Yeah. I know. We’re at a point with the MCU where critics and audiences are feeling fatigue, and becoming harder to please. And that’s totally reasonable. We get a Marvel Studios product at least once a month. And maybe some work better than others.
But frankly, I’ve been enjoying Phase 4. It’s been experimental and weird, and that’s completely vibing with me. And surprisingly enough, Thor: Love and Thunder may just be my favorite installment of this phase so far; something I honestly didn’t expect to say. Shame on me for ever doubting the lovable firecracker that is Taika Waititi.
At the premiere for the film, Kevin Feige was asked what genre of movie we could expect from Thor: Love and Thunder, and his response was “the Taika genre.” And it makes sense why. This film, top to bottom bears the mark of its director. And that’s precisely why it works for me. Waititi knows how to make movies that are zany and nuts and farcical one moment, and heartbreakingly sob-worthy the next. And for my money, that’s what we get with Love and Thunder; even moreso than what he gave us with Ragnarok. Which is why (warning: controversial statement ahead) I’m in the minority that thinks Love and Thunder is a richer and more mature movie than its predecessor. I liked it quite a bit more. And that is saying something given how much I liked Ragnarok.
Thor: Love and Thunder takes elements of two of the most iconic recent Thor stories by Jason Aaron (Gorr the God Butcher and Jane Foster becoming The Mighty Thor) and combines them into an original story about Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finding himself and finding love and purpose.
We get a momentary glimpse of his adventures with the
Guardians “Asgardians” of the Galaxy (where we left off with him in Avengers: Endgame) that comes to a close when he discovers someone is going around killing deities around the universe. As Thor goes to investigate, we catch up with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who we find out (as we did in the comics) has been diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. In her desperation to find some semblance of hope in possible survival, she begins hearing the fragments of Mjolnir calling to her on New Asgard. And that is when she, Thor Odinson, and King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) come together to do battle with the culprit behind the god slayings, Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale). Together all three of them plus Korg (Taika Waititi) ban together to stop Gorr from eliminating all gods, while dealing with the personal crises that befall each character.
Now that we have the synopsis out of the way, let’s get back to why I think this is better than Ragnarok. It comes down to four words: it has more heart. There is a big beating bleeding heart in Love and Thunder that I felt was missing from the otherwise terrific Ragnarok. Waititi gives every character a strong, sympathetic arc to invest in, and brilliant moments to shine, regardless of whether they’re top-billed or not. There’s simply no comparison between, say, the sympathetic nature and story of Bale’s Gorr over Blanchett’s funny, but essentially two-dimensional Hela. And more than that, to take on the challenge of making us genuinely care about the relationship between Jane Foster and Thor, something that we truly never did in the first two Thor films, and genuinely succeeding is not a feat that should be understated.
In fact, Portman was unfortunately given so little to do in Thor and Thor: The Dark World, that I personally wasn’t all that interested in seeing her return for this installment. I narrow-mindedly assumed, given the MCU version of Jane was never quite as well-developed as her comic book counterpart, that her assuming the mantle of The Mighty Thor would feel unearned. Yet, once again, me underestimating both Waititi as a writer/director and Portman as an actress has proven to be my undoing.
I was left astonished by how much I loved Jane Foster in this, and how hers is a tragic, and beautiful story of heroism and sacrifice. Her relationship with Thor feels so much sweeter here than it did in previous installments. But more importantly her character feels way more mature and a hundred times more sympathetic. And it’s the product of Waititi, not only giving her a lot to do from an action standpoint, but also a heartfelt and touching emotional arc. She’s tough; she’s tragic; she’s funny. Every time she explodes onto the screen with her deconstructed Mjolnir, it just fills you with joy and adrenaline as shards of it fly around decimating monsters like mini-asteroid bullets. You’ve literally never loved this character more than you will in this film.
And while the Planet Hulk Sakaar storyline of the previous film was a great deal of fun to watch, I just don’t think it holds a candle to a storyline about a lost god who has to learn to embrace love again, even if it means experiencing further hardships to get there. There’s something thematically richer in the idea of giving Thor an introspective challenge like that, which to me, makes the story much more interesting, and helps the character grow significantly.
We’ve known since the last time we’ve seen him that Thor’s had no path. We know he’s lost everyone he’s ever loved. It’s natural that he would distance himself from the idea of love, and he’d be going through something of an identity crisis. If you let superficial aspects like him cracking jokes through the movie distract you from the story of his growth after these emotionally heavy elements, then you’re really missing out on what Waititi has crafted as a terrific and well fleshed out arc for The God of Thunder. Thor evolves and accepts the idea of love in this, and there are consequences as a result of this story that will alter the course of this character for the rest of his tenure in the MCU, should his story continue. And while that may or may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I not only appreciated it, but embraced these changes with arms wide open.
What Waititi does for these characters, coupled with the terrific performances of Hemsworth, Portman, Bale, and Thompson create genuine stakes for them. Our established affinity for them, combined with the desire to see them grow by the end of this story, naturally helps to create tension whenever we see them in danger or in a battle we believe they won’t win. And I think a lot of that also comes from the sentiment that Gorr is a genuine threat.
