I won’t waste your time comparing Thor: Ragnarok to the latest tale of the God of Thunder, Thor: Love and Thunder, because to do so would be to imply that Thor and those around him haven’t been through a great many changes between those two films. For one thing, Thor is kinda, sorta responsible for half the universe getting dusted by not killing Thanos outright (in Avengers: Infinity War) and subsequently, he was forced to internalize (and eat and drink) his guilt and depression (in Avengers: Endgame). So the Thor of Love and Thunder is a God in search of his purpose in the cosmos. And like many great quests, the value is within the journey, not in reaching the destination. Or at least that’s how it should be.
But returning director and co-writer (along with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson) Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) seems more intent on two things that have nothing to do with the journey per se. He wants to capitalize on things that worked in Ragnarok (namely the humor) while weaving in characters (some from the first two Thor films) that he hasn’t actually been able to play with, especially Natalie Portman’s brilliant scientist Jane Foster, who also happens to be Thor’s former flame.
The stage for something unique is established immediately with the appearance of a character named Gorr, played with a great deal of sympathy and pathos by Christian Bale. Gorr is one of only a few survivors of a dying planet who still believes in gods, and he prays hard to these gods to save the life of his nearly dead daughter. But when he stumbles upon his god, the god laughs at his prayers and wonders why Gorr would ever think he could be bothered by a nobody like him. At this moment, something called the Necrosword appears to Gorr, and it gives him the ability to kill this god swiftly, but not before his daughter dies, giving him a legitimate beef with all gods, whom he determines must die, making him the God Butcher. It’s a stunning and terrifying change in which all the color is drained from Bale’s body and anything around him (making small portions of the film go full-on arthouse black-and-white at times and making him ghostly, like a specter of death itself). If the rest of Love and Thunder were murky, stinky swamp water, Bale’s performance as Gorr would still be enough of a reason to see it.
But even Bale’s work is undercut by a screenplay that doesn’t allow him to be as terrifying as he can be. If he’s going to be labeled the God Butcher, let’s watch him butcher some familiar gods. We’ve just been introduced to a slew of Egyptian gods in the Disney+ Moon Knight series; let him have a crack at a couple of them? Love and Thunder also shows us a ton of gods from around the universe (some of which should be familiar), but outside of Zeus (an amusing but cartoonish turn by Russell Crowe) and maybe a couple others, we don’t really get to know any of them even for a second, let alone enough for us to care about whether they live or die. Also, the film is never quite clear on why the universe would be a worse place without gods. It’s kind of a significant point, and it’s never addressed. So instead of a few extra scenes of Gorr using his newfound blade to take out a few gods, he kidnaps a bunch of kids from New Asgard (now run by Tessa Thompson’s King Valkyrie), as bait to bring Thor and any other Asgardian challengers to his realm to destroy them.
So that’s the part of Thor: Love and Thunder that mostly works. Less compelling elements include extended cameos by the Guardians of the Galaxy, whom Thor left earth with after Endgame and has been saving worlds with ever since. Apparently, Thor has been dominating the Guardians, so when he finally bids them farewell, they’re happy to be rid of him. But during his time with the team, he’s learned to value friendship and even love in his quest to find inner peace and identity. So when he gets word that earth’s New Asgard location is in trouble, he rushes back, only to be greeted by Jane as The Mighty Thor, wielding none other than the pieced-together pieces of Thor’s old hammer Mjolnir.
For a great deal of the film, Jane and Thor comparing their versions of why they broke up is mildly cute, as is his jealousy that Mjolnir doesn’t obey him any longer (his new and improved Stormbreaker axe seems jealous of his pining for Mjolnir). Again, it’s good for a couple of laughs, but each of these running gags runs on for far too long, and at a certain point a dread sets in when you realize things aren’t going to get much deeper than childish jokes. Even Thor’s relationship with his sidekick Korg (voice by Waititi) doesn’t alter an iota, and the cumulative effect of one missed opportunity after another goes from being frustrating to downright disappointing.
You’ve got Portman, one of the finest actors of her generation, and you can’t give her and Hemsworth (who has grown tremendously as an actor since they last worked together in Thor: The Dark World) something more substantial to do than make googly eyes at each other? By the time the filmmakers even attempt to drive home a message in the film’s final battle, it’s far too late. And if all they can come up with as the moral of the story is “Love is all You Need,” I have a Beatles song from 55 years ago I’d like you to hear. I never thought I’d believe that a story about the return of Jane Foster would get in the way of anything else, but here we are.
In theory, Waititi is the one to blame for these shortcomings, even after getting the humor/drama balance so right in Ragnarok. But in his endless quest to make work fun for himself and his actors, he forgot to stay the course. In many ways, the Gorr storyline feels like an entirely different movie, and the other actors are understandably better in Bale’s presence. He saves the film from being a mess from top to bottom. So I’m still recommending the film for diehards, but it’s severely lacking the appeal of the previous film in terms of relatability and finesse. This one feels like a bunch of kids came up with superhero story ideas, and Waititi went along for the ride—it sounds like a cool idea, but the reality is messy and emotionally unconvincing.
The film begins playing theatrically on Thursday, July 7.
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