Being a standard-issue mortal in the Marvel cinematic universe sure seems terrible. You’re constantly cowering in the shadow of epic clashes between gods and increasingly godlike superheroes, forever in danger of having your home knocked over as the passing collateral of some airborne battle, having some character crash down in front of your office and wreck the pavement of the street you take to work, or being held hostage by some powerful being who’s working out her grief by forcing a whole town to playact her sitcom fantasies. For all that the MCU has taken pains to establish that its characters are essentially in-world celebrities, in the rare times the franchise turns its attention to regular folks lately, it’s mostly to reinforce that they should be running in terror whenever a superhero shows up. There’s a passing shot of docked cruise ships in Thor: Love and Thunder that serves as both an unlikely sign that vacation industries are apparently still functioning and that somewhere further out in the ocean is a marble giant the size of an island chain reaching nightmarishly out of the waves.
Marvel kicked off its franchise with Iron Man, who had real-world grounding with his weapons manufacturer’s guilt and his lack of any preternatural gifts beyond his intellect and the most coveted power of all — gobs of money. While not the biggest name in the Marvel stable, he offered a test case for a studio that didn’t entirely trust audience appetites for these stories. By now, though, the MCU is well established and free to delve deep into the weird and wacky, with multiverses and magic and ancient aliens, and it’s not going big that’s the problem, it’s finding emotional stakes when anything can happen. Love and Thunder, the fourth Thor movie and the second from the currently inescapable Taika Waititi, is a fractured affair that tries to combine an immortal superhero’s millennia-in-the-making battle with arrested development with a woman’s encroaching death. It feels like a testament to how demented this massive franchise has gotten when stage-four cancer becomes just another learning tool to guide a divine himbo one step closer toward growing up.
The cancer patient in question is physicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who was the love interest to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the first two movies centered on the character and then vanished, reportedly because Portman was upset about Patty Jenkins getting pushed out of the director’s role for the 2013 sequel. Portman finally gets to cape up in Love and Thunder, though it’s part of a grappling with mortality so in service to Thor’s character development that it all feels a little insulting. She’s been fruitlessly undergoing chemo when she feels called to take a trip to New Asgard, the settlement and tourist destination where the refugees from Thor’s home planet now live and where the fragments of his shattered hammer Mjölnir are on display. They tremble to life in her presence, and before long, Thor’s returning to Earth to find a female version of himself helping Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, sidelined but still a pleasure) defend the community. The catch is that while Jane’s superpowered and strong whenever she’s wielding the magical weapon, she seems to be dying even faster whenever she puts it down.
As Jane and Thor rekindle their romance, express their regrets over how they let their relationship wither, and pursue villain du jour Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale) after he kidnaps New Asgard’s children, Jane’s clock keeps winding down. It’s a device that would feel more poignant if her character hadn’t previously been ushered unceremoniously offscreen for almost a decade and if death felt like it had any meaning in these movies. Waititi hasn’t always been the most precise at mixing pathos and humor (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, yes, Jojo Rabbit, no), and the calibrations in Love and Thunder are all off. When Thor gets stripped nude during an audience with Zeus (Russell Crowe, a highlight with his entertainingly nonhistorical Greek accent), the camera lingers on the “RIP Loki” tattoo that’s revealed on his lower back. It’s funny, and it’s also a reminder of how easily the jarring end from a few movies ago was effectively undone. With 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi brought a much-needed burst of off-kilter stylistic liberation to the franchise, but Love and Thunder runs similar ideas (a repeated use of Guns N’ Roses songs, Thor’s axe Stormbreaker getting jealous) into the ground. There are a few fresh bits — like a pair of screaming goats and an unexpected homage to Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon — but the overall feeling is that of a film spinning its wheels.
I don’t think Christian Bale set out to undermine the rest of Thor: Love and Thunder by giving a good performance. Bale, an actor of forbidding intensity, just doesn’t seem capable of half-assing a role onscreen, even in a movie as diffident as this one. But he approaches Gorr — an alien with a cursed sword that allows him to wage war against the deities who’ve ignored his prayers for help — with such full-throttle commitment that he finds a genuine core of anguish that dwarfs the film’s supposedly bittersweet central love story. In the opening scene, a sun-blistered Gorr watches helplessly as his daughter dies in his arms out in the desert, and Bale plays the moment quietly, looking down at the girl with a tender despair that’s more devastating than a howl of grief. The contrast with the film’s hero, a one-joke character who’s been sustained by Hemsworth’s absurd good looks and sly comedic timing, is stark. When Gorr takes up the weapon that will eat away at him in exchange for the power to kill the sneering god who’s indifferent to the suffering of his followers, it’s an act of kamikaze righteousness. He does seem to be onto something — the gods, floating obnoxiously above the fray of mortal concerns, kind of suck. Unfortunately, this movie is about one of them.
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