With 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” director Taika Waititi injected new life into what had otherwise become the dullest standalone character series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He made it more colorful, brought a wacky sense of humor to the proceedings, surrounded the lead characters with delightfully weird supporting players, and allowed star Chris Hemsworth to cultivate a good-natured himbo personality for the mighty Asgardian god, while still giving his character a solid arc that was steeped in familial entanglements and self-doubt about his worthiness as a hero.
Waititi returns as director (as well as co-writer, along with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson) for that film’s sequel, “Thor: Love and Thunder,” and it’s clear almost from the get-go that they are trying everything possible to replicate the success of “Ragnarok.” In a recap framed by the way of Thor’s buddy Korg (a comic relief sidekick/rock being played by Waititi who was introduced in “Ragnarok”) telling a story, viewers are quickly brought up to speed with what Thor has been up to since the events of “Avengers: Endgame.” His depression-fueled weight gain that was played for laughs in that latter movie is quickly shed, and he joins up with the Guardians of the Galaxy (all of whom appear at the start of this film and are given just the right amount of screen time before getting out of way) to help save the galaxy. Korg also vocalizes what amounts to this film’s thesis statement: that having lost so much, from his father and his brother to his hammer Mjolnir (since replaced by his axe Stormbreaker), Thor is struggling to open up to love again.
It’s at this moment that Thor’s ex-girlfriend scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, who appeared in the first two Thor movies but sat out “Ragnarok”) comes back into his life after a period of eight years, only this time, she looks a little different: Jane has assembled the broken pieces of Mjolnir and has taken up the mantle of the Mighty Thor. She joins up with Thor and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who is now the king of New Asgard, to stop the god-butcher Gorr (a magnificently frightening Christian Bale, who uses his limited screen time to the fullest to craft a memorable villain), who seeks vengeance for the death of his daughter and the betrayal of his faith by slaughtering all the gods he comes across.
There are some interesting ideas being played around with in “Thor: Love and Thunder.” Thor’s character arc feels a lot like it is retreading the same ground already covered in “Ragnarok,” but it also feels like a natural progression from the place we see him in in “Endgame.” The concept that Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) presents to Thor at the start of the film, that it is better to feel something as opposed to nothing at all, is a nice, and while I’ve never been totally sold on the Thor/Jane relationship, Hemsworth and Portman exhibit a little bit of an easier chemistry here that leads up to some moving scenes in the film’s climax. There are also some intriguing parallels drawn between Thor and Gorr. The film opens with Gorr stumbling across a desert, clutching his young daughter in his arms. His daughter passes away, and when he finally comes across an oasis and his god Dionysus (Simon Russell Beale), his pleas for help in return for his unwavering faith fall on deaf ears. A similar scene occurs about midway through the movie, when Thor and his friends journey to the aptly-named Omnipotent City to crash a meeting of the gods and ask the almighty Zeus (Russell Crowe with a funky accent) to assemble an army to take down Gorr. Leading up to the meeting, Thor enthusiastically describes to Jane how as a child he looked up to Zeus, and he’s visibly enthralled by the god’s flashy entrance. But when he actually presents his request to Zeus, the god doesn’t intend to help at all, writing off Gorr’s victims as just some low-level gods and only showing interest in planning an orgy.
While shaken faith and disappointing gods are what set Gorr off on his path of revenge, the effects of this encounter on Thor aren’t mined for any deeper meaning. Like the rest of the movie’s plotlines, themes, and jokes, it’s something that’s thrown in the movie with the hopes it will stick. For a film whose conflict involves wide-ranging destruction across the universe, it feels incredibly contained; we never see the ramifications of Gorr’s violence outside of a small group of people. Compared to “Ragnarok,” which had a consistent tone and thoughtful character moments, “Love and Thunder” is wildly inconsistent. When the humor lands, it’s great, and I appreciate Waititi’s commitment to absurd bits (from screaming goats to the treatment of Thor’s relationship with Mjolnir and Stormbreaker like a love triangle), but a lot of this movie is hit or miss, with scenes that were a bit hit in “Ragnarok” being revisited here to lesser effect. I credit some of the best and most amusing scenes from coming from some of the film’s child actors, namely Kieron L. Dyer, who plays Thor’s late friend Heimdall’s son Axl, and Hemsworth’s real life daughter India getting a great scene with her dad at the end of the film. The character arcs, meanwhile are either heavy-handed or next-to-nonexistent. While a montage at the start of the film shows Valkyrie’s obvious dissatisfaction with the daily duties of being a leader, from ribbon-cuttings to town hall meetings, it doesn’t feel like she’s present in the film for much more purpose than to chime in with a few quips here and there and serve as the film’s flimsy LGBTQ ornamentation (sidebar: watching this movie makes the queerbaiting that has been coming from Waititi and the cast during this film’s press tour all the more blatant; like most projects from Disney and the MCU, “Love and Thunder” does the bare minimum). Jane’s appearance in the film is drawn from Jason Aaron’s run of the Mighty Thor comics, and while it’s very cool to see that iteration of Thor on the big screen, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that she was only brought back to serve as the catalyst for Thor’s journey of self-discovery.
“Love and Thunder” is as messy visually as it is narratively. The film’s marketing promises an 80s aesthetic that it doesn’t really possess outside of some colorful costumes, a smattering of Guns N’ Roses songs, and an end credits sequence that amounts to throwing as many metal band fonts onto the screen as possible. The lighting ranges from artificially bright to overwhelmingly dim. There’s a neat sequence where Thor and the gang venture into Gorr’s realm and the film is suddenly sapped of all color, but that playfulness with the visuals doesn’t entirely make up for other scenes where the environments just look flat. “Love and Thunder” is the first Marvel movie to use the Stagecraft technology that was developed for and first used on the series “The Mandalorian,” and while it is very cool, innovative tech, it’s easy to see how an overreliance on it without using it in conjunction with traditional sets and location shooting can lead to a project that looks too fake—even for a movie that isn’t entirely set on Earth.
“Love and Thunder” does have a heart that is evident beneath all its flaws, and at the end of the day, it does its job when it comes to making the audience want more, with a final scene that promises a new dynamic for Thor that will be a lot of fun to explore more if the next installments of the series choose to do so. While its place in the MCU as a whole feels uncertain, it does work better as a standalone film unconnected to the rest of universe than some of Marvel’s most recent movies. It’s always interesting to see filmmakers with a distinct voice like Waititi tackling established franchises like this, but while “Love and Thunder” is still unmistakably his movie, it is sadly not immune to lazy writing and stylistic choices that undercut the emotional moments it does have.
“Thor: Love and Thunder” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 119 minutes. Rated PG-13.