Taika Waititi buys too much into his own hype with his followup to Thor: Ragnarok, a scattered farce that grows tiring faster than a bolt of lightning.
It’s no understatement to say that Taika Waititi‘s Thor: Ragnarok was a welcome shot in the arm for both the titular God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. There’s something to be said for cutting out the creaky Shakespearean grandeur of the first two Thors in favor of whiz-bang sitcom theatrics, with a dash of Guardians of the Galaxy‘s signature irreverence thrown in, all leather and ironic needle-drops and “well that happened”s. The result was a whiz-bang sci-fi action comedy that made a buttload of cash, extended Thor’s lease on cinematic life, and catapulted Waititi into Hollywood’s A-list.
But what Thor: Love and Thunder proves over its two-hour runtime is that, while the Marvel films benefit from no small amount of levity, they suffer a bit once they tumble headlong into full-blown sitcom territory. Ragnarok, for all its gags and Flash Gordon silliness, still balanced it with some solid action, effervescent characters, and some of the most (comparatively) insightful nods to the way nations wallpaper over their ugly imperialist pasts to hide how they grew their might. Love and Thunder tries to tackle similarly weighty material with the same shit-eating grin, but the balance is off; instead, it’s a painful SNL skit stretched to feature length.
Having shed the weight (and gone “from dad bod to god bod,” as Korg (Waititi) narrates to a group of children) after Avengers: Endgame, Thor whiles away his days with the Guardians of the Galaxy, going on “classic Thor adventures” in the film’s fun, breezy first stretch. It’s admittedly nice to see the Guardians, even in their reduced role here; it’s easy to forget Chris Pratt (sorry, I forgot, we’re supposed to call him “CP” now) can still be charming as Star-Lord instead of his other bland leading men roles. He and his fellow Chris are admittedly lovely together, sparring lovingly like two shit-talking brothers traveling the cosmos.
But all this world-saving is starting to become routine for Thor, especially since he can’t get his mind off his two lost loves: His ex, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and his hammer, Mjölnir, which was crushed to bits in Ragnarok. And wouldn’t you know it, he’ll be reunited with both soon enough, as he starts investigating the serial murder of other gods at the hands of Gorr the God-Butcher (Christian Bale), a spurned zealot with a grudge against deities and a nasty Necro-sword that can bump them off. It’s a road that’ll take Thor right back to Jane, who — thanks to a cancer diagnosis and a magically reassembled hammer — has the cape, brawn, and muscly arms of the God of Thunder herself, staving off her terminal illness with a little Asgardian magic.
Together, they’ll have to team up with Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), now King of Asgard’s Earth-based colony/tourist trap, to stop Gorr once and for all — and rescue a crop of Asgard’s kidnapped children along the way.
I’m no hater of Waititi; What We Do in the Shadows is one of the best comedies of the last decade, and the show it’s based on is still one of the most gut-busting comedies on the air. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a delight, and I even dug Ragnarok (and Our Flag Means Death). Sometimes, Waititi’s instincts are spot-on, finding new goofy, comic angles to balance what can be heavy or action-packed material. But sometimes, he pulls a Jojo Rabbit, going far too twee when he should pull back, and Love and Thunder, unfortunately, sees Waititi at the height of his winking, ain’t-I-a-stinker hubris.
For one thing, almost every joke in this film was done better in Ragnarok, to the point where Love and Thunder gleefully jabs you in the ribs and begs you to remember when you laughed at the previous movie. Remember the “Immigrant Song” bit? We’ll do the same thing, this time to Guns ‘N Roses. Y’know how you laughed at Korg’s few scenes? Now he’s basically Thor’s ever-present comic relief, firing off rock-Kiwi pleasantries in the background for most of the movie. We’ve even got those cheeky Asgardian stage actors back again, now with expanded cameos! What’s new grows old fast, mostly because they feel like tired retreads of memes you laughed at on Reddit five years ago (hello, screaming goats!).
Thor: Love and Thunder struggles from trying to serve too many masters.
It’s a shame, too, because like with Ragnarok, there’s a chance to tackle some weighty stuff under the veneer of its tongue-in-cheek comedy. While Bale is appropriately spooky as Gorr (though he gets little to do save for a genuinely-moving origin story in the opener that evokes, of all things, the beginning of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier), his motivation feels set up to make Thor ruminate on his own failings as a god, and that never really happens. And it couldn’t, really; Thor is just a well-meaning himbo at this point, Hemsworth grinning and flexing his way admirably through this thing with all the considerable charm he’s built up to this point. There’s no room for complications or wrinkles, just a relationship farce about a superhero awkwardly reconnecting with his ex.
Those bits are frustratingly underdeveloped too, though Portman is at least having a bit of fun with it. She’s clearly jazzed at the chance to sling around a hammer and finally be something more than the pining love interest to a beefy dude. Same goes for Thompson, who still swaggers through these things with a panther’s grace, even if she’s just a glorified sidekick. But really, all they get to do is swan to one setpiece after another, Barry Idione’s cinematography injecting some Lisa Frank-esque color to the MCU at the expense of some visual coherence in the action scenes. (One second-act trip to a low-g ‘shadow realm’ ripped of color is a really fricking’ cool idea, if you could make head or tails of the murky ‘shadow monsters’ the gang have to fight.)
It’s not all a disaster; Russell Crowe is a deliriously thick slice of Greek ham (or would it be souvlaki?) as a jolly, hedonistic Zeus that Thor entreaties to help them on their quest, even if just for one mid-film sequence. And the moments where it stops to actually take its characters and their concerns seriously are a welcome change of pace, scarce as they may be.
But Love and Thunder feels like the MCU movie most decisively aimed at young children: the jokes are simple, inelegant, and repetitive, it’s hardly scary or too exciting, and the pace is relentless enough that your tot won’t get bored in the theater. Plus, it’s a film about our heroes learning to become parents of a sort, which really clicks once you realize the twentysomethings who grew up watching Iron Man have kids of their own now. Love and Thunder is the movie those moms and dads are taking their kids to now, and it feels frustratingly dumbed down as a result.
Thor: Love and Thunder struggles from trying to serve too many masters. There are the obligations to the MCU continuity, Kevin Feige’s remit to keep the Marvel formula churning, and Waititi’s overindulgence as a filmmaker. All of them fight for dominance, and I’m not really rooting for any one of them to come out on top. Instead, we get a watered-down, kiddie-friendly remake of Ragnarok that brings little new to the table and stretches out its few decent jokes far past their breaking point. Call me grumpy, but miss me with this one.
Thor: Love and Thunder smirks at you behind heaps of ’80s hair-band pastiche July 8th.