‘Thor: Love and Thunder’ Film Review: Taika Waititi Cracks the Jokes But Loses the Thread

Superhero sagas can certainly be quippy, but the introduction of darker subject matter makes the Thunder God’s fourth solo outing a tonal mess

Thor Love and Thunder
Jasin Boland/Marvel

For his latest venture into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, director and co-writer Taika Waititi brings back the zippy quippiness that made “Thor: Ragnarok” such a pleasant surprise and jolt of adrenaline to the ongoing superhero series.

In “Thor: Love & Thunder,” however, he and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (“Someone Great”) attempt to balance that jokey tone with themes and plot points that would feel more at home in an Ingmar Bergman film, and the results cancel each other out, leaving many of the surface pleasures of an MCU movie but also a nagging sensation that none of this quite works.

What themes and plot points, you ask? (Stop now if you want to avoid spoilers.)

Well, there’s a major legacy character grappling with terminal cancer, and a supervillain whose millennia-long quest for vengeance is centered upon the indifference of god (or, in this case, the gods) toward man’s suffering. Parents bringing young fans to the film might prepare themselves for questions about these thematic elements, along with the fact that a child dies before the opening credits. (They might also want to ready an answer to “What’s an orgy?” — but more on that in a moment.)

We find Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Korg (voiced by Waititi) galumphing around the universe with the Guardians of the Galaxy; the god of thunder does a lot of heroic posturing (and property damage) while remaining in denial over his broken heart. The woman who broke that heart, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), has troubles of her own, as she’s currently undergoing chemotherapy for stage-four cancer. And back in the now Earth-bound New Asgard, semi-retired warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) clenches her teeth as she endures the bureaucracy and photo-ops of ruling the Scandinavian village for displaced Asgardians that has now become a tourist trap for mortals.

Their destinies become intertwined when Gorr (Christian Bale) kidnaps the children of New Asgard to force Thor to follow him to his shadow realm. It’s Gorr’s daughter who dies early on in the film, and when he realizes the god he has spent his life worshiping couldn’t be less interested, Gorr slays his deity with a cursed sword, thus inheriting the mantle of the God Butcher.

The film at least implicitly acknowledges that Gorr has a point here, putting him alongside Killmonger from “Black Panther” in the pantheon of “not entirely wrong” MCU villains, even if Thor has to come along and be #notallgods about it. It’s a point that’s driven home when our heroes travel to Omnipotence City to find other gods to help them defeat Gorr, but a grandstanding Zeus (Russell Crowe) is far more interested in finding out when the orgy is taking place.

Gorr gets one extra opponent in the rescue of the children: Jane finds herself summoned to New Asgard by the shattered pieces of Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, which reassembles itself and gives Jane the power of Thor. Thor himself feels flummoxed over the situation — the film’s best joke sees the Thunder God unsure whether he’s more jealous to see his hammer with his ex-girlfriend or his ex-girlfriend with his hammer — but welcomes Jane’s participation, until it’s clear that the power of Mjolnir is hastening her disease.

(The fact that Thor essentially has two exes who have hooked up adds to the film’s subtle queer sensibility, as do a pair of New Asgardian moms, as well as Korg explaining where babies come from among his all-male alien race. Relax, it involves hand-holding.)

So yes, this is a movie about a grieving father literally consumed with hatred in a universe where gods shun their responsibilities to humankind, and where a strong woman must make an end-of-life choice between hospitalization or a life fully lived to the last moment, but “Thor: Love and Thunder” can’t support the weight of these serious themes amid all the one-liners and the raised eyebrows. (Also not helping matters is the film’s reliance on ’80s hair-metal aesthetics, from the typeface of the titles to the frequent Guns N’ Roses needle-drops, since the “Peacemaker” streaming series already got there and did it better.)

That’s not to say that “Love and Thunder” is a total blunder; Hemsworth and Portman generate a magnetic rapport, whether they’re super-peers or just two very busy people trying to work out a relationship. (Their pre-breakup flashbacks are among the highlights here, with an ABBA song that hits harder than any of Slash’s guitar licks.) Bale brings zero camp to his haunted villain, even when his journey leads him to one of Marvel Comics’ most powerful, reality-spanning characters — the script reduces him to a mere MacGuffin.

Visually, the film feels mostly at sea in a nebulous digital landscape; as is the case with so much of contemporary superhero cinema, the intangibility of it all threatens to undo the stakes, and the further out into the universe that the characters venture, the less there is to anchor us to the story.

I didn’t leave “Thor: Love and Thunder” feeling annoyed — Waititi and Team Marvel are too shrewd as showpeople not to keep the pace lively and the scope massive — but it falls far short of the best of the franchise. The success and ubiquity of the MCU movies have required a change in scale (“Avengers: Endgame,” “Avengers: Infinity War”) and/or tone (“Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “Doctor Strange,” “Captain Marvel”) to keep these twice- (or even thrice-) annual films from feeling repetitive and enervating.

If this latest one was aiming to mix it up by giving equal weight to the masks of comedy and tragedy, it’s an effort that falls short. And if the MCU wants to delay the inevitable wearing-out of its welcome, Kevin Feige & Co. might want to pursue the experimentation and eclecticism of the franchise’s small-screen offerings (like “Loki” and “Ms. Marvel”) rather than wear down audiences with the sluggish exhaustion that has begun seeping into the feature films.

“Thor: Love and Thunder” opens in U.S. theaters July 8.