‘Thor: Love and Thunder’ Review: A God’s Comic Twilight
Every so often in “Thor: Love and Thunder”, the 92nd Marvel movie to hit theaters this year (OK, the third), the studio machinery stops, and the image opens a portal to another dimension: star Chris Hemsworth, embraces self-parody in wholesale, a pair of giant screaming goats gallop along a rainbow road and Russell Crowe scurries around in a flirtatious skirt and Shirley Temple curls. When the film briefly slips into a parallel realm of play and enjoyment, you can feel that director Taika Waititi is doing well – and it’s contagious.
This is the fourth “Thor” film in 11 years and the second that Waititi has directed, after “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017). That movie was everywhere, but it was funny (enough) and had a lightness that turned out to be liberating for the series and Hemsworth. “Love and Thunder” is stupider than some of its predecessors, and thinner. A lot happens on crowded Marvel Studios shows. But because the series has rejected many of its earlier components – Shakespeare’s pretensions, mixed relatives and, crucially, Thor’s godly greatness – the new film plays more or less like a rescue mission with jokes, tears and smackdowns.
It starts with a doughy, almost unrecognizable Christian Bale, who, after being released from his DC Dark Knight missions, has signed up for Marvel as a villain with the spoiler name Gorr the God Butcher. Waititi quickly outlines Gorr’s background, giving it a tragic cast. By believing that he is betrayed by the god he once worshiped, Gorr is obligated to destroy other deities. It is potentially rich narrative terrain, especially given Thor’s stature and Marvel’s role as a modern mythmaker. But while Bale takes the role by the throat, as is his habit, and invests the character with friction intensity, Gorr turns out to be disappointingly dull.
For the most part, Gorr Thor gives a second chance to play the hero, something Hemsworth does with a fantastic deadpan and considerable agility. He’s always been fun to watch in the role, and not just because, as the slavery camera work likes to remind you, he looks really good with or without clothes. Hemsworth knows how to move, which is surprising given his muscular bulk, and is comfortable with his beauty. He has also learned how to distribute – and puncture – Thor’s innate pomposity, although when the last credits rolled into “Ragnarok”, arrogance had become a shtick. Thor is still a god, but he is also now a big tough guy.
For that purpose, Thor enters the midfield on a battlefield that is washed in a gray-red light, and refurbishes and poses and shows the boat together with characters from Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”. With the Guardians (Chris Pratt, the raccoon expressed by Bradley Cooper, etc.) as backup, Thor defeats the enemy with his usual hyperbole – he hits the ground, stretches to the sky, turns his hair – and a new hammer the size of a backhoe. He also destroys a temple that looks straight from a gift shop at the airport. This synergistic foreplay is not pretty, nor is it the rest of the film, but it does announce Waititis’ sensitivity, his disrespect and taste for kitsch.
From the very beginning, the “Thor” series has pushed and pulled to its title character, in turn anchored and undermined his supernatural identity, and raised him up only to make him crash to the ground again. The films have, almost by mistake, emphasized Thor’s weaknesses: he has father problems, sibling rivalry and romantic problems. God, they are just like us! Thor’s love life humanized him for better or worse, although his romance with an astrophysicist – Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster – served best as a ballast for human action. Jane was not interesting, despite Portman’s feverish smile, but after watching the last film, she’s back.
Why the extra number? Well, mostly because Waititi, who wrote the script for Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, does not seem to know what else he can do with Thor. By the end of “Ragnarok”, the character had repeatedly been cut down to size. He had quarreled with his brother and the funniest film (Tom Hiddleston as Loki). His long hair was cut off and his kingdom destroyed, and gone were also the heavyweights who had helped fill the gaps in history with their magnetism and personality. Anthony Hopkins (Thor’s father) passed away, as did Cate Blanchett (sister). Thor fought, loved and lost, and then he put on the pounds and went to hang out with the Avengers.
“Love and Thunder” increases the “Thor” series again with the usual jokes and beats, programmatic timed outbursts, brand-expanding details, a kidnapping and a welcome if underused Tessa Thompson. Her Valkyrie, unfortunately, gets less screen time than Jane, who has given a crisis in addition to special powers, a blonde blowout and muscles that inflate and deflate like party balloons. Jane’s new talents do not do much for history and are read as a dutiful nod to women’s empowerment (thank you). Portman does what she can, but she is so tightly wounded that she never synchronizes with the loose rhythms as Thompson and Hemsworth do.
Waititis’ playfulness lends itself to “Love and Thunder”, but the insistence on Thor’s likeness, his decency and dude-ness, has become a creative dead end. The film has its attractions, especially Hemsworth, Thompson and Crowe, whose Zeus vampires through a sequence with a butt-naked Thor and fainting subjects. It is a wonderful and cheerful vulgar interlude, and critically reminds you of the sheer supremacy of these beings who – with their vanities, atrocities, deeds, mysteries and powers – turn reality into myths and stories into dreams. As movie stars, gods are not like us, which of course is why we invented them.
Thor: Love and thunder
Rated PG-13 for superhero violence. Playing time: 2 hours 5 minutes. At the cinema.