Actor Chris Hemsworth first appeared as Thor Odinson in the 2011 Kenneth Branagh-directed Thor, a film which brought as much Shakespearian drama as it did Marvel Studios silliness. This was during Phase One, a period when audiences didn’t know what was coming or what story (the Infinity Saga) would be told. Back then, it was just exciting to be introduced to the characters of Asgard before Thor is thrown to Midgard, specifically New Mexico, a truly magical place. In more than 10 years since, Hemsworth has reprised the role in seven theatrical releases, several video shorts, and the Disney+ series What If…?. After all this time, what more could Hemsworth find within Thor to convey? The answer comes in returning director Taika Waititi’s (Thor: Ragnarok) Thor: Love and Thunder, a film that works just as well as a button for Hemsworth’s MCU period as it does the start of something brand new.
After defeating Thanos (Josh Brolin) and saying goodbye to his fellow Avengers, Thor (Hemsworth) departs Earth with the Guardians of the Galaxy, passively hijacking the Milano as the group’s new leader. Through their adventures together, Thor begins to realize that he’s been running from something and he needs to figure out what. When a distress call puts murderous fiend Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale) with plans for deicide on his radar, Thor Odinson returns to New Asgard with Korg (Waititi) to check-in with King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), only to discover his ex-girlfriend, Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), imbued with his power. With time of the essence, the four set out to stop Gorr and prevent the extinction of the gods.
Love and Thunder is the 29th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, at this point, those who plan to go already knew they were going before the first trailer dropped. For those folks, here’s what you want to know more than anything: there are two post-credit scenes and neither are of the Pizza Poppa (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) or Captain America (Spider-Man: Homecoming) variety. Bale is positively terrifying as Gorr between his performance, the costuming, and make-up. It’s not that the actor disappears (we can tell it’s Bale), it’s that it’s a total transformation mixed with a reasoning just about any audience member would understand, culminating in a villain that’s nearly as compelling as Loki in complexity. In her return to the series, Portman hasn’t lost a step. Her take on Foster remains as excitedly out of her depth as ever, yet still absolutely in charge of her agency. Waititi and Robinson take a page from The Dark World, making Portman’s Foster an integral part of the adventure rather than just an excuse to have Foster return to do science in New Asgard while Thor leaves Earth once more. This not only gives Portman the chance to flex her literal and figurative muscles, but it gives the character a chance to fulfil a dream we learn about in her first appearance: a journey into the stars. Also, while this film is on the shorter side of most MCU films, because it’s (a) the fourth in the franchise and (b) the 29th film in the whole, there’s little need for loads of exposition or setup. So don’t mistake a two-hour runtime for reduced narrative or excitement as the script from Waititi and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (Unpregnant) delivers the kind of goods that will absolutely satisfy. The question becomes: does it only satisfy in the moment or does the satisfaction remain even after the final credit scene fades to black?
This is what audiences may wrestle with after the film ends. There’re countless laughs, several needle drops that put director James Gunn’s reputation as King in question, and a great deal of emotion coursing through the narrative. This should be enough to entertain, but it’s hard not to notice the struggle the film has in getting all the pieces together in its first act. Much of this is because of the inclusion of Portman’s Foster (a character I enjoyed in Thor and The Dark World) who audiences haven’t seen on-screen since 2013 despite being mentioned twice after (Age of Ultron and Ragnarok). By needing to spend time on reestablishing her character, while also setting up Bale’s Gorr and where Thor is at the start, the first act struggles to fit all the pieces together fluidly. It certainly doesn’t help that much of what we learn is via narration from Korg, a story device hinted at in the first full trailer for the film with his line “Let me tell you the story of the space Viking, Thor Odinson…” that becomes Love and Thunder’s version of Into the Spider-Verse’s “Let’s do this one last time …”. It’s not merely a way to shorthand how the audience gets caught up, it does serve a narrative purpose that helps stick the landing of the film as a whole, but its use makes the film a little clunky in its execution until the adventure proper is underway.
Also, for those who struggled with the use of comedy in Ragnarok, Love and Thunder doubles-down on it. The comedy isn’t meant to mask for real character moments and often underscores subtext brilliantly, but the use of it over time does hit a point where the lack of seeming sincerity impacts how the audience responds to the scene. In the recent trailer, for instance, we see Thor do his best JCVD against two speeder bikes intending to slam into him, all while Hemsworth stares off into the distance. It’s a silly moment that plays into the himbo side of the character that came out beginning with Ragnarok, and that himbo side makes taking seriously the depths of loss and heartbreak that Thor is evaluating throughout Love and Thunder a little harder to accept. Thankfully Hemsworth remains so damn charming that, for all the frustrations and eye-rolling, he makes it work.
Now for the stuff that’s less about standard MCU-related stuff and more about why I ended up in tears by the end of the film.
