After two years it’s safe to say that Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has left many people disappointed. Be it the Disney+ offerings (with many feeling The Falcon and the Winter Soldier too closely upheld the corporate narrative, What If…? was inessential, or Hawkeye and Moon Knight were too bland) or the features (Black Widow was ill-timed and underwhelming, Shiang Chi was formulaic and forgettable, both No Way Home and Multiverse of Madness were too dependent on dimension-hopping gobbledygook, and with the majority who just plain dislike Eternals) chances are that every person has found at least one recent Marvel property which failed to live up to their expectations.
On one hand, this is entirely understandable as the latter chapters of the Infinity Saga—the Captain America films, Black Panther, the first Guardians movie, Thor: Ragnarok of course, and the spectacle of Infinity War/Endgame marked an unprecedented achievement in cinema history. On the other, with each new property interested in establishing a personality beyond being another step on a single ascent, it’s unfair to require every new addition to achieve the same unfathomable heights it took ten years and twenty films to reach. Demanding that this new crop of characters, performers, and filmmakers surpass the previous is like expecting a new relationship to be the sum total and greater than every previous one. Similar to Disney’s other geek-obsession franchise, Star Wars, the MCU is drawing increased ire not because the individual films or shows are bad but because those films and shows don’t exactly match fan expectations.
Ironically, where some people criticized Ragnarok for being too light and too much of a straight-ahead comedy, some viewers thus far seem critical that Thor: Love and Thunder isn’t humorous enough. This misconception likely comes from both marketing, with Love and Thunder‘s trailers highlighting the humorous and intriguing, and pedigree as Taika Waititi returns to the helm. While Waititi’s goofy and whimsical humor is present, Love and Thunder is less like the filmmaker’s straight-up comedies such as Ragnarok or What We Do in the Shadows and more in-line with his relatively thoughtful films Jojo Rabbit and Hunt for the Wilderpeople which use humor to balance loss and heartbreak. As a result, Love and Thunder swings between highs and lows, absurd and real, love and death, so quickly that while it may never pause long enough to probe for deeper implications, it never once drags or lulls. It’s an overstuffed film presented at breakneck speed and, like its titular character(s), wears its happy face for so long that the world is already dark before the façade fades. Don’t get me wrong, Love and Thunder is bonkers. It’s funny, colorful, packed with so much of everything, but it isn’t the constantly giddy adventure Ragnarok is, and doesn’t have to be.
The largest contribution to the weightier tone of Love and Thunder comes from the return of Natalie Portman as Dr. Jane Foster and Christian Bale as Gorr the God Butcher. Having recently read Jason Aaron’s God of Thunder Vols 1 & 2, I had an idea of the character, yet Bale’s intense, theatrical, at times overdramatic performance brings a greater level of emotion to the character than his comic book counterpart. His goal remains the same but he’s less a butcher and more a saboteur. Portman meanwhile, in a feat often done by Bale, offers a contrast of strength and degeneration through sheer physicality. The actress’s duel portrayal of Jane Foster at her most helpless and Mighty Thor at her… well… mightiest is aided by an outstanding visual effect that sees the normal petite actress stand as tall and broad as her Asgardian ex. Of course the returning performers, Chris Hemsworth, who basically knows this character as well as he knows himself, Tessa Thompson, all of the Guardians, and Waititi himself remain in fine form but it’s these two new additions, Gorr and Mighty Thor, who form the film’s narrative and thematic core.
On the surface, Love and Thunder is about choosing to open oneself up after heartbreak, especially when knowing that whatever comes next could end just as painfully. Much of the film’s humor comes from Thor dealing with his new weapon Stormbreaker’s jealousy of his old weapon Mjolnir, its new bond with Mighty Thor, and the unsettled feelings of their wielders for each other. These exchanges, like most of the film’s early going, contain the same awkward, oblivious humor that filled Ragnarok. Beyond the surface, however, is Gorr’s story of disillusionment over a previously pious existence, a theme that comes closest to realization during a meeting of the gods (highlighted by the god of dumplings) and when Jane, Valkyrie, and others are confronted with how little their gods have done for them. If anything, it’s disappointing that the film, like the comics, doesn’t thoroughly examine the possibility of a godless universe or the emptiness of praying for a divine reward that never comes. However, Love and Thunder isn’t meant to be an examination of divinity, thus demanding that a comic book movie about a pair of superhero exes reuniting address issues of epistemology and evidentialism is as pointless as combating rampant gun violence with “thoughts and prayers.” Perhaps there would be fewer thoughts and prayers if every god were dead.
Going back to the surface, Love and Thunder is the same mixed bag of visual effects as any other MCU film. Individual moments such as Viking boats superimposed over a real location can look fake, but don’t generally break verisimilitude. The decision to drape Thor’s adventures in rock-fueled camp, this time replacing Led Zeppelin glam rock with Guns-N-Roses hair metal, remains one of the best any filmmaker has yet brought to the MCU. One third act battle sequence between Valkyrie, Korg, the Thors, and Gorr (yup, those are the names) uses shadows, a minimal color palette, and limited space to create one of the absolute best visual set pieces in franchise history, rivaling even the Avengers Assemble sequence in Endgame with roughly 1% of the scope. In comparison to past films, there are times when the lack of physical sets makes Love and Thunder feel small. This may be a result of technology, through Disney’s Volume VFX environment, but it’s arguable that this reduction is a conscious decision by the filmmakers to make the divine more mundane. These are, after all, characters for whom gods are literal neighbors, and the center of the universe is just a short jaunt via rainbow bridge on a goat-drawn longship. Just because we as normal humans would be awed by something as meager as a giant rock man doesn’t mean the God of Thunder should be dumbstruck by a sunset, or even the site of Zeus and the Zuesettes. On the contrary, the film goes out of its way to show gods are fallible at best and indifferent at worst, so making the infinite finite, is entirely fitting.
In some ways, Love and Thunder is the best and worst of the MCU cranked up to eleven: silly humor, quippy characters, crazy action scenes, under-developed themes, sky beams, cameos, constant movement, little time to linger, a villain with a good point but bad methods, and, of course, “forced wokeism” (Lady superheroes! A gay relationship! Quick, retreat to a safe space. Like Twitter, or Florida). Even Hemsworth’s physique borders on cartoonish. Those who wish to nitpick over what the film could be if it were completely different, or demand that every new MCU movie top the achievement of every previous MCU movie, will be disappointed. However, those who are willing to give each new film a chance to develop its own personality, its own narrative and theme, will find much to love about Marvel’s first fourth solo film. As with entering a new relationship, one shouldn’t let longing for a former detract from what is offered by the current. After all, Love and Thunder tells us, just because you lost something doesn’t mean you should close yourself off from everything.
Although Love and Thunder may never hit the absurdist or comedic heights of Ragnarok, it reaches far greater emotional depths than a silly little tale of the space Viking ever should. It’s likely due to personal experience but Foster’s arc in particular, the method by which she transforms from human to god, had me blinking away tears. Love and Thunder didn’t make me laugh as much as Ragnarok, but Ragnarok definitely didn’t make me cry as much as Love and Thunder. It won’t change the course of the MCU forever, but it is definitely another classic Thor adventure, and should be judged as such.