Thor: Love and Thunder is the fourth installment of the Norse Space Viking’s solo film series, and his eighth feature film appearance in eleven years. And yet, thanks to director Taika Waititi’s retooling of the character in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, this particular corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t feel stale just yet. Like Ragnarok, Love and Thunder is a colorful comedy adventure boasting goofy comic book action and hard rock needle drops, but with somewhat diminished returns. The reason Love and Thunder doesn’t feel as fresh and new as Ragnarok is because it isn’t — it’s more of the same, not necessarily worse, but definitely less special. What really hurts Love and Thunder is the juxtaposition of its two storylines, which both stem from recent comics but which create tonal and thematic conflicts throughout the film. It’s still a lot of fun, but it falls into the same trap as a few other Marvel products: The villain has a point, and we’re not going to address it.
Light spoilers ahead.
Hangout of the Gods
Since the events of Avengers: Endgame, Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) has been traveling the cosmos with the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, et al) fighting evildoers with minimum effort and maximum bravado. Though he’s shacked up with a band of other cosmic misfits, he’s determined not to get too attached to any one place or person. After all, he’s lost at least one close friend or relative in each of his last four film appearances, and been dumped by his girlfriend in between sequels.
Thor’s plans to wander aimlessly with his silly companion Korg (Taika Waititi) are thwarted, however, when his latest mission takes him back to Earth, home of his ex, Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). In an added wrinkle, Jane has come into possession of his old hammer, Mjolnir, which has deemed her worthy to wield the power of Thor. Together with Korg and Valkyrie, King of Asgard (Tessa Thompson), the two Thors embark on a quest to rescue the kidnapped children of Asgard and defeat Gorr the God-Butcher (Christian Bale), whose deal you can probably guess. Can the amicable exes work together to save the day, or will they be distracted by their unresolved feelings for each other?
Love and Thunder is part fairy tale, part romantic comedy, and part intergalactic road trip movie. Like a fairy tale, it’s a light adventure with several sudden, shockingly dark turns. (The film’s opening minutes are so bleak, it’s truly remarkable how quickly and gracefully Waititi ramps into broad comedy.) Like a romcom, the real stakes of the story revolve around whether or not two characters who belong together can figure out how to express their feelings. And, like a road movie, it’s episodic, and as much as each stop on that journey yields important tools or information, it’s really more about the characters spending time together. Despite its occasionally heavy subject matter, Love and Thunder has the most jovial tone of any Marvel feature, with cartoonish sight gags aplenty and a near-constant stream of Waititi’s dad joke humor. (Jove himself even shows up in the movie. Now I’m doing it.) The film moves along at a brisk clip and doesn’t overstay its welcome, being the first Marvel Studios feature since 2018 to wrap up in under two hours.
The laughs come more regularly than in Ragnarok, but they’re also less intense. Thor continues his devolution from deadpan comedic foil to endlessly chatty himbo, but while he’s charming as hell throughout, Hemsworth doesn’t get any killer punchlines. Nor, really, do Natalie Portman or Tessa Thompson, who develop a fun rapport of their own but don’t ever shine quite as brightly as Thompson did in the previous film. In truth, the funniest characters in the film are actually props, namely Thor’s axe Stormbreaker, which gets jealous of the reforged Mjolnir and repeatedly creeps into scenes to vie for Thor’s attention.
Thor also acquires a pair of giant screaming goats whose disturbing vocalizations never stop being funny. This, however, is symptomatic of the goofball tone of the film — there’s so much background “amusement” radiation that only the loudest comedy beats truly register. The same could be said for the romantic tension, which lingers at a low level for most of the movie with a few peaks and no valleys. There’s not really a give and take, no sense that these two might not get together, so it’s not terribly rewarding when they do. (If you consider this a spoiler, I don’t know what to tell you.) It’s a feel-good movie, but never a feel-great movie.
Whose Deicide Are You On?
In harsh contrast to the hangout vibe of most of the story is the path of the villain, Gorr the God-Butcher. In Love and Thunder’s opening minutes, Gorr wanders a harsh desert with his young daughter, who starves to death in his arms. After the god he worships laughs at his suffering, Gorr slays him with the Necroblade, a cursed longsword that compels him to seek out and kill all the gods of the universe. Naturally, that presents a problem for Thor, God of Thunder, who attempts to rally his kind to put a stop to Gorr’s rampage. To his astonishment, however, the immortal elite care as little for the minor deities being killed off as they do for their subjects left undefended from otherworldly harm. Their leader, Zeus (Russell Crowe doing a hammy Italian accent) is as scummy as Gorr’s first victim, interested only in his own pleasure and glory. The common philosophy among gods is that they are owed worship and owe nothing in return. Should their faithful perish, there will always be more where they came from.
Once again, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has served up an antagonist who is not just sympathetic but also philosophically defensible. Where Black Panther’s Erik Killmonger was anti-colonialist and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s Karli Morganthau was anti-nationalist, Gorr is an anti-authoritarian looking to overthrow the cosmic aristocracy and shatter the illusion that somebody up there likes us. The rewards promised by the powerful in exchange for loyalty are false, and their only true goal is to use us until we’re spent and then use whoever comes after us. This is not just Gorr’s opinion, it’s the narrative’s — apart from Thor, the gods we encounter in the film are all shitheels. (The ones who aren’t are all easily slain offscreen in the first act.)
