Since the events of Avengers: Endgame, a mentally shattered Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been travelling with the Guardians of the Galaxy. It has been a tough few years, with his relationship with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) failing, his mother, father and brother all dying, and his failure to strike at Thanos correctly (in the events of Infinity War) leading to half of the population of the universe disappearing for five years. After a period spent recovering his fitness and lean physique, he is intervening with his shipmates wherever help is needed.
At the same time, on a planet dying from drought, Gorr (Christian Bale) sees his daughter die in the oppressive ecological conditions. Close to death himself, he finds an oasis containing the god that he worships. When said god mocks his suffering, he takes up the god-killing sword that has called to him, and he will now be corrupted, kill the deity, then swear death to all gods – including those residing in New Asgard.
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Meanwhile Jane Foster is at stage four of an unspecified cancer, meaning she is close to death, with chemotherapy providing little hope for her. In her desperation to save herself, she heads for New Asgard, in the hope that its magic/superior technology can provide hope. Once there, she finds that the reconstituted kingdom is now something of a theme park, taking tourists on guided tours and selling themed ice creams (would a society decimated by Thanos really be selling ‘infinity cones’?). The shattered remains of Mjolnir come together and come to her (for reasons the plot will explain lazily) and transform her into the Mighty Thor, with all the powers of her namesake. The downside is that when in control of the hammer she is well, but it is draining her energy and removing any chance that conventional treatments can help her (the film is hugely inconsistent and unclear on how long she might have without the hammer, or indeed how the hammer is fulfilling Thor’s wish that is helps her, if it is killing her).
With Thor leaving the Guardians after receiving a distress call from Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), he returns to New Asgard to find that Gorr is attacking. Seeing this threat off, he will need to travel with Jane, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Korg (Taika Waititi) to plead for the assistance of fellow gods, including Zeus (Russell Crowe, displaying the same ruthless accent discipline he showed as Robin Hood – Zeus appears to be Greek and Italian, in a sequence that is nothing but comedy), before going on to try to prevent Gorr from killing all gods, as well as recovering the Asgardian children that have been taken from their homes.
To start with a few positives – Chris Hemsworth remains one of the few charismatic leads left in the MCU. Here he continues to show both great charisma, and enormous range, moving seamlessly from charming, to earnest, to heartbroken. He has chemistry with everyone with whom he shares a screen, and he remains a must-have in a phase of films that has been lacking for memorable leads with which to take this universe forward. Christian Bale moves effortlessly into the top-tier of Marvel antagonists; his pain in the first 5-10 minutes of the film leaps off the screen as we see a decent man infected by grief (though the film does not quite know how to handle this, as we’re not clear whether he’s to blame or if the sword is), and all action is engaging, framed by sequences that have some genuine laughs.
That is the film’s biggest weakness, however. Taika Waititi’s success with Thor: Ragnarök in repositioning the character as a lighter presence, in a more playful environment than in his first two entries has led to overkill on the comedic elements here. Almost every scene of the film not dealing with Foster’s illness is non-stop funny lines in service of a plot that raises more questions than it answers. For example, Gorr can use Stormbreaker to open a portal to an area in which he can have his wishes answered – and Thor knows of this place. If this is the case, why on earth did Thor not bring back half of the universe any time during the five years? There are many more such examples of the script just waving away these inconvenient questions. Where, with Ragnarök, every time we cut to a wide shot the film was telling us we were about to get a visual gag, here there is a repeating tendency to have something ‘funny’ happening in the background over our characters’ shoulders. It is lazy and predictable.
For all the humour that does work, so much of it does not: the screaming goats (or whatever they are meant to be) just become irritating extremely fast. There is also far too much Korg. He narrates the story, and pretty much makes jokes of all Thor’s sacrifices of recent years. This is Batman & Robin to Ragnarök’s Batman Forever – a huge dialling up of all the things that only worked there in spite of themselves (though it remains better than either of those films, it must be said). We even get a reprise of Matt Damon’s theatre character – funny once; here – not so much.
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What makes all of this worse is that it is trying to exist alongside an earnest cancer storyline, where matters of immortality and legacy could have been dealt with properly by a better script. The tonal whiplash of writing such as Jane trying to produce a heroic kiss-off line sits very uneasily alongside her fear and increasing frailty – though this is Hollywood’s take on frailty – she looks better on chemo than any viewers will have encountered in the real world.
Marvel Studios are now in a strange place. They are deep into a phase that has been overstuffed with content, without having any decent over-arching ideas to unify the piece. Where the MCU has always been a producer/studio-led property, Thor: Love and Thunder actually suggests excessive director input here, where that director is not best-suited to fitting into a wider story, as he is busy chasing laughs – screw the bigger picture, overall tone, or any plot holes he might open. Lord help Lucasfilm if this is the approach he brings to his upcoming Star Wars entry, just as that IP shows signs of correcting its issues after the sequel trilogy. In summary, more Thor please, less Waititi, and more cohesion in tone next time. Weak.
Thor: Love and Thunder is out now in cinemas.