There are many things about the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe entry, Thor: Love and Thunder, that made me feel justified in my declaration earlier this year that I was emotionally checked out of the franchise. After the horrid insult that was Eternals and the active punishment delivered by Multiverse of Madness, I was down to the last dregs of my affection for this long-running series, this newest film being noted as the midway point of the utterly rudderless Phase Four (with at least another decade’s worth of content in development beyond that).
I mean, at this point, what is there really to look forward to? I watched this film because I still love the character of Thor, and I enjoyed the more comedic direction Taika Waititi took the last installment, Ragnarok. And I’m still actively looking forward to the next Guardians of the Galaxy flick coming next year, again because I love the characters and the hilarious storytelling. But apart from that, do I even want to bother anymore?
The opening act of Love and Thunder did little to assuage my doubts. Don’t get me wrong, Waititi’s style is as good as ever, but there were a lot of structural problems that made it feel like one of the last hopes for quality in the MCU was going to get dragged down to the hellish depths the series has been in for a while now.
The film opens with the establishment of its villain, Gorr, played by Christian Bale. After a horrible tragedy and a near-death experience at the hands of the god his people worshipped unto their own destruction, Gorr is chosen by the Necrosword, a demon blade with the ability to kill immortals. He uses it to dispatch his deity, and declares that all gods will die by his hand for their arrogance and abuse.
I’m sorry, this is supposed to be the bad guy? So far I’m ready to subscribe to his newsletter. We should all be working towards a world without gods, especially in a universe where they’re real and they torture people for their own amusement. But this is a villain, so naturally we’re supposed to root against him, even though nearly everything he says makes absolute logical sense.
We then cut from this heavy moment to one of the film’s lesser running gags, rock man Korg (Waititi) narrating legends about Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to children around the galaxy, including in New Asgard on Earth. Thor is currently teamed up with my beloved Guardians (sans Zoe Saldaña; I’m guessing she was unavailable due to filming Avatar 2) going on various heroic missions, another sad nod to the current MCU formula, as everything has to be a crossover with the various individuals and teams. This too does not bode well for the proceedings, especially when Thor’s latest deed – saving an alien race while accidentally destroying their cities as collateral damage – results in him being gifted a pair of giant screaming goats.
Before we go further, let me just say this right now. I would rather watch the Minions yelling their gibberish into a megaphone on a 24-hour loop than hear one more goat scream. Whoever thought this should be a constantly referenced piece of comedy should be tried for crimes against humanity. And good news, everyone! We’ve got these horribly unfunny monstrosities for the rest of the film.
Anyway, Gorr’s threat comes to Earth, as New Asgard is attacked by the man dubbed the “God Butcher” and a cadre of shadow monsters. Thor answers the call, along with Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who was left in charge of the colony but who has also grown bored of her administrative duties away from battle. The fight is then joined by Thor’s ex-girlfriend, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, returning after being written out of Ragnarok and reduced to a voice over and archival footage in Endgame), who has assumed an identity as Mighty Thor after being able to reassemble the shattered remains of the hammer Mjolnir, much to Thor’s shock. Even worse, the entire fight was merely a distraction to kidnap the children of New Asgard, most notably Astrid, son of Heimdall, played by Kieron L. Dyer, who prefers to be called Axl after becoming a fan of Guns N’ Roses.
The rest of the first act plays out like a bad romantic comedy, filled with cringeworthy awkwardness between Thor and Jane, shoehorned flashbacks of their relationship, and some of the most hackneyed sexual euphemisms you could ever hear. Literally the only entertaining bit in this cliché parade is that Stormbreaker, the axe Thor created during Infinity War, behaves inconsistently with regard to its magical properties, and hovers judgingly along the fringes of several shots. The idea of having weapons act like they’re jealous rebound flings is a fun subversion, and the first true hint that this project is salvageable.
