Thor: Love And Thunder Can’t Balance Its Sentiment With Its Spectacle

True to its title, the new Thor film is one part big heart, but the other part is empty spectacle and great noise
Thor: Love And Thunder Can’t Balance Its Sentiment With Its Spectacle

Director: Taika Waititi
Writer: Taika Waititi, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Russell Crowe, Chris Pratt

Everywhere Odin's children go, death and destruction follow. Loki's near-destruction of Jotunheim in Thor (2012) is motivated by his yearning to finally be accepted by a father who never really treated him like a son. New Mexico becomes the site of collateral damage later in the film, when Loki's long-simmering feelings of inferiority finally boil over into a plot to kill Thor. The battle of New York in Avengers (2012) is fuelled by Loki's desire for a throne, once dangled as his birthright by Odin, then revealed to be a cruel illusion all along. An entire planet is destroyed in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) as part of a plan to stop Thor and Loki's murderous sister Hela, but not before she slaughters hundreds. Family spats are messy and painful, but few cause universal devastation on a scale Thor's family does.

In Thor: Love and Thunder, their inherent selfishness is revealed to be a trait shared by all the gods — cruel, uncaring beings who chase the glory of dying in battle while their subjects struggle to survive. When a god is killed early on in the film, gold drips from the wound in his neck, an image that reinforces how even their deaths are characterised by the same excesses they enjoyed in life. Throughout the film, Thor keeps referring to his quests as "classic Thor adventures", a flippant way of describing situations which are, for ordinary people, a matter of life and death. If Thor: Ragnarok blew up the formula of past Thor films, shedding the Norse god's baggage and freeing him up to discover new horizons, Thor: Love and Thunder reframes his never-ending quest for a sense of purpose in a particularly harsh light. How many people must die while he comes of age again and again?

Taika Waititi's filmography reveals a director who understands that characters who run headfirst in one direction are often just running away from something they'd rather leave behind. His version of Thor is no different. Having given up on love after the heartbreak of his romance with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) now busies himself by fighting alongside the Guardians of the Galaxy. Back on Earth, New Asgard is now a tourist spot, with rides, eateries and guided tours, all of which feel like a cheeky in-joke at the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), resembling a theme park. Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), now the King, has resigned herself to a life of cutting ribbons and welcoming dignitaries, secretly yearning for adventure. Meanwhile Jane, for whom the boundary between science and magic has always been porous, assumes the mantle of the Mighty Thor. The three team up to fight Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), a man who vows to kill every God after his prayers go unanswered during a crisis.

Jane and Gorr are written as characters whose arcs parallel each other. Both turn to the divine in their hour of need and both find out that what they sought as the cure is the very thing that's killing them. Portman wields Mjolnir with a focussed intensity and fluid ease that makes it look like second nature. Bale's performance is full of whispered menace and creeping dread, a ghostly figure that's haunted by the weight of his own regret. Hemsworth has impeccable comic timing and anchors the more ridiculous moments of the film with raw emotion. However, as top-notch as the performances are, they're let down by the inconsistent writing. The film brings back Sif (Jaimie Alexander) from the first Thor movie only to immediately sideline her. Thompson is a delight whenever she's onscreen, but unfortunately, it's too little. Three MCU films later, Valkyrie still doesn't have a name, an odd choice when even her horse is given one (it's Warsong).

True to its title, Thor: Love and Thunder is one part big heart, but also one part great noise and empty spectacle. A single montage encapsulates the entire history of Thor and Jane's love, with affectionate snapshots of them rollerblading, watching scary movies together and attending a costume party — moments of quiet domesticity and an intimacy rarely afforded to MCU characters. Love makes the characters in this film weak and vulnerable, open to the possibility of hurt, but it also imbues them with a strength into which they didn't know they could tap. The loss of love is what drives both hero and villain. Gorr is a man who, having lost his child, trades blind faith for brute strength. Thor is a god who, faced with the possibility of losing the woman he loves, decides companionship is more important than conquest.

This is a film about feeling disillusioned by your religion — the very thing meant to give you comfort. It's a film about the helplessness that is part of all of life, whether human or divine, and about fighting for what you love, even if it kills you. These themes lend the film gravitas, but they struggle for space alongside Waititi's childlike brand of humour. The mix of irreverence and complete sincerity results in a tonal whiplash. A largely internal journey is undercut by the need to hop from location to location. The film underscores the futility of blind devotion to the gods, by depicting just how much of being a deity is just pageantry and showmanship. At the same time, the plot hinges on the audience having sympathy for its protagonist, who happens to be a god. The more Thor searches for a new purpose, the more it becomes apparent that the MCU lacks one and is stuck in a creative rut.

The film replicates some of the gags from Thor: Ragnarok to great comedic effectbut at its most tedious, the film feels like a series of tired callbacks to past franchise moments. Among signs that the franchise might be running out of steam are that Thor: Love and Thunder is the second MCU movie in a row to feature an ancient object that corrupts its user (remember The Darkhold and its poisonous grip on Wanda in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness?). More specifically, it's the second movie in phase 4 to feature a sword that curses the person who wields it (the first being the Ebony Blade in the Eternals' post-credits scene).

The action sequences begin inventively. One is shot like the beginning of the horror film, with shadows creeping towards a small town and children being snatched from their beds. In another, all colour leeches from the frame as the characters approach their destination and prepare for a battle shot in monochromatic minimalism. The third is emotionally resonant, bestowing worthiness upon a group that might not believe it otherwise. Even so, they veer into eye-glazing CGI spectacles by the end.

Thor: Love and Thunder is a film about the importance of stories. At several points, Thor gleefully participates in his own myth and attempts to author his own narrative. His doomed romance is framed as something he once thought was the story of his life, but has wound up being a sad footnote instead. On the quest for self-identity, he learns that only love can ultimately reveal a person to himself. Thor has been a God so preoccupied with going down in history and fearing the future, he's forgotten how to cherish the present. But even the Gods don't know how long they have, and as Thor learns, myths and legends are of little significance if you don't have someone to share them with. It's a touching sentiment, but within the MCU, which has perfected its business model based on commodifying, expanding and wringing out the last drop of content from its stories, it rings hollow.

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