I want to review the new film Thor: Love and Thunder without feeling obligated to contextualize it against the whole Marvel moviemaking machine, but I’m not sure that’s possible. Well, it’s likely possible. Maybe it’s not advisable. It is officially the twenty-ninth feature in the swelling pop-culture tumor that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the fourth film to center firmly on the Asgardian hammer-slinger Thor, and the eighth bigscreen outing for Chris Hemsworth as the character. That’s a lot of extra baggage laden onto this reeling Viking ship, especially as the studio’s approach is increasingly reliant on the audience goodwill, both out of the nostalgia for past efforts and excitement about teaser promises of what’s to come. The actual film flickering on the screen is almost beside the point. And Thor: Love and Thunder seems especially incidental.
Especially reliant on recent comics written by Jason Aaron, the film begins with our hero returning to Earth, new location of his mythic home of Asgard, after a stint helping out the Guardians of the Galaxy (all of whom make a fleeting appearance, entirely unmemorable save for Karen Gillan’s snappish, angry Nebula). He’s responding to an emergency involving an attack mounted by Gorr (Christian Bale, overacting appropriately), a being who has dedicated his life to the vengeful eradication of all gods. Although he discovers this ashen foe running roughshod over the realm of the Asgardians, now transformed into a tidy tourist trap for earthly visitors, Thor is more discombobulated by the presence of his ex, Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who wields his famed hammer Mjølnir as a sort of gender-swapped version of his own superheroic persona.
The latest franchise installment is directed and co-written by Taika Waititi, who’s almost singularly responsible for reviving interest in the character with the 2017 feature Thor: Ragnarok. By scrubbing away the dour, quasi-Shakespearean, Game of Thrones apery that sullied the preceding Thor films and replacing it with a delightful goofball vibe that came closer that any Marvel film before it to capturing the energy of the company’s swinging heyday as a publisher of pop art classics, Waititi reemphasized the fun that should rush through the veins of this vast, interconnected saga about highly improbable beings. His attempt to duplicate that spirit has roughly the same impact as a do-over on yelling “Surprise!” well after the birthday girl already crossed the threshold into the room. Did you like the comic relief character Korg (voiced by Waititi) in Thor: Ragnarok? Well, here’s a whole lot more of him. Is one of your favorite moments in the preceding film the silly play that’s put on by an Asgardian theater troupe? Let’s see if that’s still the case after the joke is rehashed and expanded to the point of tedium.
Maybe the main problem with Thor: Love and Thunder is the one that’s increasingly diminishing the value of these Marvel movies like the stain spreading from some rusty staples on a comic book’s spine: The effect of the storytelling is almost entirely dependent on pleasure taken from recognizing the cleverness of production choices, especially in the casting. I don’t know if Zeus is all that funny or interesting of a character, but it’s a hoot to watch Russell Crowe play him like Gladiator gone to seed. It’s nice to see Portman get to play superhero after being saddled with one of the most thankless girlfriend roles in the studio’s stable, but there’s no emotional impact that comes from Jane Foster being the one who hurls the hammer. It makes the most mechanical consumption of a blockbuster entertainment, an experience reduced to wondering what trick will be performed next without any concern for the clamorous presentation around it. There’s no story worth telling. It’s all empty spectacle, small not mighty.