Director: Taika Waititi
Writer: Taika Waititi, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Russell Crowe, Chris Pratt
Director Taika Waititi is an artist with many talents, but one of his great accomplishments has been inserting mischief into the MCU. His 2017 film Thor: Ragnarok was subversive, surprising and exhilarating with a touch of absurdist humour, which humanised the characters. As Waititi told it, superheroes and gods were, like the rest of us, just fumbling and struggling. Who can forget Thor and the Hulk raging at each other and then sitting side by side, talking about their emotions and making up? This mix of sweet, sincere, melancholic and ultimately hopeful is what defines the Waititi oeuvre. His films — even the one about Nazis, Jojo Rabbit — hold a kernel of joy in their heart. And Waititi functions like a conductor, blending these disparate tonalities into one satisfying symphony.
The Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), of course, places other burdens on this already delicate narrative design – a sea of stars, massive budgets, CGI battles, referencing older films and characters, and seeding future instalments. In Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi delivered on all fronts without losing his distinctive voice. Love and Thunder brims with the same eccentricity – case in point: Thor's intergalactic Viking ship is pulled by two giant goats named Toothgnasher and Toothgrinder (they're originally from Norse mythology and their names in the film are a direct translation from old Norse). But Waititi's signature alchemy seems to buckle under the shifting moods of the script he has co-written with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson. Thor: Love and Thunder has bursts of momentum, but the film doesn't soar.
This is the 29th film in the MCU and the fourth in the Thor franchise. The most delightful aspect of Love and Thunder is the return of Natalie Portman as Dr. Jane Foster, Thor's first love and the one that got away. Jane, who was last seen in Avengers: Endgame in 2019, fulfils her destiny by transforming into the Mighty Thor. Not only is she a superhero but she's also wielding Thor's ex-weapon, the hammer Mjolnir. Which is, of course, very confusing for Thor. In the years since they last met, Thor has successfully hardened his heart and pushed away everyone who came too close. He fills the sadness within him with umpteen battles. As Peter Quill of the Guardians of the Galaxy tells him, "After thousands of years, you don't know who you are."
The return of Jane provides Thor with the opportunity to find out. The film gets its emotional weight from their romance. Chris Hemsworth and Portman are lovely together. There is an awkward sweetness to their interactions. At one point, Thor says to Jane about their parting, "We both left and both got left." But the sparkle is lined with ache because of course, it cannot last. Among the many things that threaten them is a villain named Gorr the God Butcher – the name explains the rest of the plot. Gorr wants to kill all the gods and render them extinct. He has come into possession of the Necrosword, which will allow him to do this. Now Thor, teaming up with Mighty Thor, Valkyrie and the rock warrior Korg, must make sure that he doesn't succeed. Korg, voiced by Waititi, also doubles up as narrator. His fastidious manner and New Zealand accent will make you smile – you might remember from Thor: Ragnarok that this is the guy who tried to start a revolution, but failed because he didn't print enough pamphlets.
Gorr, played by Christian Bale, is a solid villain. His fury is rooted in personal tragedy. His suffering has distorted his devotion – he is hellbent on destruction not because he seeks power, but because he seeks some relief from his pain. Gorr feels like Voldemort ka mele mein bichda hua bhai. But the film doesn't give him enough memorable lines or moments. He is under-exploited. So is Valkyrie, played by a smashing Tessa Thompson. The bisexual, tough-talking, hard-drinking warrior, who is struggling with her own wounds, is king of the new Asgard. Yet we don't see her do enough.
But the larger problem plaguing Thor: Love and Thunder is that the many moving parts don't cohere into an organic whole. The visuals are more inventive than the story, which lurches like a drunk from themes that are desperately tragic to jokes which don't land. Like the goats. Or the love triangle between Thor, his hammer Mjolnir and his current weapon, an axe called Stormbreaker. Somewhere in the middle, Russell Crowe turns up as a heavily-accented Zeus. Zeus's vanity and petulance don't deliver enough laughs though it does give Waititi an opportunity to present his leading man naked. Our censors have played spoilsport, but truthfully, Chris Hemsworth unclothed is never a bad idea.
We are told that Thor and his warriors "fight the good fight for those who can't fight good." Which sounds like something Derek Zoolander would say. But soon enough, the various CGI battles blur into each other. What stays is the poignant ending. Thor comes to understand that it is indeed better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Love delivers redemption, even for the worst among us. My other favourite bit was the rock god named Ninny of the Nonny. I hope we see more of him in future instalments.
In an interview, Waititi described Thor: Love and Thunder as "the craziest film I've ever done." He said, "If you wrote down all the elements of this film, it shouldn't make sense." It doesn't.