When it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I seem to be firmly ensconced in late-stage Stockholm syndrome. At this point, any installment in the nearly two-decade-old franchise that runs less than 160 minutes and offers the merest touch of levity or style strikes me as a Rashomon-grade masterpiece. The recent Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness didn’t abide by all my Marvel rules—it ran too long, and the Scarlet Witch–centered subplot idealized the purity and nobility of suburban motherhood to a degree I found both retrograde and cloying. Still, that film ultimately won my grudging esteem, thanks to a last act packed with the macabre plot twists and funny/gross sight gags that are the specialty of former horror director Sam Raimi.
With Thor: Love and Thunder, we get another mostly lighthearted romp through the post-Avengers life of a former world-saver, this time created not by a horror-comedy veteran but by a newly arrived star in that genre (or some 21st-century version of it). Love and Thunder was directed and co-written by the New Zealand–born comedian and filmmaker Taika Waititi, who in the past few years has gone from up-and-coming international auteur—in 2019 he directed, wrote, and co-starred in the Holocaust-themed comedy/drama Jojo Rabbit, winning an Oscar for best adapted screenplay—to ubiquitous presence on the Disney-Marvel scene. He has worked both in front of and behind the camera on overlapping film and TV projects (What We Do in the Shadows, The Mandalorian, Our Flag Means Death, Reservation Dogs), taking breaks to look handsome in vibrantly hued ’fits on red carpets. He has also played or voiced several Star Wars and Marvel and Pixar characters, often in projects he’s directing; in Love and Thunder he returns to the role of Korg, an alien being made of piled-up rocks who is the loyal, chatty sidekick to Chris Hemsworth’s Thor.
When Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi’s first big-budget studio film, landed in theaters back in 2017, it was widely hailed as a much-needed update to the lumbering style of the typical comic-book blockbuster. By contrast, Ragnarok felt fleetfooted and playful, a candy-colored space opera with campishly glam production and costume design and a script, co-written by Waititi, that reveled in the Saturday-afternoon-serial silliness of the comic-book genre while fully understanding its pleasures. Returning to Thor world five years later, not as a rising writer-director making his first big-budget film, but as an established Disney-Marvel company man, is a tall order for a onetime wunderkind.
Has Waititi, as I heard one pair of critics grumbling on the way out of Thor: Love and Thunder, worn out his welcome, spread himself across too many projects, or otherwise done harm to a wildly promising career via overexposure and overcommitment to big commercial projects? As a critic who herself has had limited exposure to many of the properties this polymathic creator works on, based solely on the viewing of this movie, I say no. Given the formulaic nature of the Marvel Studios house style, Waititi has crafted a successful if less than world-shaking sequel to his memorable Marvel debut. Thor: Love and Thunder made me laugh aloud three or four times, a good number by MCU standards, even if not every joke tossed out by the gag-dense script lands. It features a villain, Christian Bale’s gloriously named Gorr the God Butcher, with more motivation and backstory than your average space meanie. It offers a pleasing visual alternative to the usual orange-and-teal-flecked murk of the superhero blockbuster. And it lasts, praise Gorr the God Butcher, less than two mostly amusing hours. For a superhero movie in the already plenty ponderous summer of 2022, that’s going to have to suffice.
Thor: Love and Thunder rejoins the story of Thor Odinson, Asgardian space god turned affable super-doofus, some time after he has finished resettling his fellow Asgardians in an Earth colony after their planet was destroyed in the long-prophesied Armageddon known as “Ragnarok.” With the new Asgardian king, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), in charge of the survivors’ peaceful Earthly settlement, Thor has embarked on a midlife crisis, meditating in a space cave while he ponders his true purpose. A fellow superhero, Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, stops by to pick Thor up for some freelance alien slaying before advising the god of thunder that what he needs is to find someone to love. It’s been years, after all, since Thor drifted away from his sweetheart, the brilliant astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).
