The title that Taika Waititi chose for “Thor: Love and Thunder” is a good one; not only does it reflect the movie’s hard rock flavor (which is as much of a tribute to Guns N’ Roses as “Thor: Ragnarok” was to Led Zeppelin), it also speaks to the latest Marvel spectacle’s almost perfectly even split between raw emotionality and empty noise. Besides, the similarly accurate “Thor: More Thor” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, though it might have been even better at articulating the air of “are we really doing this?” that hangs around the hunkiest Avengers’ fourth solo adventure.
Despite the film’s wit and geniality — and despite the himbo perfection of a Chris Hemsworth performance so refined and self-possessed that it single-handedly justifies the decision to build another blockbuster around it — “Love and Thunder” is clouded by its uncertain place in the universe from the moment it starts. And yet, the same thing could be said about Thor, whose mega-swole aimlessness mirrors that of his new movie in a way that sometimes allows this chapter of the MCU to feel more intimate and personal than many of the 28 installments that came before it. Even moving, on occasion.
To its mild peril — and my great relief — this “Thor” largely eschews the corporate synergism that has defined the MCU in the Disney+ era (a wild thing to say about a movie whose opening 20 minutes feel like deleted scenes from next May’s “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3”). Where “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” often felt like watching a mega-franchise play a Wordle with its own lore, “Love and Thunder” has little interest in rewriting history, relying on look what our lawyers did! crossovers, or requiring some janky streaming miniseries for context. For all of its callbacks and cameos, this is ultimately a character-driven story about an unkillable superhero who’s searching for new purpose in the wake of his greatest possible triumph, in the face of his gravest potential loss, and in the midst of his mega-franchise’s lucrative struggle to do the same.
Waititi’s film opens with the vengeance-obsessed villain (Christian Bale) clutching the body of his dead young daughter, diagnoses a major character with stage four cancer not long after that, and then sends Thor and his friends on a mystical journey to the center of the cosmos, the most poignant moments of which have more in common with “The Fountain” than anything in the MCU franchise. While any number of lives are at stake — human and god alike — “Love and Thunder” is persistently less about saving the world than it is about making peace with it. Or at least it wants to be.
As Marvel’s post-“Endgame” output might suggest, that’s easier said than done. After 14 years of Galactic-like growth, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gotten too large to sustain the metastatic expansion that allowed it to become such a culture-devouring force, and too successful to risk taking a different approach. A thing can only get so big before it starts to seem a bit empty, hence this movie finding Thor lost and without purpose despite the fact that each of his vaguely Cronenbergian biceps is now massive enough to count as a Hemsworth brother unto itself.
Like the MCU, the Thor we meet in “Love and Thunder” is amiable, unstoppable, and far more joyless than he would care to admit. He only picks fights he knows that he can win, and longs for the fragile sweetness of being human while also running from the bitter pain that gives it shape. Thor’s people are safe, New Asgard is a bustling tourist destination, and the God of Thunder is free to spend his days sailing around the stars as an overachieving temp for the Guardians of the Galaxy. (It’s a blast to watch this mega-franchise’s most carefree superhero run roughshod over its least functional crew, just as it’s a lot of fun to see Waititi’s zany sense of humor steamroll over James Gunn’s whole stunted adolescence shtick.)
But Thor is unfulfilled, and not even meditating to Enya seems to make things better. And then two things happen to help this lovable flying lunkhead find new urgency. The first is that Thor hears about some guy named Gorr the God Butcher (a very committed Bale) who’s going around the universe and butchering gods, with New Asgard conveniently being his next stop. The second thing is that our hero’s once and forever love, Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), is somehow going to be leading the fight against Gorr — not as a nerdy human scientist, but as a mighty warrior capable of wielding Thor’s pet hammer, Mjölnir. Portman only has a small handful of bonafide superhero moments, but I’m sure the ambiguous symbolism of a petite Jewish woman transforming into an Aryan war deity will still make for a fun conversation starter at Satan’s next dinner party.
