Marvel Cinematic Universe fans have been locked in a debate about the quality, merits, and potential over-saturation of Phase Four since the very beginning. The movies keep getting bigger and bigger to the point they’re starting to creak under their own weight, while the Disney Plus shows are adding even more content to the churn, without so much as a hint of a direction pointing towards where this is all heading in the long run. For better or worse, Thor: Love and Thunder is emblematic of these complaints, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to enjoy the ride.
Taika Waititi breathed new life into the Odinson when he came aboard to right the ship with Ragnarok, turning the stoic and uninteresting Asgardian into one of the MCU’s most popular characters. The filmmaker took everything that worked the first time around and dials it up way past 11, which is fitting for a film so heavily inspired and indebted to over-the-top excess and 1980s hair metal.
As a result, the narrative winds up being pulled in at least half a dozen directions at once for two-thirds of the running time, yielding a frequently hilarious, disarmingly charming, and fun-filled superhero romp that teeters right on the brink of self-aware absurdity, but also a massively unfocused one that forces itself to make regular jarring tonal shifts to accomplish a goal as simple as bringing the plot from point A to B.
The cold open introduces Christian Bale’s Gorr the God Butcher, and there’s barely a quip to be found in a surprisingly effective method of introducing Love and Thunder‘s big bad and establishing his motivations through exposition before we’re even reintroduced to the raft of familiar MCU faces, but then it’s immediately a headfirst dive into Waititi’s psychedelic fever dreams.
This is basically how the entirety of the fourth Thor solo outing works; serious emotional beat segues into irreverent comedy, and then an action scene comes along to punctuate the drama and laughs with some spectacle. Admittedly, it’s not the worst approach in the world, but Love and Thunder is one of the rare occasions when an MCU blockbuster would have genuinely benefited from being anywhere between 15 and 20 minutes longer.
Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster and Peter Dinklage’s Eitri didn’t make the final cut despite shooting scenes where they’re presumably killed off (as revealed by Bale), but Jaimie Alexander’s Sif is brought back to contribute precisely nothing of note to the cosmic tale. Several significant story beats, character interactions, and even set pieces feel rushed and abrupt, and while you’d expect them to have been trimmed for pacing reasons, there’s still time for a running joke about relentlessly screaming flying space goats, as well as a fairly lengthy scene featuring Sam Neill, Matt Damon, and Luke Hemsworth’s Asgardian actors, this time with added celebrity cameos!
It’s almost as if everything was thrown at the wall marked “Love and Thunder” to see what stuck and what slid down onto the floor, leading to a hasty edit that cuts the wrong moments short at an even worse time. It’s fun to hear Korg mock the Warriors Three for essentially being useless sidekicks that nobody cares about, but breezing through the long-awaited and hotly-anticipated return of Jane Foster almost entirely through visual and expository cues that take up mere minutes of screentime combined doesn’t really do either her, or her arc, proper justice.
Thankfully, though, the one area of Thor 4 that can’t be faulted on any level is the cast. Hemsworth is back and buffer than ever, but he’s still adding new layers of complexity to the all-powerful title hero, who this time finds himself stuck in a mid-life crisis at the age of 1500 years old, until the return of his former flame lights a fire under him.
Charming and charismatic to a fault, the leading man hits all the right emotional beats, even when he’s wrapped up in a bizarre sojourns and a surprisingly effective comedic subplot within a subplot driven entirely be visual gags that finds Stormbreaker getting jealous over his feelings for the renewed and reinvigorated Mjolnir.
Portman, meanwhile, brings the pathos you’d expect from an Oscar-winner to Jane’s dramatic undercurrent, while also getting the chance to flex her literal action hero muscles through a series of walloping hammer-assisted smackdowns. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie continues to present an increasingly insurmountable case for a solo spinoff with another dry-witted turn, Waititi’s endearing Korg deals almost exclusively in one-liners but still threatens to steal the movie, while Russell Crowe perfectly understands the assignment by bringing sleazy vibes to his wildly over-the-top caricature of Zeus, who feels like a House of Gucci castoff in the best possible way.
If anyone suffers, then, it’s Bale. That’s not to say he doesn’t make the most of what he’s given, with Gorr demanding your attention whenever he’s taking center stage, but Love and Thunder could have used more of him. On paper, he plays as a standard MCU villain (complete with “we’re not so different, you and I” stylings), but the method man’s commitment is on full display through oxymoronically memorable work that’s broad without being showy, but still eerie and sinister enough to get under the skin.
Waititi has created a weird, wild, and wonderful slice of comic book escapism, with the constantly-changing backdrops and visual palettes evoking splash pages and panels ripped right from the Marvel’s printed back catalog, with the standout a monochrome showdown deep in the Shadow Realm. On the other side of the coin, there’s a borderline self-indulgence that almost creeps in on more than one occasion, neatly providing both sides of the argument for (and perhaps against) allowing the New Zealander to have his creative cake and eat it, too.
Thor: Love and Thunder deals in big themes including love, loss, grief, guilt, self-hatred, and pain, but there’s always a zinger lurking right around the corner. More tonal consistency would have arguably yielded a more cohesive and ultimately superior end product, but Waititi is pretty much the filmmaking equivalent of a kid set loose in a candy store, which makes his latest feature the ultimate superhero sugar rush.
It’s exhilarating while it lasts, creating an unwavering feeling of giddy excitement and palpable enthusiasm in doing so, but by the time the credits roll on a pair of post-credits scenes that hint towards where Thor is heading next, you might be left wishing you’d consumed something more substantial, instead of gorging on instant gratification simply because it’s right there in front of you.