You really have to hand it to Taika Watiti, who at this point seems approach every single project with same amount of unmitigated risk. Everything he touches is either going to pave the way for new, big opportunities, or it’s going to be the last project he ever helms. No matter what, Watiti swings for the fences every single chance he gets, and boy does he swing big and swing hard with “Thor: Love and Thunder.”
Even for someone who literally made an entire movie featuring an imaginary Hitler, the latest Marvel Studios outing might be his most ambitious project yet. This is mainly because Watiti attempts to not only recreate the magic of “Thor: Ragnarok,” but also inject a massive amount of heart behind the humor. It all works until it doesn’t, and it’s really up to you to decide which way you want the film to fall. This seems like a cop out, but it’s hard to come at “Love and Thunder” too harshly when everyone involved in the making of the film is fully aware that this is a movie about a space viking with a magical hammer and axe who rides rainbows around the galaxy.
When you put it that way, Thor is actually kind of a stupid character. I don’t say that to disparage anyone, just to put into context the lens with which Watiti consistently chooses to frame his heroes and storytelling in the superhero genre. Though “Love and Thunder” is infinitely more mature than its predecessor, it never really forgets what kind of movie we’re actually making here. This is a wonderful mess of a film; tonally all over the place and packs a universe worth of narrative into a 2-hour film. But as messy as it is, we are given a choice: do you want to laugh or do you want to cry, and if you want to both decide on how indulgent in either you want to be. It’s here that the film works in spite of itself, turning in a number of incredible performances and storytelling chances that mostly land, and even when they don’t everything is so much fun it almost doesn’t even matter. It’s important to go in knowing and expecting this, and you’re better served shedding your expectations that this is a “Ragnarok” sequel and accepting that it is simply a furthering of the Thor storyline through a Watiti lens.
With the context table set, “Love and Thunder” is of course written and directed by Taika Watiti. All the favorites return, including Natalie Portman as Jane Foster/Mighty Thor, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, Korg (voiced by Watiti), The Guardians of the Galaxy, and yes, even a cameo by Miek. The film also adds Christian Bale as Gorr the God Butcher, and Russell Crowe as Zeus, both of which we will talk about later.
We open with an origin story of sorts for Gorr, whose personal vendetta and vow to kill all gods isn’t entirely without merit. Which of course causes him to cross paths with Thor himself. Struggling to find his purpose after losing basically everything, matters are only complicated when Jane shows up wielding a rebuilt Mew Mew (yes, I know this is incorrect but I just don’t feel right calling the hammer anything else now thanks to Kat Dennings), adorned in godlike Viking gear. There’s a lot going on as all of these storylines collide, and most of it I can’t really talk about without spoiling it, so let’s just leave the plot here at its base outline for now.
Hemsworth is back as Thor, and is as charming and as ripped as ever. The pairing of his comedic timing and freeform direction continue to be a match made in heaven, as Hemsworth unchained is truly the best display of his skills. Beyond his comedic chops is his ability to transition from affable idiot into a heartfelt, emotional man, something Hemsworth only scratched the surface of in “Ragnarok.”
Portman’s returned is a welcomed one, as you can tell she’s having an absolute blast this time around and seems to actually WANT to be here. Though not enough of them together, I am all game for a Valkyrie/Mighty Thor spin off series, as Thompson and Portman are absolutely delightful together. The chemistry among heroes whisks the story along with plenty of jokes, and while not all of them land as hard as they did previously, they never undercut the more poignant moments this time around. Watiti and the cast seem to have learned from their mistakes, and allow us to sit with the emotional moments instead of doing everything they can to cram one last joke in there. “Love and Thunder’s” cast is stacked and fun to watch, and it’s a welcomed return to the world of Thor and Friends.
Where things really shine are in the additions of Bale as Gorr and Crow as Zeus. Vastly different in character, tone, and use, they are the scene stealers with what little screen time they have. I don’t think I’m out of line to say that both are vastly underutilized in “Love and Thunder,” and in a stacked cast full of familiar and returning characters, it says a lot when the villain and first introduction to a god damn near steal the show. Bale approaches Gorr like he exists in a completely different world. There’s no rainbows or inside jokes. Bale’s Gorr is a no-nonsense, heartbreaking villain who truthfully might be one of the best in the MCU were he given a little bit more to do. Bale spends the majority of biggest moments and actions offscreen, which is a shame because it is by far the most compelling aspect of a rather messy film. Not that spending time with our silver tongued heroes isn’t fun, because it is. But there is something special going on with Gorr, and “Love and Thunder” could’ve solidified its tone a bit more balanced had Watiti really driven home the value of Bale’s performance.
