Serious films can have comedic elements without losing their focus and motive. Marvel knows this very well, generating billions of dollars off a wicked combination of pathos and well-written humor. We’re not talking about frat boy humor regurgitated in a format that seems tired from the jump; The MCU has mastered this technique, but I believe Taika Waititi has refined it to a high level.
First, he burst onto the comic book hero scene with 2017’s “Thor Ragnarok,” a rollicking laugh-out-loud and story-building action adventure that got better each viewing. This week’s latest entry, following spring’s unconventional “Doctor Strange in the Multitude of Madness,” is a continuation of that well-balanced trend–but delivered with a special concoction of heart, sensitivity, and heavier themes.
Christian Bale’s dying refugee sets the deeper tone early on, giving audiences their first look at the man that will soon (in about a scene or two) be known as Gorr the God Butcher. Every villain starts out as a hero before they run into a wall that defines the rest of their lives. An actor of Bale’s caliber lifts Gorr to another level, helping give the film some early weight and stakes. He breathes real life into Gorr, keeping the part from getting too campy or over the top. We know he’s coming for everyone’s favorite blonde, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor Odinson, and there’s an indescribable feeling knowing these two are going to clash.
It’s Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster who sits as the Queen buried at the heart of Waititi’s tale. With all due respect to the dudes, “Thor: Love and Thunder” is really owned by the fierce ladies. Portman is written very well, thanks to the screenwriting infusion of Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s script. By bringing Robinson on to add another layer to his story and give it extra substance, Waititi gave this film the extra juice to be something more than just another quirky superhero movie. It’s a full-bodied experience of a movie, something you will relish extra each time you see it.
Portman’s Foster was terribly underwritten in the first two “Thor” films, so seeing her get a multi-faceted storyline is a refreshing twist for Kevin Feige’s behemoth. If you’re going to pull an Oscar winner back into the fray, don’t waste the shot. Adding in Tessa Thompson’s 100% riot of a character in Valkyrie doesn’t have to merely share the screen with Portman; both ladies take control of the film. It’s a different jam, and the ladies are a movie in themselves. They burn the men, build a higher body count, and still have time to look smashing in costume. Substance goes a long way.
Russell Crowe’s Zeus isn’t what you think, and that’s a very good thing. I’ll leave it at that. He doesn’t have a huge part, but let’s say the “Gladiator” star has one of the funniest moments in the film. Instead of cutting carbs and lifting weights 24/7 like his Hercules-like co-star, Crowe leaned into a different speed for the vital role. Just wait. Oh, and if you want more of Waititi’s lovable sidekick, Korg, you’re in for an extra treat… and plenty of bedtime stories for the kiddos.
The soundtrack, sound, visual effects, and editing have an intuitive feel. The first 30 minutes does try hard to replicate “Ragnarok,” but then it breaks off into its own lane fairly quickly. It’s never dull and doesn’t overstay its welcome either. Marvel’s overall batch of goods since the finality of “Endgame” hasn’t been great, and sometimes the runtime ends up being the real villain.
“Thor: Love and Thunder” keeps things moving, but carries a bigger heart than last time and carries higher stakes as well. Bale’s Gorr isn’t here to knock on the door of the reloaded Asgard-breathtaking in its visual depiction-he wants to take all of it down. Hemsworth’s Thor will have a say in that, but he’s also trying to wrap his head around the reappearance of Jane, the brilliant scientist who dumped him–or did she? After he’s done crashing and bashing with the “Guardians,” the ax-wielding Thor comes home for the shock of a lifetime.
Again, Waititi doesn’t just make this a boring subplot that acts like an entrance ramp to the kinetic MCU action we’ve all come to expect. If the film has a weakness, it’s the now elementary, or expected, energy of an action sequence from a Marvel movie. Outside of one particular scene involving a group of young Asgardians, the rest of the battles and showdowns in this film are run-of-the-mill, at least when measured against the standard. You just know what to expect, and that lessens the nerve-racking element of watching good versus evil.
What makes the film durable and winning is the rare blend of comedy and serious drama weight, which is pushed through by a game cast. Hemsworth now makes this look easy, but he has a few emotional moments that hit you out of nowhere. The versatile Australian makes it all look easy, even the near-complete nude “interrogation” scene with Crowe’s Zeus. A marvel of human dimensions, he can go from funny man to serious avenger in a second, and then add some thump in the dramatic moments.
Cheers to him and the MCU for creating another winner. At a crisp one hour and 59 minutes, “Thor: Love and Thunder” doesn’t disappoint and will only get better on repeat viewings. One more thing: screaming goats. You’re not ready.