Have you experienced Marvel burnout yet? A lot of people seem to have, with the relentless cavalcade of TV shows adding to the ongoing march of three to four films a year. I don’t think I’m there yet, especially as when a film underwhelms a show comes along that gives it all that little extra boost – but this latest series of films and shows have been a little more underwhelming because there’s no narrative interconnectivity, which is what made the films before and including Avengers Endgame work so well (and dominate the cultural conversation).
One of the more notable films to come before that part of the ongoing saga concluded was Thor Ragnarok, which was a completely unexpected, batshit Thor movie that took everything about the character that hadn’t worked and played with it, taking it to extremes and making the whole shebang hilarious (without skimping on the drama or sadness). As the Asgardian space Viking returns again (in a rare fourth outing for a Marvel hero), so too does writer and director Taika Waititi, bringing along his trademark abrupt tonal shifts, zany humour and understanding of how to puncture the Shakespearean bluster of Thor.
At the end of Endgame, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) leaves Earth with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and a few years later we pick up with this madcap group as they continue to save the galaxy, though Thor is not only the most powerful but the most disassociated and disaffected. Fortunately for him, the mysterious Gorr (Christian Bale) is wiping out gods across the universe, giving Thor some purpose – while at the same time, his former flame Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) reappears in his life with his old hammer and his powers, adding yet more complexity to the poor guy’s already complicated life.
While Ragnarok was a supercharged breath of fresh air for Thor as a character, Love and Thunder feels… very much a COVID movie. Marrying the abrupt handbrake turns of tone Waititi is known for with character progression for a character we’ve not seen for nearly four years, plus bringing back an old character in an attempt to atone for how poorly she was handled before, means the Kiwi director has a lot on his plate. With COVID meaning this production was marooned in Australia, there’s a highly greenscreen feel to a lot of scenes, and as with many of the other Marvel films made around that time, there’s an unconnected feel that makes it all feel a bit off, while also being a bit much.
Waititi is good at zany, that much is clear – he’s also good at balancing that with tragedy, as evidenced by Hunt for the Wilderpeople and, more disturbingly, Jojo Rabbit. Here however, he and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson manage to provide many laughs, but some go on too long (and not in a good way, like the hilarious drawn-out scenes with the much-missed Jeff Goldblum in Ragnarok). Ironically, given Thor is searching for purpose, this film feels the same way – there’s a sense of missed potential, of rushing through and adorning the speedy plot with as many quirks as possible to keep the audience happy.
All of this seems really negative – but the film is still funny. Waititi is a good director, and whether it’s surprisingly violent god-killing action (gold blood somehow makes it less vivid) or film-pausing muses on friendship or how Korg’s species procreates (lava pools and holding hands, apparently), he knows how to surprise the viewer. However – I feel like his excesses were curbed in search of a streamlined movie, as there are many reports of cut cameos and some frankly disturbing face-replacement CGI in a couple of scenes to suggest that it was cut down and rehashed. In turn, the improv-heavy sequences are quite clear to spot, and while that can sometimes result in screamingly-funny humour, here some of it goes on too long and loses its hilarity.
This is a shame – Ragnarok had a great balance of Marvel stakes, Marvel plots and Waititi insanity. Love and Thunder feels like it’s got that balance all wrong, and in seeing that the film had four (!) editors, it’s not hard to realise why it feels the way it does to me. It could have been more cohesive, and the stark opening is an insight into how good it could have been without being so managed. Bale’s Gorr suffers unspeakable, grim tragedy within the first couple of minutes, and then obtains the means to take revenge on deities who’ve forsaken him and others – before we lurch straight into a (relatively unfunny) Korg narration and montage of Thor.
What I’m trying to say is that the film needed room to breathe – it’s only just two hours, which some will be happy about, but in this case I think it might have benefitted from more time and more depth. While most of the action scenes are often funny, distinctive and visual, they can also sometimes degrade into a CGI mishmash; in stark contrast (and no pun intended), a set piece in the Shadow Realm drained of colour is visually brave, interesting and intelligent. It almost feels avant-garde: the sound is dialled down from surround, the poppy colours of Thor’s armour and that of his allies disappears, and it allows Bale to engage in harrowing villainy. The film in general doesn’t have enough of this interesting variety to really hit home, for me.
