TEXAS, USA — …or is that sparest parody and grandest drama? It can be difficult to tell in the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe entry "Thor: Love and Thunder," an adventure that stretches the brand’s four-quadrant appeal over tonal landscapes as wide as Thor’s biceps with little regard for rupture.
There are many moments when that approach by writer-director Taika Waititi – helming his second MCU effort following the character makeover that was his rambunctious “Thor: Ragnarok” – is to be commended. Among them, the bleak opening introduction of a twig-armed Christian Bale as the alien wanderer Gorr, suffering after an unknown calamity kills his child and leaves him begging at the hands of a deity whose idea of mercy is mocking his pursuit of eternal reward.
In swift and stabby fashion, Gorr becomes the pasty, death-dealing Gorr the God Butcher, putting him on a collision course with Chris Hemsworth’s god of thunder. Thor’s dealing with some existential issues himself from across the cosmos, ones that his Waititi-voiced buddy Korg cheekily boils down to his “sad bod under the god bod.” By the time the first Guns ‘N Roses needle drop accompanies Thor’s jaunty evisceration of some third-rate extraterrestrial invasion of owl-like beings on a purple planet, it becomes clear Waititi isn’t all that interested in compromising between neon-splattered bonanza and the piercing dread of Bale’s corrupted necromancer.
Whether you can attune yourself to “Love and Thunder” depends on your versatility as a viewer, and your willingness to accept how out of tune “Love and Thunder” tends to be with its more poignant ideas, ideas that momentarily reassert themselves in rare dramatic respites from the usual Waititian wryness. While “Thor: Ragnarok” effectively deconstructed one of the most powerful Avengers, the curiosity Waititi extends towards the blonde-haired god in “Love and Thunder” doesn’t reach far beyond Hemsworth’s ability to keep a gag going. Here the filmmaker (working off his own screenplay with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson) is less a storyteller than an enthusiastic engineer of visual ironies seemingly born at the watercooler, perhaps during five-minute breaks away from a script whose most interesting elements – of tragedy, of spiritual upheaval, of a much bleaker kind of avenging – are shaved down for repeat appearances from cosmic screaming goats and a confusing inclusion of the Guardians of the Galaxy posse.
Waititi’s trademark comedic frenzy is appreciably silly at times, cheaply engineered at others and borderline obnoxious at others still. Among the genuinely cleverer bits is the committed realization of New Asgard as a tourist destination, one where the main attraction is a self-parodical embrace of these movies as cinematic theme park rides, and later a brief but passionately over-the-top appearance by Russell Crowe as Zeus.
Otherwise, it’s easy to forget that the lives of some young Asgardians kidnapped by Gorr are allegedly at risk; narrative advancement in "Love and Thunder" almost completely hinges on either happenstance or biblical betrayal. Random references to “Event Horizon” and “Interstellar” are also made, accomplishing little aside from making you wish Waititi adopted a bit more of the former’s madness or else the latter’s emotional scale.
The closest thing to a shaky middle ground in “Thor: Love and Thunder” comes in the form of Natalie Portman, making her MCU return as Dr. Jane Foster since last appearing in 2013’s “Thor: The Dark World.” Wielding a reforged Mjolnir and clad in a superheroine’s armor, Portman suits up as an oppo-sex goddess of thunder, boosting the movie’s superpowered ensemble as well as its emotional dexterity. Her reunion with Thor sets off a few feeble sparks, as does the reason why she sought Asgardian might in the first place: a cancer diagnosis slowly eating away at her Earthly lifeforce. As with Gorr’s revenge mission, however, the thin writing of Foster’s plight means the audience is left to assume a certain depth of personal conflict while the movie struts to tick off narrative and thematic boxes, keeping a two-hour runtime in its sights.
Speaking of sights, “Thor: Love and Thunder's" visual styles are as varied and unpredictable as a TikTok feed. There’s the soap opera-y gauziness of its Earthbound scenes and the gaudiness of CGIed heavenly arenas that somehow look worse when blown up on an IMAX screen. But there is also a gorgeously monochrome battle against Gorr’s army of inky creatures in the third act that’s certainly among the boldest things Waititi has ever conjured up, and could’ve been a highlight of this MCU phase if the action itself was halfway coherent.
Regardless, that sequence is a rare thing: Something we haven’t yet seen from these Marvel movies, and which can’t be “spoiled” by a stray tweet about new franchise revelations. I’ll certainly remember it and Bale’s seething performance more than the cookie-cutter aww-shucksness with which Waititi leaves Thor, concluding an arc that “Love and Thunder” never convincingly feigns much interest in. It’s impossible, in the end, to tell where the convictions lie in a movie that gives the rom-com interplay between Thor and his sentient ex-world-destroying-hammer as much heft as the faithless sinner’s bloodlust against the gods.
Then again, 14 years and 29 movies deep into the MCU experiment, it may be a small victory in itself that I’m talking about their convictions at all.
"Thor: Love and Thunder" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of scifi violence and action, language, some suggestive material and partial nudity. It's now screening in theaters. Runtime: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson.
Directed by Taika Waititi. Written by Taika Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson.
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