Once the main quartet comes up with something resembling a plan to save the children, however, things start to improve. When the adventure actually gets going, it feels like a Thor movie again, and that’s not a dig at the comedy elements. I absolutely loved Ragnarok, and feel it’s the best of the bunch, in large part because of Waititi’s style of humor. But in that movie, the comedy served the overall story, and made for a different angle to still keep us engaged with the core matters at hand. For the first half hour of this movie, they’re just jokes, and bad ones at that. When things get going properly, however, we start to right the ship, with the comedy complementing the story rather than substituting for it. That’s the important distinction.
When that first hurdle is cleared, everything gets better. Not only are there true stakes to the plot, but there are clever explorations of the overriding themes. No better is this demonstrated than at a meeting of gods from mythologies across the universe, led by Zeus himself, played by Russell Crowe. Now, there were plenty of spots where this could have fallen flat as well, particularly the fact that Crowe’s affected Greek accent is even worse than his singing voice. But you can tell he’s leaning into it a bit, allowing for a small amount of absurdity in the grand scale of the moment. It’s honestly way funnier than him flicking Thor’s clothes off and having the entire court faint at the sight of Hemsworth ass and dick. More importantly, the scene lets us ponder the methods behind the actions of someone like Thor, forcing him to consider the consequences of his derring-do. He wants to raise an army – or at minimum borrow Zeus’ thunderbolt – to stop Gorr from killing gods, but Thor himself is willing to kill gods to make it happen. This eventually leads to perhaps the first time in recorded history where the trope of the villain saying, “We’re not so different” might actually be true.
Gorr himself becomes another high point after a while. He is shown to be a thoughtful person and in believable conflict with himself, weighing what he feels must be done for the sake of justice with the moral degradation that comes with the execution. He’s also effectively creepy as a menace to the Asgardian children, presenting an actual threat. This is even more impressive given that Christian Bale’s physique is nowhere near that of Chris Hemsworth’s, so we know that when the climax finally arrives, it won’t just be another same-vs-same Marvel fight. There will have to be some external force or degree of strategy employed to neutralize him. What started out looking like a complete throwaway – not to mention a heavy-handed, hypocritical one – turns out to be the best MCU villain this side of Killmonger.
When Thor and Jane are given actual moments of humanity to deal with their feelings, it becomes so much more natural. Instead of rom-com tropes and sad montages, we eventually get to treat these people as actual people with valid motivations, even if they’re not compatible with one another. There are brief moments of emotional maturity that serve to wring actual pathos out of Jane’s situation in particular, to the point where I was actively rooting not just for a satisfying conclusion to the mission, but for the story to not cop out on the ending.
It all starts to come together in a way that takes the first step in restoring one’s faith in the MCU. The jokes become more clever (the overuse of “Appetite for Destruction” was almost endearing by the end), the characters get more development beyond one-note horniness, and the visuals rise to the level of “innovative” for the first time in years (particularly the color scheme when it comes to Thor et al’s costuming in contrast with Gorr’s “Shadow Realm” hideout). I was even able to eventually let my guard down and stop expecting the Guardians of the Galaxy to show up late in the third act as a lazy deus ex machina. They really do just have an extended cameo in the opening to remind us that Thor was with them when Phase Three ended. Once they part ways 10 minutes in, that’s it. No more crossover, just Thor and his established allies the rest of the way. It’s almost as if Taika Waititi got a whole list of notes from Disney and Marvel demanding certain formulaic elements, and then dispensed with them as quickly as possible before getting to the movie he actually wanted to make, one vastly superior to anything Kevin Feige and his committee of semi-literate corporate shitheels could have ever churned out.
It’s going to be a long time before I’m willing to give Marvel the benefit of the doubt again, but Love and Thunder is a crucial step in the right direction. Whether this film represents a true course correction or just a slight upward bounce before an even greater fall remains to be seen. But at least for the moment, there is hope, even if it’s just the hope that someone else will take up a real-world Necrosword and kill the gods controlling this franchise. This isn’t a great film by any means, but it’s certainly good, and more importantly, for the first time in a while, I found myself thinking that maybe, just maybe, the MCU might get back on track.
Except for the screaming goats. That was, is, and always will be bullshit. Never changing my mind on that!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Can the MCU be saved? Can Matt Damon and friends recreate every movie in the franchise as a chintzy stage play, and would they be better than the actual films? Let me know!