To quickly get other disappointments out of the way here, Michael Giacchino and Nami Melumad’s really forgettable score (surprisingly for the very John Williams-esque Giacchino, this is yet another example of where his theme creation just disappears) joins recent Marvel fare in failing to live up to previously strong soundtracks. However – and I’m now going to shift gears to positivity – the strategic deployment of Guns ‘N’ Roses throughout this film is genius, and shows a clever symbiosis between Waititi and James Gunn’s anarchic Guardians of the Galaxy (who, incidentally, are barely in this – a film combining them and Thor is a seriously missed opportunity).
If Thor were a permanent member of that team, you just KNOW that GNR would be his 80s band of choice – only accentuated by the get-up Hemsworth’s in during Thor’s time with the Guardians. Waititi deploys some of the band’s most famous songs throughout in pointed ways, and as mentioned it was like seeing Gunn’s sensibilities filtered through Waititi’s lens. Keeping this positivity going, Barry Idoine’s cinematography (notably in that black and white scene mentioned earlier) strives to make this film visually pop, and while the greenscreens often overwhelm what’s going on, he’s able to paint a wide range of distinctive, visually diverse worlds and domains with rainbows, monochrome, opulence and more. It all felt very 80s, which was clearly the point, but tied into the more cosmic leanings of the Marvel universe onscreen and off-earth.
No one is often watching a Marvel film for Oscar-winning performances, so I’ll be brief. Chris Hemsworth is still great as Thor, and Waititi’s understanding of how to unearth the comic actor beneath the muscles has changed my perception of the Aussie. He’s got that perfect balance of beefcake, tragedy, emotion and comedy, and with Thor having gone through far more than any other Marvel character at this point (illustrated pretty well in the opening narration!), Hemsworth ably switches between disillusionment, childish joy, anger and sensitivity as the film requires.
He works best when sparring verbally with others, and as mentioned earlier, it’s a real shame we’re robbed of more Thor and Guardians time, as you get the sense Chrises Pratt and Hemsworth would have made a top double act for a whole film. Where the film leaves him is a very interesting place to build on for any future movies, giving the actor even more to work with – when that might be, who knows, but other actors playing Marvel heroes might envy the depth of character development Thor’s been given and continues to enjoy.
His best scenes tend to be with Portman, who returns for a nice coda to her terrible, damsel treatment in earlier films as Jane Foster. Balancing some heavy scenes with some gawky humour, it’s nice to see her get to do something meaningful with this character at last, and in inheriting Mjolnir and Thor’s powers, Portman has the chance to get involved in the action – while not neglecting a hidden trauma and life-changing reality behind the suit.
Sadly for Tessa Thompson fans, she does little but quip here, Valkyrie ironically another case of Marvel’s “here’s a female character people might like that we’ll then just do nothing with for a few films”. Waititi’s Korg suffers a similar fate, but was always created to be comic relief, and these two characters are best when together rather than with anyone else. Bale’s villain is really very good, but like Cate Blanchett’s Hela Gorr feels robbed of more time to make a real impact. The intense actor balances that intensity (in some quite kid-unfriendly scenes) with an unhinged humour, a sense of (understandable) injustice and some quite emotionally-rich scenes underlining why the villain does what he does. It’s just a shame the nature of these films (with the exceptions of Spider-Man: No Way Home and Black Panther) rarely give the villains the time they need to be all-round characters, rather than archetypes.
Speaking of archetypes – Russell Crowe pitches up as a decadent, portly, and haughty Zeus (yes, Zeus), sporting a shocking “Greek” accent, and threatening to steal the middle patch of the film in Omnipotent City, the home of the gods. This whole section is ripe with unrealised potential (there are some great god cameos), but Crowe is larger than life (in more ways than one), and you can see him popping up again. He’s still not a patch on Goldblum though – and Ted Lasso fans will want to stick around for halfway through the end credits, because the reveal of a new character there made me laugh out LOUD.
It’s hard to quantify my feelings on Love and Thunder, really. It has a lot going for it and a lot going against it – it was, though, still an entertaining diversion for a couple of hours. However, it’s clearer now more than ever that Marvel needs that underlying focus and “endgame” plot to connect all of its disparate characters and events – with what they’ve recently announced (I won’t spoil it) it’s clear that’s in the planning, but hopefully it becomes more concentrated soon, and filmmakers start being given a bit more latitude to express themselves within this framework.