This early chapter, with its attempt to graft an appearance from the Guardians of the Galaxy crew onto the world of freestanding Thor movies, is thankfully brief. Intercut with Thor’s struggle to find the color of his parachute are scenes with the present-day Jane, now a world-famous scientist who, unbeknownst to all but her best friend (Kat Dennings), is dying of cancer. Hoping that Asgardian medicine may hold some answers—or possibly summoned by the magic of Mjölnir, Thor’s once all-powerful, now-shattered hammer of destiny—Jane hies herself to the colony of New Asgard in Norway. With what turns out to be fortunate timing, her arrival coincides with that of Bale’s aforementioned god butcher. In a pre-credits sequence, we learned this villain’s backstory: Once the pious resident of a planet with an especially selfish and fickle god who ignored his prayers while his daughter died of exposure, he has made it his mission to destroy all the universe’s deities using a super-weapon called the Necrosword (impressively described on one Marvel fan page as a “blade formed from living abyss”).
Maybe it’s just the fantasy appeal of a cosmic god-slaughtering rampage in a moment when religious fundamentalism is taking hold worldwide, but Bale’s God Butcher, a pale, bald, slithering sort whose visual and vocal design owe more than the tip of a hat to the Harry Potter universe’s Voldemort, is one of the better Marvel villains to come along in a while. (Compare the specificity of his motive, for example, to the curious abstractness of the planet-sized bad guys in last year’s lifeless Eternals.) And the notion of a deity-specific killing spree allows for an extended comic interlude in Omnipotence City, the center for an interstellar council of divine beings that range from lyre-strumming angels to a grumpy god who’s just a head balanced on a pair of feet. Russell Crowe plays Zeus as a vain, self-impressed, and none-too-sharp mob boss—a funny turn, though placing an ancient Greek god at the top of the supreme-being hierarchy seems curiously Eurocentric for a movie that gestures toward inclusivity.
More disappointingly, far too little use is made of the potential star power of Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, the Asgardian warrior-turned-civic-leader-turned-warrior-again. A well-done early montage hints at what a Type A, on-the-job king Val was during her brief tenure in charge of New Asgard: We see her cutting ribbons, resolving disputes, and coolly staving off disasters. But as soon as she takes off with Thor in an airborne Viking ship drawn by two alien goats (don’t ask) to find and kill the God Butcher, she is reduced to waiting on the ship, doing shots, and telling stories, while Thor, his rockpile buddy, and their female super-companion—we’ll get to her in just a minute—see the majority of the action. Based on the response in the screening I saw, Val is a huge fan favorite, and Thompson’s wattage as a screen presence is all but blinding. Taking her leave of one of Zeus’ comely attendants in Omnipotence City, Val gallantly kisses the young woman’s hand, and it may be the most erotic moment yet to be seen in a Marvel movie. (Val’s briefly acknowledged lesbian past and Korg’s confessed crush on a fellow pile-of-rocks dude are this movie’s scant gestures at queer inclusivity, but that hand kiss makes up for a lot.)
And then there’s Jane, Portman’s character, who (spoiler alert, maybe, if you haven’t seen the trailer) transforms just short of the midway point into a superheroine named the Mighty Thor, who is basically … Thor, but a woman? With inexplicably blonder and longer hair than her alter-ego scientist self and the ability to telekinetically reassemble Thor’s shattered hammer? The metaphysics of this transformation aren’t especially well explained, nor is the logic by which Jane’s empowering experiences in the realm of gods and superheroes somehow drain strength and energy from her dying-of-cancer-on-Earth self. And given how skimpy the Marvel universe has been on superheroines, there’s something disheartening about the Mighty Thor being little more than a mortal woman in her ex-boyfriend’s super-suit. Still, Portman, leaning into the comedy of her character’s situation rather than the pathos, makes an agreeable proxy for the audience, an ordinary Jane caught up in grand cosmological battles before she’s had the chance to so much as think up a cool catchphrase.
Thor: Love and Thunder marks the first time an MCU hero has ever gotten a fourth freestanding film to himself—an odd distinction for Thor, perhaps the least introspective of the whole Avengers class. If this particular franchise’s material feels at times a bit thin to be spun out even to two hours, it may be simply that three solo movies per Avenger is more than enough. But this weekend, if the lure of an air-conditioned summer blockbuster summons you like a sacred Asgardian hammer, you could do worse than this Easter egg–colored, classic rock–scored frolic.