THOR: LOVE & THUNDER
It's entirely possible that no one other than Taika Waititi could have crafted a joke-heavy Marvel Studios adventure involving abducted, imperiled children and a heroine suffering from stage-four cancer. It's equally possible, regarding Thor: Love & Thunder, that the filmmaker maybe shouldn't have.
I'm all for augmenting dramas with levity and comedies with pathos, and in Waititi's Oscar-winning Jojo Rabbit, the writer/director blended his World War II tale's vastly conflicting elements with superlative skill. (As an actor, he even pulled off the most inspired satiric Hitler since Charlie Chaplin's.) But while this century's Marvel entertainments have been staggeringly successful largely because they offer something for everyone, at least in theory, I'm not sure that sense of egalitarianism extends to plotting that begins with a father mourning his pre-teen's death yet still finds time for a buck-naked god, an anthropomorphically jealous ax, and a talking raccoon. Don't get me wrong: I laughed a number of times during this third Thor sequel (the second, after Ragnarok, directed by Waititi), and found Christian Bale's portrayal of a grieving, understandably vengeance-minded dad unexpectedly affecting. For my money, though, the continual flip-flops in tone never coalesced into a satisfying whole, and the longer the film lasted, the less secure it seemed in the effects it wanted to produce. Waititi's latest is a tearjerker without tears; a slapstick without momentum; an epic superhero saga in which nothing feels particularly at stake. To be sure, Love & Thunder delivers a half-dozen-or-so moments that are thoroughly enjoyable, even in reflection. If it were a better movie, you wouldn't be able to pinpoint them quite so definitively.
Depending on which presentational style you more actively wanted to promote, you could categorize this new stand-alone outing for Thor (played, as ever, by the eternally winning Chris Hemsworth) as either the bleakest of tragedies or most lightweight of farces. The tragic angle would focus primarily on Bale's Gorr, the bereaved papa eventually given the rather on-the-nose nickname Gorr the God Butcher. Armed with a supernaturally powerful sword and cursing the gods for their nonchalance in the face of his daughter's demise from heatstroke and dehydration, this scarred, vampiric loner initiates a plan to execute the lot of them, kidnapping a group of New Asgard-ian youths in the process. Meanwhile, for added misery, Thor's ex-girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) receives a terminal cancer diagnosis. She discovers her malady gone, however, and her biceps rippling, when she treks to New Asgard and holds her former beau's magically reformed hammer – an act that essentially turns Jane into Female Thor, but expedites the woman's fatal condition whenever she sets the weapon down.
But don't for a second think that Taika Waititi, with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson serving as co-screenwriter, has gone all Lars von Trier on us: Love & Thunder is a comedy! (Mostly.) Barring Thor's initial rom-com reacquaintance with Jane – from whom he's been separated for, by his account, eight years, seven months, and six days – there's not much that's inherently funny about the narrative. Waititi and Robinson, however, offer up so many free-floating comedic diversions that you could easily be fooled into thinking otherwise: a bedtime-story framing device with Waititi himself (voicing the ambulatory rock pile Korg) recounting the superhero's off-screen escapades; a battle-heavy reunion with the Guardians of the Galaxy; the Nora Ephron-y montage detailing the early, cuddly highs and inevitable lows of Thor's and Jane's relationship; sarcastic commentary and sardonic quips, though not nearly enough of them, courtesy of Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie; the rare mid-credits cookie – Marvel's reveal of an impending ass-kicker – in which a casting coup is practically its own punchline.
Plus, there's Russell Crowe as Zeus. Oh God, Russell Crowe as Zeus. I'm not sure when, precisely, the actor entered the Brando-as-Dr.-Moreau phase of his career, or if he's ever planning to leave it. I kind of hope he doesn't. Because in his role as the supreme ruler of the gods, delivering portentous proclamations in a riotously unfathomable accent that makes him sound like the skeeviest used-car salesman on Mount Olympus, Crowe is unerringly hysterical. His look does a lot of the heavy comic lifting, with Zeus' mop of curls and frilly toga-tutu suggesting that this divine being is secretly angling for the lead in a touring production of Annie. But the genius of this interpretation is pure Crowe – even his lines that aren't funny play funny – and the too-brief time the performer was on-screen handily constituted the best time I had at Love & Thunder.
Beyond Crowe's participation, the reason for that felt pretty evident: It was one of the only times in Waititi's movie in which the goal of a scene was absolutely clear and not muddied by uncomfortable paradoxes. We should be rooting for the rekindling of Thor's and Jane's romance, but Hemsworth and Portman share precious little chemistry here – far less than they did in Kenneth Branagh's 2011 franchise starter – and appear to have greater affinity for their characters' weapons than they do for one another. (That said, in Waititi's most subtly riotous bit of direction, Thor's ax Stormbreaker inspires a major cackle when it sneakily sidles into view, presumably pissed off at the affection its boss still holds for his old hammer Mjolnir.) We should be rooting for the vanquishing of Gorr, but that's made difficult given Bale's sobering, incensed portrayal, and virtually impossible when you're forced to admit that, yeah, the gods here really are assholes. We should be rooting for Thor and Valkyrie and company to save all those stolen New Asgard-ian kids, but come on, this is a Marvel movie – the studio may casually off one in a film's early minutes to give its über-villain some backstory, but no way is the Marvel brigade gonna let a whole tribe of children perish at that villain's hands.
Put simply, Thor: Love & Thunder is never as moving as it clearly wants to be; the rote action sequences prevent the film from ever being even halfway-exciting (traditional comic-book thrills almost seem like pesky afterthoughts); and the much ballyhooed Taika Waititi irreverence only comes through in fits and spurts. Considering I'm apparently one of only very few humans who didn't much care for Ragnarok, I was hardly blindsided by the disappointment of Marvel's latest, and I certainly preferred this offering to the disjointed mishmash of Sam Raimi's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness from two short months ago. So I suppose it's best to just console myself with the film's scattershot pleasures, such as the phenomenally unexpected cameo by Melissa McCarthy and consequently obligatory one by Ben Falcone, as well as the dying warrior whose fatal injuries lead her to expect entrance to Valhalla – only to be told that you have to die in battle to get there. (“Oh shit,” she laments.) And, of course, the presence of Zeus, who isn't around as much as you'd like but, ironically, more than you ultimately expect. That's definitely a feat to Crowe about.