Thor stands as the only model for what a god should be, a powerful being who communes with his people, protects them from harm, and even shares his power when the situation calls for it. Waititi never actually makes the case that the universe wouldn’t be a better place without the rest of the pantheon, we simply don’t want Gorr’s plan to succeed because it’s technically a genocide and that’s not something we can get behind. Instead, the film’s message is to hold close to those you love, which is great and all, but doesn’t actually solve the problem that the story has presented. The universe is still presided over by ghouls who expect your allegiance but have no intention of ever answering your prayers, and we should be content that there are one or two who actually give a shit. (Don’t forget to vote, everyone!)
For his part, Christian Bale really puts his back into playing the spindly alien creep. It’s a performance unlike any I’ve seen from him before, employing the serpentine physicality of creature actors like Doug Jones or Andy Serkis. (Scribbled somewhere in my notes, I found the words “Gollum Mode.”) Like in the two previous Thor films, the villain doesn’t actually get all that much screen time, and though Bale doesn’t steal the show like Cate Blanchett did in Ragnarok, he makes a solid go at it. Most impressive is that Bale is able to preserve Gorr as a threat even as his adversary is rattling off jokes. We are always encouraged to take him seriously, which gives him narrative power because nothing else in the film is treated with the same gravity.
Gorr is also given a visually distinctive power set, moving in and out of shadows and summoning assorted beasts of pure darkness. A battle in his home dimension, the Shadow Realm, is the film’s most interesting visual, as the only light source rapidly circles above and the only sources of color are the glow of the heroes’ weapons. The action of Love and Thunder is nothing to write home about, but I’m pleased to report that at no point do the combatants end up in a “beams vs. beams” clash. The best moments of violence, however, are played for laughs, and since Gorr is kept isolated from the comedy, this leaves him without any particularly memorable action beats of his own.
The Alrighty Thor
Much hullabaloo has been made about the return of Natalie Portman to the MCU after sitting out the previous Thor film and appearing in Avengers: Endgame only via archival footage. Though she’s never gone on record, rumors have circulated for years that Portman was bored with the character of Jane Foster, and disenchanted with the studio after creative differences led director Patty Jenkins to walk away from Thor: The Dark World. Taika Waititi wooed Portman back on board with the promise of something new: the chance to get in on the action as a bona fide superhero instead of a support character and love interest.
And while it’s cool to see Portman suit up as The Mighty Thor, Jane herself still doesn’t feel all that distinct as a character. She’s a brilliant and renowned astrophysicist, but she also has an everywoman air about her that makes her relatable, if not terribly interesting. This is honestly refreshing for a big screen superheroine; Marvel movies have a habit of pushing female characters as the grown-up in the room, a hypercompetent straight arrow who demands to be taken seriously and is always rolling her eyes at the boys. (Marvel television is a lot better about this. See: Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel.) Jane Foster isn’t as over-the-top silly as Thor Odinson, but she’s here to have a fun, romantic adventure, just like he is.
While I still don’t feel that Jane is truly worthy of Natalie Portman’s time, she does get a bit more to chew on in this film as her character is facing a terminal cancer diagnosis. She doesn’t want to think about it, she just wants to enjoy the time she has left, and that attitude is reflected in the tone of the movie. Jane doesn’t want this illness to change or define her, and just as she pushes to remain the same person, the film pushes along with her, allowing the gravity of her circumstances to assert itself only in a few sudden bursts. Unlike the jarring tonal contrast of Thor’s whimsy and Gorr’s tragedy, these interruptions feel purposeful. So much of life is trying to enjoy what you have while you can amidst reminders that even your joy exists in the midst of great hardship — if not your own, then that of others. The film’s thesis is that this joy, which is most abundant in love and friendship, has to be savored or else life is not worth living.
Mixing the Jane and Gorr stories together results in a somewhat frustrating message for the film. The Gorr plot’s argument is that the powerful don’t really care about regular people. The Thor/Jane plot’s argument is that it’s important to experience love even at the risk of losing it. The two don’t really speak to each other. Gorr wants to dethrone the selfish elite of the cosmos who allow suffering under their watch, but the need to make the climax also about Jane means that the personal goals of the characters override the political ones, which is selfish in itself.
The systemic problem that fuels the villain’s fury is ignored in favor of pursuing the characters’ personal emotional fulfillment, and while that’s satisfying in the moment, nothing has actually gotten better in the long run. Waititi and company have the opportunity to address both questions, but choose to prioritize one over the other. Deliberately or not, that sends a message, and if I were representing a massive media conglomerate, one message I would definitely want to convey would be that it’s more important to focus on enjoying your own life than to address the reasons why the world is falling apart. It’d be a stretch to call this deliberate, but the shoe does fit.
You, of course, can definitely do both things, and if two hours of whimsical romantic adventure would bring a little joy into your weekend, I recommend Thor: Love and Thunder. However, should you run into any gods on your way to the theater, you are obligated to give them hell. That would probably also feel very good to do.