Thor's return is a thunderous bore unworthy of attention

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Photo courtesy of Marvel
Photo courtesy of Marvel

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER
Theaters


Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) is at a crossroads. After helping save the universe from Thanos, the former Asgardian king is out traveling the cosmos with the Guardians of the Galaxy, righting wrongs and restoring order with the aid of his axe Stormbreaker. But is that all there is? Will Thor find true happiness? Does he even want to?

After receiving a desperate message from Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), the God of Thunder sets off with trusted compatriot Korg (Taika Waititi) to learn what the trouble is. What they uncover is bone-chilling: a villain calling himself Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale) is out to destroy all gods everywhere. Wielding the corrosive power of the deadly Necrosword and commanding creatures born from darkness, he has almost everything he needs to do just that.

If only Thor: Love and Thunder's primary plot stopped right there. I also wish returning director Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) took things more seriously. Instead, much in his idiosyncratic, genre-bending style, he mixes melodrama, fantasy, romantic comedy, slapstick, and action into an aggressively noisy assault on the senses. Call it Flash Gordon meets All That Heaven Allows meets Krull, with a side of vintage Monty Python seasoned with 1990s—early 2000s Adam Sandler comedy for good measure.

Suffice it to say, this sequel is a mess. Even the return of Natalie Portman isn't enough to right the ship. She's back as scientist Jane Foster and now a superpowered goddess in her own right. Thor's previously destroyed hammer Mjolnir has reconstituted itself and given Jane the strength to use its magic — the reasons why are best left discovered by watching the film.

Portman has a handful of lovely, heartfelt moments. She's arguably the second best thing the sequel has to offer, and unlike her last franchise appearance in Thor: The Dark World, the Academy Award—winning actor looks like she's actually having a good time being a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and not just stopping by to pick up a massive paycheck. But Jane's arc needs time to develop, and Waititi and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (Unpregnant) refuse to give it space to breathe, making the emotional impact of her subplot frustratingly negligible.

What's the best thing in the film? That's Bale, and it's not up for debate. His Gorr is legitimately terrifying, especially when he malevolently toys with a cadre of kidnapped intergalactic children that Thor, Jane, Korg, and current Asgardian king Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) have sworn on their own lives to rescue. Bale oozes menace with every slithery movement, with the actor delivering his choicest bits of dialogue with such gleeful relish that he comes remarkably close to redeeming the sequel all by himself.

This does not happen, though. Unlike Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi fails to successfully balance all the wild shifts in tone. Many of the funny bits do not land, not because the cast is not up to the challenge — Hemsworth continues to be a skilled comedian who has no problem being the butt of a joke — but because none of what they're asked to do is natural or motivated by character. It's all sitcom theatrics, just glib one-liners and smug facial expressions masquerading as something deeper.

Photo courtesy of Marvel  

It gets worse. Waititi isn't afraid of color, and he has proven over his career to be anything but aesthetically unadventurous. But there is no depth to the images, and many times, it looks like the actors are standing atop a stage performing for a live studio audience and not in a massive Marvel production.

What's most obnoxious about this is that Waititi has imaginative sights he's longing to showcase. He also has an impressive team of technicians, including production designer Nigel Phelps (World War Z), costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo (Jojo Rabbit), and chief makeup artist Matteo Silvi (The Last Duel), assisting him on that front. But everything looks flat. There is no pop to the images, and no matter how immersive the sound design or how the volume is turned up to 11 on each of the classic Guns N' Roses selections, it all means nothing when the picture itself looks like drab, motion-smoothed molasses.

There is an exception, and that's a brief foray into a B&W netherworld where Gorr rules supreme and momentary pops of color are the only way to weaken his stranglehold upon this strange realm of demons and darkness. Thing is, this momentary sequence of successfully executed visual ingenuity only augments how rushed, poorly assembled, and even downright ugly much of the remainder of the film is. It sticks out for the wrong reasons, and that's too bad.

I loved seeing Portman handle Mjolnir. Russell Crowe hams it up marvelously as Zeus. Hemsworth is still aces as Thor, and Thompson makes a strong case that Valkyrie should be better utilized in the MCU than she has been up to this point. As for Bale, he soars above them all, and while I'm sure his appearance will end up being a one-off, it would be wise of Marvel to figure out a way to entice him to return, as Gorr is one heck of a villain who deserves a better film to strut his stuff in.

Not that it matters. Even with so much working in its favor, Thor: Love and Thunder is my least favorite film in the MCU, and — even given my relative indifference to The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 — it's not even close. Waititi drops the hammer, making this fourth adventure with the God of Thunder a disastrous bore unworthy of any more of my attention.