He’s arguably the creepiest villain we’ve ever encountered in the MCU, and yet one of the most sympathetic, courtesy of Bale’s brilliance. Gorr’s story is also stained with tragedy and pathos. We understand where he’s coming from, and why he’s doing what he’s doing. And at times, there’s a part of us that hopes he succeeds in the name of justice in regards to how much he’s suffered. That makes him formidable from both an emotional level, and a physical level.
Granted, on a physical level within the film, the action scenes and fights are well staged and a blast to see, with one of them even being ambitiously filmed in black-and-white with traces of color. Which in and of itself makes this installment refreshing to see, considering Waititi is trying to do new things with superhero action on a stylistic level. But more importantly, what makes these scenes more thrilling is that our heroes and our antagonist are incredibly multi-dimensional.
In between moments of the signature Waititi levity and the action, are scenes where characters simply stop to chat with one another to see how they’re dealing with the challenges of finding love, handling loss, or moving forward with their lives. For example, there’s a terrific conversation between Korg and Valkyrie mid-way through the film that shows you she’s more than just a warrior. She’s a deeply wounded hero dealing with her own similar emotional challenges. In fact, Thompson, by the way, is absolutely amazing! She’s fierce and funny, acting as the emotional bridge between Thor and Mighty Thor. She’s both a terrific friend and advisor for both when they need it, and an absolute badass that can wreck any opponent who challenges her.
And it’s the simple but significant things like this that showcase how Waititi builds these characters out and evolves them and their relationships. Thus making the characters feel real to us. That way, the dangers feel real too, which creates a looming sense of tension and suspense that we didn’t get in Ragnarok or even some other MCU films (looking at you Black Widow).
Now as far as the gripes go (because I know that’s what everyone wants to hear about with the MCU nowadays), yeah the movie isn’t as funny as Ragnarok. Some of the jokes fall flat. There’s a recurring bit about Jane Foster and catchphrases that doesn’t work (ironic since there was a similar gag in the Waititi-starring Free Guy last year). And that’s okay. Not every joke has to land.
I still really did find myself laughing a ton. The goats, Toothgnasher and Toothgrinder really are hilarious. The Guardians are really funny in their limited screentime. And Waititi goes for cheesy gags that surprisingly made me laugh a great deal! And in general I hate cheese. But Waititi somehow makes it work in ways other directors would completely fail at because he’s an organically funny guy and approaches humor with sincerity and heart. However, if I’m going to be frank, folks dissatisfied about the movie merely because a cosmetic element like humor not being as strong as the previous film, really should be focusing on what this movie does better instead. It contains much better emotion, character arcs, and story: elements that are arguably more important to storytelling than jokes. And in all of those categories, Love and Thunder improves on Ragnarok.
There’s perhaps one section of the film that I felt wasn’t entirely critical to the rest of the story (apart from the acquisition of a weapon), which is the Omnipotence City scene. I think, if folks have a general complaint about MCU films, it’s the idea that some scenes within a film serve only to set up sequels or expand the franchise for future installments. And this scene, which features a hilarious accented Russell Crowe as Zeus, mostly ends up being guilty of this sin. It’s still an entertaining moment in the movie, and one that helps clarify the idea of conflicting deities and ideologies within the MCU, while also paying tribute to a portion of the Gorr storyline from the Aaron run. But I think the film is at its strongest when it’s centered on the five characters and their physical, personal, and emotional goals. So this seemed more like a non-essential side quest to the overall story than anything.
But going back to things that fill me with joy about this movie — the soundtrack! Now, for the score, Michael Giacchino naturally does terrific work as always. It, of course, still doesn’t top his score from The Batman earlier this year, but it’s still fine work. However, more than the score, Waititi’s selection of awesome metal classics and Guns N’ Roses hits really enhances everything we’re seeing on screen. He’s taken the approach he did to the Led Zepplin Odinforce scene in Ragnarok and amplified it by infinity here, and it makes the movie a ridiculously fun headbanging blast as it harmonizes his gorgeous visuals and breathtaking action with the badass sounds of Axl and the gang. There’s a completely heavy metal scene in the third act set to “November Rain” that’s just so incredibly awesome, it has to be seen!
At the end of the day, I’d be repeating several reviews you’ve likely read by now in saying that whether you like this movie or not depends on how you feel about Taika Waititi. I love Waititi’s work and style, and thus, obviously, I loved this movie! He’s never disappointed me. Yes, there are going to be jokes. But personally, never once did I feel they overpowered the emotion, the thrills, the themes, the character development, and the overall heart this movie wears on its colorful, hard rocking sleeves. If you can’t look past Waititi’s proclivity for humor, to see the most beautiful moments within this movie, then you are ultimately at a loss. Because Thor: Love and Thunder is a terrific, ridiculously fun movie, and — dare I say it — my favorite MCU film of Phase 4!
Overall Score: A-
Thor: Love and Thunder hits theaters this Friday, July 8!