And then there’s Crowe’s Zeus, who is just a knockout the entire time he’s on screen. Seriously, no one is having as much fun being a larger than life, self absorbed, orgy obsessed god of lightning. He understands the assignment and goes for it, and the long almost non existent leash Watiti puts on his actors allows Crowe to simply go nuts and have a blast. Everyone is dialed up to 11, but it works best with Crowe. I’ve never had anything against Crowe as actor, but goddammit is he just delightful here and “Love and Thunder” is a better movie for the brief time he’s on screen. Yes, he’s THAT good.
Overall, “Love and Thunder” isn’t quite the knockout its predecessor was, but in some ways improves upon the groundwork laid before it. It may struggle with identity and pacing, as it truly whisks us around the galaxy with any real time to get our bearings and understand what the hell is actually going on. It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day, because its pretty damn fun regardless of whether or not it makes sense. But I wouldn’t be a good critic if I didn’t remove the rose colored glasses and admit that while it may be more heartfelt and mature, it could disappoint. Not all the jokes land, and there is certainly a bit of forced magic that causes the film to not feel as fresh or as organic as it did before. Some of that is probably our own preconceived notions of what we wanted it to be, and the rest is the impossibility of capturing said lighting in a bottle twice. It just doesn’t happen, and as much as this film tries to be different and tell its own story, it does struggle with its own identity when it desperately tries to be “Ragnarok 2: Electric Boogalo.”
Where the third Thor film shines is in its emotional moments, which pack a punch and really land far more consistently than the humor. It’s unfair to ask the Thor franchise to go full dark side, and even more unfair to think that Watiti would ever go there to a place he simply isn’t made for. But he does flirt with darkness, and demonstrates that he does in fact know how to tell a story with purpose and meaning when it’s not being over punctuated with jokes. It’s a tricky balance, one that I think “Love and Thunder” gets right more than it gets wrong. But it does get some things wrong, and feels overwhelming and underwhelming simultaneously. And ya, I’m faulting Marvel once again for shoddy effects. There are some dazzling set pieces that look terrific, and a lighting shift in the third act that creates a truly haunting atmosphere. But there are also some moments that feel ripped straight from 2002, and at this stage in the game there is simply no excuse for it. I’m sorry, but you can’t site budget constraints when you can literally print money at will.
None of that really matters, because as we’ve said before this is a movie about a shredded god who rides a hammer or ax on a rainbow through space. And the ride is worth taking in the end, and delivers on just being a good time at the movies. Is it the best Marvel has to offer? No, probably not. But it’s also not the gigantic misstep some want it to be. I know many of us are actively rooting for the MCU to crash and burn, but this is not that day or that film. It’s a fun space viking fantasy adventure that mostly delivers on all the things you would want from a movie like that. It never takes itself too seriously and asks you to do the same, and then injects some heart and seriousness into everything just so that “Love and Thunder” can operate with purpose and meaning. Not just for the characters in the story, but for the audience too.
I’m confident this will once again be a divisive film, as pretty much everything after “Endgame” has been regardless of said outing’s own merits. That’s just kind of the world we live in now, so I’m ok to admit that this movie won’t be for everyone, and will probably leave some underwhelmed. And frankly, you’re not wrong- even thought I enjoyed the hell out of everything it had to offer. It’s a fun adventure featuring a great cast and solid action, along with some great jokes and touching moments. There’s really something for everyone here, and “Love and Thunder” asks you to take your pick of the buffet and indulge on whatever you want from it. It’s a bold strategy and doesn’t always work, but overall I’d say the risk is worth the reward of a helluva fun time at the movies.
And yes, “Love and Thunder” has giant screaming goats that are thankfully used sparingly but you’re probably going to have to buy your kids one come December. I’m sorry to all the parents that have to live with stuffed animal, squeeze me screaming goats.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
“Thor: Love and Thunder” is currently playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.