Waititi is one of the most clever writers and directors working today for the way he incorporates real issues within his films, often masked by some form of silly or outrageous action. If you think he’s siding with the Nazis in Jojo Rabbit, I encourage you to revisit the film. Also, if you think Ragnarok isn’t a damning exploration of colonialism and revisionist history, please rewatch the scene between Cate Blanchett’s Hela and Karl Urban’s Skurge. This conversation reframes everything we know about Odin, Asgard, and their mission of peace. With Love and Thunder, Waititi and Robinson’s script explores the conflict between love and nihilism, specifically the pain of both. We know from Ragnarok that Thor and Jane broke up sometime after Age of Ultron, but we don’t know why or when until this film. We know that Thor, since The Dark World, has lost his parents, his brother, and many friends. He’s lived over a thousand years and the repeated pain is causing him to close himself off. Similarly, Gorr’s story is also one of pain and heartbreak, but of a different sort: the realization of divine indifference. What happens to someone when they put all their faith into a greater power only to find their prayers unanswered, their hopes dashed, their entire belief system shattered? You get someone like Gorr who would destroy all the gods in order to prevent his pain from occurring again. Rather than a dichotomy, Thor and Gorr are the same, just responding in entirely different manners. As such, their approach to solving their pain takes on different forms, one which picks up and utilizes the destruction of Asgard in Ragnarok as both weakness and opportunity for healing. There’s a creative scene that utilizes a move that, from an overhead visual standpoint, takes on the form of a tree. In Norse mythology, the World Tree, or Yggdrasil, is the center of the cosmos, a holy vessel from which all the realms are born and they exist upon in some part of roots, trunk, branches, or top. Using the imagery in the battle brings to mind the feeling of using creation to prevent destruction. But, as someone from the Jewish faith (something I share with Waititi), I also can’t help but think of the Tree of Life, an object in Judaism that refers to not just the Tree of Knowledge in Eden, but how the tree is represented in our faith with the children of each congregation as a part of the roots of that tree. To be clear, it’s not a weaponization of the iconography, so much as it’s an invocation of its meaning that speaks of using love to combat a great pain. It implies a collaboration to reach success versus the power of the singular. If Love and Thunder is the story of Thor finding himself, this iconography symbolizes a start of a greater lineage, a planting of seeds, rather than holding onto the significance of one person’s actions — a lesson begun in Thor finally learned.
Look, Love and Thunder is absolutely the rock n’ roll spectacle the name implies. Like Ragnarok before it, the film captures the cosmic essence of “Thor” creators Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby to the point that I feel fairly confident that a structure in an early scene is an homage to Flash Gordon (1980) (or vice versa). Most impressively, rather than rely on copious green and blue screen tricks, Waititi relied on a relatively new device called The Volume that places the actors in a 360 digital space, projecting the background around them to give them something to work with. It was used most recently in The Batman (2022), creating the visually striking but absolutely false Gotham skyline. Using The Volume helped convey a greater sense of weight to digitally heavy sequences, which definitely helped make some of the conflict sequences far more evocative and immersive than they might have been otherwise. Frankly, if the directions of the next few MCU Phases lean into the cosmic, we’re really going to be in for a treat.
Speaking of treats, there’s going to be more than one way to enjoy the theatrical experience: regular, IMAX, RPX, and, I’m sure, 4DX and more. For the press screening set up by Allied Marketing, I was able to see the film in an AMC IMAX and want to make sure that you’re aware of what you’re getting in that format. The AMC IMAX poster proclaims that it was “filmed in IMAX,” but don’t take that to mean that every shot fills the screen. For the scenes in Omnipotence City (home of the gods), images filled top-to-bottom, but that wasn’t the case in every sequence of the film. When the immersion slipped or if you went looking for it, the switch between IMAX and a more standard ratio became more than noticeable, it was distracting. I’m not sure that the extra inches mattered a great deal and may have enjoyed the cinematic experience more without the transitions in ratios. That said, seeing the film on the big screen (possibly the biggest) when I didn’t notice, well – it was damn grand.
Personally, as much as I like Hemsworth as Thor, if he were to retire upon the conclusion of this film, I wouldn’t beg for his return. Love and Thunder completes Thor’s story, introduced as a slightly spoiled prince turned to a compassionate warrior, proving that he is worthy once and for all. But not just for Mjollnir, but for love and friendship. It’s hard to say if this is goodbye forever or for now, but Love and Thunder is a heck of a rock show to go out on as friends old and new get their time to shine against a complex enemy who, merely by being introduced, creates more opportunities for chaos throughout the MCU. It’s an exciting time to be a MCU fan, so get ready to rock with a bit of cosmic soul.
In theaters July 8th, 2022.
For more information, head to the Marvel Studios Thor: Love and Thunder webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews
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