Try as Thor might to keep the people he cares about at arm’s length (that’s what the bulging muscles are for), Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s ramshackle script forces him to engage with them on the most personal terms. The best stretch of a film that never quite finds its groove: A witty flashback montage that flips through Thor’s relationship with Jane, cleverly shrinking an entire Disney+ spinoff into a few short minutes that illustrate why these star-crossed lovers should be together, and also why they aren’t. Efficient as this sequence is — and as sweetly as it showcases Hemsworth’s lunkheaded comic genius — its brevity defines why “Love and Thunder” is thwarted by its best intentions.
Like all of the passages that strive to humanize the God of Thunder, the montage feels like something that Waititi had to smuggle into a mega-franchise that’s mastered the art of — or at least the commerce of — emotional remove, and whose characters are such capable avengers because they can’t survive even five minutes of genuine vulnerability. If this new “Thor” tries to wrest something beautiful from living with the kind of loss that most Marvel heroes are hellbent to undo, it’s complicated by all of the nonsense that Marvel movies can’t live without.
A $250 million budget, most of which is spent on composite-heavy compositions that make the whole thing look like it was shot with the motion-smoothing on. A handful of bland action setpieces that I’m already struggling to remember (if also, in this case, one spectacular fight scene on a black-and-white shadow planet that I won’t soon forget). An underwritten but well-acted villain whose masterplan only makes sense if you squint. Familiar as these frustrations might be, they’re all the more pronounced in a Marvel film so preoccupied with the pursuit of new purpose. The obligation that “Love and Thunder” feels towards justifying its franchise’s continued existence comes at the direct expense of Thor’s ability to justify his own.
And yet, that Waititi rescues even a hint of emotional honesty from all of that noise is enough to make this a refreshingly open-hearted addition to the MCU. Despite the fact that Jane gives this movie its guiding purpose and gets next to nothing in return — despite the fact that the movie itself is more afraid of acknowledging her cancer than any of its actual characters ever seem to be — there’s a satisfying irony to how the film mirrors the loss of the villain’s daughter against the potential death of the hero’s soulmate. One is a mortal made powerful by his hatred for the gods, and the other is a god made vulnerable by his love for a mortal. Gorr the God Butcher and Thor the butch god are the answer to each other’s prayers, and that poetry is just potent enough to make you wish that Waititi had been willing and/or able to do something more with it.
Especially because this is the rare Marvel film that doesn’t shy away from romantic love; that starts with the kind of self-denial that it took Tom Holland’s Spider-Man three movies to settle for, and then actively tries to push beyond it. It doesn’t get very far, but it’s still nice to see one of these things where people are allowed to kiss like they mean it.
To that end, “Love and Thunder” works as well as it does because everything is pushed a half-stop further than most of these movies typically allow. Humor in the MCU is often limited to smirking gags about superheroes doing everyday things in a “Shamballa is the wifi password” sort of way, but Waititi continues to brighten up the Thor movies with his own flavor of wackiness, which is as welcome here as it was grating in “Jojo Rabbit.” Not only is Thor’s space boat pulled by a pair of screaming goats, their shrieks are so frequent they become part of the soundtrack. Not only does Thor feel like a spurned lover when Mjölnir chooses Jane, his new magic ax is always hovering right out of frame and ready to go all “Fatal Attraction” on him whenever he ogles his old hammer. And not only does Russell Crowe spice things up as an orgy-obsessed Zeus in the otherwise meandering second act, he delightfully illustrates the difference between chewing the scenery and swallowing it whole.
These accents (Crowe’s horny Greek man chief among them) contribute to an air of chaotic fun that helps “Love and Thunder” survive its failings as an adventure epic. This is the kind of movie in which the kingly verve of Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is almost enough to offset how little her character gets to do. It’s the kind of movie that ends on such an emotionally satisfying note that I was willing to forgive — and all too able to forget — the awkward path it traveled to get there, or how clumsily it gathered its cast together for the grand finale. If “Love and Thunder” is more of the same, it’s also never less than that. The MCU may still be looking for new purpose by the time this movie ends, but the mega-franchise can take solace in the sense that Thor has found some for himself.
Disney will release “Thor: Love and Thunder” in theaters on Friday, July 8.