The Marvel Cinematic Universe is slowly belonging to a new generation, while not losing sight of those who’d put its unique cinematic trend on the map. Filmmakers, actors, and certainly the audiences who’ll continue to head out in droves to keep up to date. Like it was a never-ending soap opera, which is the case most of the time. Even the pandemic delay could not completely stifle that continuous demand. The kind now catching on to those youngsters sleeping in parents’ arms back in the days of 2008’s Iron Man.
That could be the most impressive takeaway from my experience with Thor: Love and Thunder, the inevitable fourquel placing Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) back in familiar geekdom territory and embracing the wayward passage of time like a cozy mug of tea. It might not always be kind, or flavorful. And at times, the story in play says nothing for consistency, wandering aimlessly through an often-listless sea. Though in the well-known tradition of the comic franchise’s middling points, its weight is still carried, propelled even by its destiny as a dependable utility player, to keep everything else in check while awaiting the next welcome surprise.
Not that Waititi and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (Unpregnant) aren’t pulling rabbits out of their hats over the two hours they spend reacquainting with the famed Norse god. In the span of time post-Endgame, Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) has kept himself busy. He dropped the dad bod weight, built an alliance with the Guardians of the Galaxy (in a crossover echoing a glorified sitcom guest shot), and undertaken heightened forms of meditation to couple his training regimen. But that inner peace does not last long when a new enemy enacts revenge in the name of familial grief.
Whereas Thor encountered severe daddy issues, brother issues, and trouble in his relationship with astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the jaded Gorr (Christian Bale) faced mere familial grief. Praying for salvation from any deity who’ll listen, but eventually earning nothing in return. His immediate instinct is to take out his sorrow on all gods. And that includes Thor, who’s lured into the crossfires with past allies Korg (voiced by Waititi) and Valkyrie (a criminally underused Tessa Thompson). To his stunning surprise, Jane reappears as well, for reasons that involve her manifesting the once-broken hammer Mjolnir. And in turn, incites a bevy of awkwardness for a man and his replacement tool.
That might just be the beginning of the wild emotional swings Waititi has scripted. He only had minimal involvement with the written word on Ragnarok, one could recognize the restraints laid upon him. His excitement is no less infectious on Love and Thunder, further growing the character’s lore, and throwing in his typical quirks. The variety borders on self-aware spontaneity, where a blueprint exists to tamp down otherworldly motivation. Only to have the script periodically overlooked, exchanged for naive, unwarranted freedom to run amok in grandiose settings. Often with homey set pieces at the hands of production designer Nigel Phelps (World War Z), such as the previously quiet fishing hub New Asgard now as touristy as the Orlando-Kissimmee area, or the black and white shadow realm where Gorr schemes with an eerie Maleficent-esque glow. Unashamedly hammy side characters, including Zeus (Russell Crowe), and a pair of meme-worthy screaming goats used as chariots. And a soundtrack infusing Michael Giacchino’s (Jurassic World Dominion) invisible spin on Guitar Hero, with a shoehorned Guns ‘n’ Roses mixtape.
Such an oft-disjointed mindset could foretell doom with an incompetent director. Waititi is more than wont to simply roll with those punches, and toy with those swings if only to stun the viewer. And, in small doses, terrify them. It’s all with an unrefined, sprinted touch, however going from one crammed story element to the next, granting little breathing room in its wake. In its first hour alone, we go from Thor’s seeking transcendence to Jane looking for closure in a realm of immortality. Then from butting heads with Gorr while exuding a vibe not unlike the baddies in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Oliver, to encountering an old, vicarious legend like Zeus to swipe his power for leverage.
Try as he might to deny it, Waititi is pulling his own story apart to focus on broadening his backstory. It’s a mess he can’t clean up, translating a loose, freeform script of his concoction for the screen. One whose sense of clarity stands on uneven ground after the initial buzz of excitement wears off, left to wonder where the journey’s headed. There’s a trifle of redeeming quality involved when the focus does pivot toward filling in myriad blanks untouched since Phase Three. Specifically with Jane and Thor’s romance, where she had been, where it went all rocky. That’s Waititi’s core directive, to reconstruct prior context, and create inklings of vulnerability, all on his terms.
Does it satisfy? Not completely. Entertain? To a troubling fault. It’s a middling issue that fails to bubble to the surface when rewriting the standard rulebook of a hero’s journey. Not that Hemsworth is rattled by this skittish material, channeling an almost Stallone-esque stance to reignite the character’s exuberant spirit. When paired with Portman once more, herself looking very game returning to the action realm, he learns the substance of mortality, that lingering parameter of borrowed time. And when challenged by a lithe Bale in fully transformative makeup, he is forced to rediscover that instinct to fight. He does so, seriously and with a finer empathic grip.
Eventually, the cons outweigh the pros with this franchise file manager. Yes, Bale delivers quite possibly one of the more terrifying MCU villain turn in recent memory. Crowe continually relishes every opportunity to go full-on comic relief. Their efforts, as with the other leads, are pure gold, immune to a fault. And yet, Waititi’s inability to balance aspiration with control does sour the experience overall, his overactive imagination derailing its momentum by the midway mark. Thor: Love and Thunder works some wonders with the cards it is dealt, keeping the character and his share of the universe bouncy, pleasant, and a tad more human while conquering solid feelings of insecurity. If only that very same triumph could carry over to its stifled finish. (C; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
Thor: Love and Thunder opens in theaters July 8; rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, some suggestive material and partial nudity; 119 minutes.