With Thor: Love and Thunder, the MCU breaks tradition. Of the original Avengers, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the only one getting a fourth solo film, instead of just a trilogy. The reason? The character was completely reinvented with 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, helmed by director Taika Waititi. Thor went from a self-serious Shakespearian hero to a surfer bro with a band of eccentric new friends. But in Love and Thunder, Thor’s past comes to haunt him in the form of his ex-girlfriend Jane Foster who appears on the battlefield with his old hammer and his same powers. And if that’s not bad enough, there’s a new villain out there called Gorr the God Butcher who… well, his name is self-explanatory.
What’s a god to do?
Love it or hate it, Thor: Ragnarok’s success came from its humor and breezy tone. I initially gave it a pretty tough review, complaining that the improv didn’t always translate well and made the film structure messy, and any attempts at sincerity in the film’s themes are undercut by the humorous tone. I’ve since softened on Ragnarok, and especially now, because compared to Love and Thunder, Ragnarok is a much tighter and neater film. I now look back at Ragnarok as the perfect balance of when Marvel lets an auteur director do their thing, with just enough oversight so things don’t go off the rails. With Ragnarok, Waititi was able to bring his signature style while still delivering a film that adds something to the MCU. But in Love and Thunder, I get the sense that Waititi is confident in his newfound mainstream success (which is very deserved!) but in a way that feels, frankly, a little phoned in, even self-indulgent. I imagine the on-set antics created an environment that was very fun for the cast, but again, that improv doesn’t always translate to the film.
Not to say this movie isn’t funny–it is. But not funny enough to carry the whole thing. The movie swings very clearly from “this is a Marvel-mandated scene,” or even “this was a well-thought-out scripted scene,” to “this was clearly improved or only loosely scripted,” making the movie more disjointed than it should be. While not as tonally inconsistent as some other Marvel movies, Love and Thunder doesn’t have much sense of urgency, direction, or momentum. But this seems to be a phase 4 problem overall, with the lack of an overarching story or even a core group of Avengers moving us towards any goal. And while I don’t mind more stand-alone stories in theory, it does make various corners of the MCU seem like they’re spinning their wheels, waiting for something of consequence to happen.
Love and Thunder, despite its similarities to Ragnarok, isn’t a total retread. It has a few different elements, like Natalie Portman’s return as Jane and debut as The Mighty Thor (with the impressive biceps to show for it!). She has a few nice moments and brings weight to the dramatic scenes, and does her best with what she’s given. However, for much of the movie she feels like Mark Ruffalo did in Ragnarok: a decidedly not-comedic actor who seems out-of-place with the more freewheeling vibe of the rest of the cast. Maybe with another movie she would be able to grow more into the role, but for now, I don’t see much of a future with the character.
The other big player here is Christian Bale as Gorr. People have been saying he is the best villain since Killmonger, who himself was the best villain since Ultron (from the best marvel movie of all time, Avengers: Age of Ultron!). And like Ultron, Gorr is the most spiritual/religious character we’ve gotten in a Marvel movie. After the death of his daughter and being mocked and rejected by his own god, Gorr takes up the task of confronting the gods of the MCU for their carelessness towards their followers, and killing them as justice/revenge.
Because of this motivation, Love and Thunder finally lay out a somewhat-comprehensive look at what the MCU has been building towards when it comes to gods. This movie, and the MCU at large, basically says that in this universe, gods are like regional managers for certain groups of people. These gods can be good or bad, kind or cruel, powerful or incompetent, but they are in charge of the people who believe in them. Like the Greek pantheon, these gods are flawed and petty, and often use humans like pawns in their games (hence Gorr’s anger). Similarly, there is no one afterlife. Instead, people go to the afterlife based on their god or their cultural/ethnic background (Asgardians go to Valhalla, Wakandans go to the astral plane, in Moon Knight there’s the Egyptian afterlife of Aaru, the Field of Reeds, and so on).
