Thor: Love and Thunder debuts in theaters on July 8, 2022. Below is a spoiler-free review.
It took some time and tweaking, but at this point in his journey, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to call Thor Odinson one of, if not the most dramatically compelling character left standing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This feels borne out of necessity: a nearly invincible Asgardian isn’t the easiest hero to fret for when the battle heats up, and so since his very first appearance, Marvel Studios has taken care to face Thor with grounded emotional stakes even as half the world disintegrates around him. Even through Thor’s less-loved appearances, questions of living up to our family’s expectations, maturity, duty, purpose, and, yes, love have always been at the fore for Thor, and remain at the fore for Thor 4. He’s been part of saving the universe for a long time now, and Thor: Love and Thunder has no illusions about needing to push the character in a new direction. And that’s fine; Love and Thunder succeeds in honoring his journey, even if it doesn’t offer much new for the MCU at large.
Through a Korg-narrated recap of Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) history, we’re reminded of how much tragedy and loss he’s had to face, and how his current gig as a freelancing Guardian of the Galaxy is helping him along in his healing process. Since director Taika Waititi’s humanizing first turn with the character in Ragnarok, Hemsworth has felt fearless in portraying both the god’s internal turmoil and his bombastic personality, continuing to nail punchlines and physical comedy alike. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine feels like the consensus pick for most iconic actor-hero pairing at this point, but by continuing to honor and respect Thor in the way that he clearly does, Hemsworth absolutely deserves to be in that conversation as well. With Thor at a crossroads, Love and Thunder wastes no time in reuniting him with Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), his former flame, and revealing something you may not expect going in: it’s a romantic comedy, and a good one at that.
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By fully embracing that genre’s tropes, Waititi sets the stage for Hemsworth and Portman to seriously dial up their chemistry, especially in an extended flashback that details the early bliss of their relationship. Though Portman’s Jane Foster has long-since moved on from Thor after their breakup, current circumstances are such that she has no choice but to seek help from the Asgardians and the two are forced to put their past behind them once Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale) joins the fray.
We saw Jane do the fish out of water bit in The Dark World, but here, Mjolnir has deemed her worthy and transformed her into the Mighty Thor. Portman’s Foster never got her due in her initial appearances, and Waititi spends an appreciable amount of time making up for that by celebrating her intellect and bravery. Portman thrives on Jane’s arc here, as she reckons with what the power of Thor means for her future… though Jane’s overeagerness to come up with a catchphrase veers too hard into the MCU’s brand of self-referentiality and even the payoff to this running joke can’t stick the (superhero) landing.
The efficient cold open — a standout scene in Love and Thunder — establishes Christian Bale’s Gorr and what’s driving the one-time believer’s promise that “all gods will die.” The God Butcher, both haunted and haunting, vacillates between theatrical mustache-twirling and unnerving resolve, and Bale treats every shade of the villain with verve. It’s clear Bale’s relishing the opportunity to portray a comics character that’s a little more playful, even on a quest for vengeance. That quest, the conflict that drives Love and Thunder, is where the movie plays it safe. The race to stop Gorr before he’s able to gain an insurmountable advantage over the MCU’s other deities plays out with all the familiar beats as heroes and villains chase each other around the cosmos.
While the film is snappily paced, no problem Thor & Co. is saddled with sticks for long. Love and Thunder routinely doubles back, with an apparent eye on not rocking the MCU boat too hard. This becomes especially noticeable in the fallout of the subplot involving Zeus (Russell Crowe) as he and his truly crazy Greek(?) accent make their debut. Whether Love and Thunder’s reticence to commit to its own choices stems from Marvel-imposed limitation in order to keep their options open for later movies is unclear, but the film does feel less engaging during moments of peril as a result.
Love and Thunder unfortunately underutilizes Tessa Thompson’s King Valkyrie, who continues to rule in all senses of the word. At once regal, lethal, and down to earth, Thompson’s ease channeling King Val’s swagger and baggage makes her a consistent highlight, specifically in her banter with both Thor and his Mighty counterpart. Early scenes depict her media appearances and efforts to bolster New Asgard’s tourism sector, a thankless gig that she’s happy to do if it’ll keep her people comfortable. The back half of the movie, however, completely fumbles this character. How King Valkyrie factors in feels designed to keep the story charging ahead at pace, perhaps to keep the things focused on Thor and Jane.
Just like Gorr, once Love and Thunder gets rolling, it drops the ball on the more nuanced aspects of Valkyrie in favor of whatever will move us along to the next battle the quickest. Those action scenes start to blur together towards the middle half — Gorr’s shadowy minions sometimes hurt the readability of the blocking — but that doesn’t mean director (and Korg actor) Taika Waititi isn’t coloring this movie with every color of the rainbow at every chance he gets. Gods bleed gold, and often. Even when Love and Thunder goes monochrome for one of its Gorr v Thor bouts, areas in the shot that are close to sources of magical energy light up with pops of color. The spinning arena casts swirling shadows, giving the whole scene a slick palette which feels like a nod to Ragnarok’s excellently staged Valkyrie flashback.
Waititi has a top-shelf knack for finding comedic beats in odd and unexpected corners of his films, perhaps best displayed here in how both Mjolnir and Stormbreaker are anthropomorphized. No, it’s not like Waititi had Matt Berry play a talking hammer or anything like that (quit distracting yourself with good ideas, Tom), but the ways in which he uses these weapons to not only fuel some of Love and Thunder’s strongest running jokes, but as a marker for Thor’s emotional throughline provide some of the movie’s more satisfying moments. The soundtrack’s needle drops, on the other hand, do become a little repetitive, both in how expected they become as the heroes march into battle and in artist curation: Love and Thunder features four songs from one band and there’s little serious connection between those songs and the story, so it’s a bit of a perplexing choice. Waititi’s not a subtle filmmaker, and with his Pandora’s box of a noggin come swings and misses that are quickly moved past with an eye on trying something else.
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