Thor Odinson, Marvel’s prodigal son, has been through some stuff.
More than any other Avenger, the God of Thunder has had the most tumultuous run. Thor’s first two solo films cast him as a self-serious, arrogant leader. He wasn’t joyless, but not someone you’d grab a drink with. Ragnarok saw Taika Waititi reset the character into an irreverent, slightly ridiculous god wrapped in a Technicolor fantasy. Infinity War and Endgame put Thor through the emotional paces, leaving him deeply traumatized. (Whether the Russos adequately addressed that trauma is another issue entirely.)
After a decade of internal upheaval and external crises, perhaps Marvel thought Thor needed another reboot. But where does he go from here?
According to Thor: Love and Thunder, straight into a lightning-powered meet-again-cute. After a (very) brief detour with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Taika Waititi’s second Marvel film throws Thor (Chris Hemsworth) headfirst into a battle with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), now wielding Mjolnir as Mighty Thor. They team up with King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to stop Gorr the God-Butcher (Christian Bale) from killing the deity community. When he isn’t trying to rescue a group of Asgardian children that Gorr kidnapped, Thor is freaking out over Jane, trying to play the casual ex who doesn’t want that old thing back (girlfriend and weapon).
It might sound like I’m making fun, but Love and Thunder is Marvel’s first real stab at a romantic comedy, with some liberties. Ragnarok’s farcical tone carries over here, with much of the comedic tension coming from Thor’s unresolved feelings for Jane. Given her limited presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the conceit of Thor and Jane’s transformative and tragic romance shouldn’t work. However, Waititi, Hemsworth, and Portman make it work with great romantic banter, standard rom-com tropes, and a game attitude that leans best into the film’s silliness. In this new context, you could argue Jane and Thor are one of Marvel’s most successful romantic pairings.
Outside of its rom-com framework, Love and Thunder wobbles under scrutiny. The film is often a riot, but its silly personality only takes it so far. There are plenty of jokes and sight gags — some re-packaged from Ragnarok — to keep audiences engaged, but the laughs ring hollow. There are only so many times you can giggle at squealing flying goats or an orgy-obsessed Zeus (Russell Crowe) before it all feels stale. Seeing the film inebriated might help that problem.
What doesn’t help is how Waititi’s absurdist take undercuts the themes he attempts to engage. Love and Thunder seeks to comment on the power of love and what happens when we lose it. For Gorr, his daughter’s death and the callousness of the god he worshipped spurs his vengeful mission. Thor, who lost his mother, brother, girlfriend, and half of the population, could likely relate to Gorr’s disenchantment. However, Thor turns the knife inward, shutting himself off to protect his thunderstruck heart. Emotional parallels like this make for the best conflicts, but Waititi is too busy with comedy to thread the needle.
Love and Thunder feels like a low-stakes effort for a film ostensibly about a god-killer. The film never seriously takes Gorr’s mission to rid the world of disinterested and shallow gods. Gorr should be terrifying, or at least disturbing. Again, the tone undercuts his potentially cataclysmic ambitions, leaving them unhinged from the film’s reality. You could argue that not every movie needs catastrophe to work, and you’d be right. But the MCU set that bar, and Love and Thunder continues Phase 4’s trend of inconsistent, unclear stakes. (To its credit, Love and Thunder’s ending does point to where the MCU is heading.)
The weightless frivolity of Love and Thunder’s plot translates to its visuals. They aren’t good. Critics and some fans have recently dinged Marvel for its visual effects, but the degradation is distractingly obvious here. The locations are beautifully designed and rendered, from a distance. Throw a human into the shot, and they flatten into colorful but lifeless backgrounds. The film doesn’t try to hide the use of blue screens and composite shots, with some actors having filmed at different times. Even if you grant some pandemic-era grace, it’s shameful for a film budgeted with a small fortune to output something like this. Marvel needs to re-consider the strain it’s putting on VFX artists with its punishing schedule.
Even if Love and Thunder’s cast were Photoshopped into scenes together, they do a great job making the film’s vision work for them. Hemsworth is as charismatic and hilarious as he was in Ragnarok, perhaps even better. Portman looks like she’s having a blast playing a thunder god, playing Jane with a bright, wide-eyed, infectious joy. Hemsworth and Portman work well as awkward romantic foils to each other, and they succeed in fleshing out the emotional beats that Waititi doesn’t. Thompson is always a joy to watch as the biting, troubled Valkyrie. Christian Bale makes the most solid impression as Gorr’s narrative arc closes, when he gets to play to the pathos that informs it.
Love and Thunder is a solid, likable entry in the MCU that reflects the larger issues plaguing Phase 4. Taika Waititi still gets Thor, but he struggles in this film with balancing the character’s campy and somber elements. Love and Thunder clearly wanted to be a rom-com. However, either Waititi’s wacky impulses or Feige’s broader MCU ambitions, caused the film to lose that focus in a minefield of easy laughs, slight thematic beats, and flat visuals. Still, its well-meaning silliness and heart ultimately win out.