I think this is a fascinating picture of how religion is being more and more viewed in American pop culture, which Marvel is in many ways representative of. In an extremely individualized American culture, where there is no objective truth, it would make sense to say, “You can have your god based on your upbringing or your preferred cultural/ethnic group. Religion is a lifestyle choice or a cultural tradition.” It almost feels like saying that you’re religious is the equivalent of saying you’re vegan: people will be like “oh that’s great,” maybe even see you as being very noble or disciplined, but also, like, please don’t be so intense/serious about it that it makes us feel weird. Despite the seriousness Christian Bale brings to the role, I don’t think Taika Waititi brings much seriousness to this concept; it’s mostly played as a joke and a clever bit of worldbuilding. Thor never really challenges Gorr’s anger or is motivated to change himself, he just convinces Gorr to channel his desire for justice into resurrecting his daughter, not actually dealing justice to the gods. It’s the Kilmonger problem: the villain is right, he just goes too far in his mission.
I am not saying people should get up in arms about how gods and religion are treated in this film; this movie does not take that subject or itself seriously. I just think Love and Thunder provides an unexpectedly insightful picture of how a worldwide mega-conglomerate tries to depict religion: by not depicting any particular stance at all.
Speaking of Gorr’s resurrected daughter, let’s talk about that ending. I think it’s interesting to see how in Phase 4 Marvel is quickly reorienting its demographic by bringing in younger and younger heroes (high school Peter Parker, higher schooler Kamala Khan, teenage America Chavez, young 20-something Kate Bishop, Wanda’s twins, Cassie Lang, Sprite from Eternals). Love and Thunder introduces Heimdall’s son and spends a lot of time with a group of Asgardian kids who bravely fight for their freedom from Gorr, and the film ends with Thor adopting Gorr’s daughter and becoming a single #girldad. While I thought this was an interesting twist at the end, to have the villain resurrect his daughter, just to die and give her into the custody of his enemy who he just tried to kill, I’m interested to see where this is going, as “protagonist man becomes father,” aka, the daddyfication of franchise characters, is becoming a go-to character arc, and is the most recent in a new trend of Marvel heroes getting some kind of family as a reward for finding themselves. This dynamic also falls into the trope of “man and a silent little girl.” Who knows? Maybe Gorr’s nameless daughter will talk one day.
Alright, you may be saying at this point. Madeleine, you thought the humor and tone of this movie was underwhelming and didn’t always work, and it all feels too frivolous. Didn’t you also recently just praise Jurassic World Dominion for being lighthearted fun? How can you enjoy the frivolous fun of that movie and criticize Thor 4 for the same?
Touché. Here is where I think the difference lies. Jurassic World Dominion had emotional payoffs for the older characters, and nicely wrapped up things for the newer characters. There was an equal emotional reward for the time invested in these characters (also, the Jurassic World movies are equal, if not more, about dinosaurs and spectacle than characters). But with Marvel, we get to know these characters for multiple movies for years. We’ve been seeing Chris Hemsworth’s Thor now for 11 years, in 8 films. The MCU, especially now with the Disney+ shows, requires such an extraordinary investment of time, yet I don’t feel like my time is being rewarded emotionally anymore.
There’s enough in the MCU that still compels me that I stay invested (Moon Knight was an amazing surprise this year, and I loved the Black Widow). But weaker projects like Love and Thunder dilute the whole franchise. After this much time and investment, I want to be having more personal, emotionally satisfying, compelling, and interesting content with these long-term characters, and I don’t think this movie does that with Thor.
A repeated theme of this movie is that it’s better to love someone, even if you get hurt, than not to love at all. Real heroes don’t hold people at arm’s length to protect themselves. But for a movie about being emotionally vulnerable and not holding people at arm’s length, I still feel like I’m being held at an arm’s length by Thor, by Marvel, and by Taika (who is capable of making very sweet, sincerely emotional movies!). Despite me investing what feels like a third of my life in these films, Marvel continues to hold its characters at an arm’s length. But like Thor and Gorr, I want to choose love. But if you can’t give me love, then feel my thunder!
– Madeleine D.