the character’s unfulfilled desire going into the movie (and only slightly resolved by the end).
Thankfully, Waititi stitches that use of “Welcome To The Jungle” into a larger musical theme involving Guns N’ Roses, as well as about the heroes in whose name many of us try to accomplish good things. But he and Hemsworth are so locked-in creatively—and by now the actor wields the character’s charm as effortlessly as his tree-trunk biceps—that they make just about every comic gamble pay off, down to a hilarious and yet surprisingly affecting bit about the “love triangle” that develops between him, his current weapon Stormbreaker, and Mjolnir after Jane reassembles its pieces for her own purposes.
After four installments, Thor franchise only continues to build interest from audiences when the studio inevitably makes more of these films, especially as—and directly because—Waititi takes advantage of the studio’s more recent laissez faire attitude towards its directors. But by the end, he vividly reminds audiences that his talent as a visualist and storyteller helped earn him and others that freedom. Even with Ragnarok looming large in this film’s rearview mirror, Waititi’s work here marks an important and exciting untethering of MCU films from their obligations to a larger mythology—even if this one almost certainly carries much significance for the future.
As a god and not a man in a suit or a science experiment gone wrong, Thor was the lynchpin testing whether audiences would accept Marvel’s ever-evolving internal “realities.” With the arrival of Love And Thunder, it seems fitting for him to be the one shepherding them into new cinematic realms as well.