On paper, Thor: Love and Thunder is a lot like its predecessor, Thor: Ragnarok. It should work, and plenty of critics and audiences think it does. I’m not sure I’m one of them.
Full disclosure, I’ve been souring on almost all things Marvel since sometime during the midpoint of COVID, around the time when Black Widow came out on the heels of the far superior WandaVision. Still, the hope in starting a new series or walking into any new film is to enjoy what I’m about to see. Why else would I waste my time and the five extra dollars it costs to see it at my local theater on a Thursday release night as opposed to the deal I’d get if I waited for the five-dollar Tuesdays?
I’m no cynic. There’ve been plenty of moments and/or elements of the series and films that have been released since Avengers: Endgame that have been appealing, or even downright well done. Be it Tony Leung and his forearms and the bus fight sequence of Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings, the entire (albeit wasted) cast of The Eternals, the beautiful score in Loki, and the excellent example of big acting by Jonathan Majors at the end of Loki‘s first season. There’s also Florence Pugh dripping with charisma in every scene where she plays Yelena, the new Black Widow.
Despite these highlights, nothing Marvel has put out since Avengers: Infinity War has justified the sheer factory-level rate of product churn, which is actively diminishing the level of quality that should be seen in a series or film with the amount of money being thrown at it. There used to be arguments that superhero films were the new Westerns and, for a second, I posited the idea of arguing that, instead, they’re the new soap opera. They’re a way to spend decades with familiar characters. Now, however, it’s tough to believe that any of them are being seen and/or valued by the higher-ups as actual stories as opposed to simply, more products.
Directors or auteurs?
In the past two years, Marvel has given the stage to directors such as Chloé Zhao Taika Waititi, and Sam Raimi, all three of whom have distinct visual styles and personalities to the rest of their filmography. We may be divisive on whether or not Jojo Rabbit is a good film or not, but it undoubtedly feels like a Taika Waititi film, at least like the ones we’ve seen of his thus far. Despite varying levels of visual flair in The Eternals (cinematography, can you believe it?) or the hokey, DIY horror aesthetic of Raimi — especially as Wanda, beaten and bloody, chases our heroes through haunting underground tunnels — none of these films have felt like they’ve actually been touched by a filmmaker with an immovable vision.
Instead, they’ve simply stepped in line to help assemble the pieces already laid out for them by the company handling it all.
Even Spider-Man: No Way Home suffers from a company-only thinking of what an audience wants rather than what the story needs, two competing forces that, ultimately, make for patchwork finished stories. The best Marvel outputs of late are often saved by committed and game performers, from Tom Holland’s spirited Peter Parker to Iman Vellani’s charismatic portrayal in the latest MCU TV venture, Ms. Marvel.
Sure, Thor: Love and Thunder is arguably stronger than plenty other films from the studio, though not by much. And what’s perhaps most grating throughout is its eagerness to show off, whether it be Natalie Portman commenting on how gay the film is (spoiler: it really isn’t) or how jokes often land with awkward silence, despite being placed in a way that clearly anticipates laughter through delayed dialogue. Love and Thunder might be a solid outing for Chris Hemsworth and Christian Bale, but it suffers greatly due to the lack of sincerity in the storytelling, and a belief in the audience’s want for little more than the bare minimum when it comes to distracting escapism.
It really thinks it’s funny. It isn’t.
Even when a Waititi film isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, there’s still pervasive humor throughout to keep the story light on its feet. His second feature, Boy, by its very nature about a young boy abandoned by his parents and reunited with an absentee father, isn’t exactly a laugh-a-minute film, but it’s engaging in the color it sees the world through with its protagonist. There’s humor in darkness both in Boy and in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, while the film version of What We Do in the Shadows, despite being a mockumentary about vampires, gleans so much comedy from how ordinary its fantastical characters are.
Most would agree that Thor: Ragnarok is one of the stronger films of the MCU, in large part due to the spirit and vibrancy Waititi brought to the series. Love and Thunder is an example of a studio and director getting the wrong message about their success, and rather than expand further on the relationships built in the last solo film or bring Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie further into the spotlight, it instead doubles down on broad, unfunny humor.
Opinions may vary on the screaming goats and I’ll admit to being a fan of a particular Dwayne Johnson joke snuck in at the end, but so many of the jokes here are either physical or cheap-looking, used to diffuse otherwise serious, character-driven moments. Or they’re slapstick level to the point of embarrassing (a joke Thompson and Natalie Portman are forced to work through involving a Bluetooth speaker is the worst joke the MCU has written since Tony Stark used his suit as a toilet in Iron Man 2).
We don’t feel anything about the characters, even as they’re facing death.
This humor often undercuts the very serious, life-and-death stakes the characters are going through. An entire arc is about Jane Foster dealing with her imminent mortality while battling cancer and otherworldly baddies, and the script would rather be glib about it until the moments where it absolutely cannot be. It’s an interesting storyline, one that was given richer text by all accounts in the actual comics, but it plays out here not as a means of closure, but as a way to wrap up any loose ends.
To be fair, Portman is clearly having fun getting to play the muscled hero, but whenever the film gives way to the sobriety of the situation, it suffers from tonal whiplash. In one scene, we’re supposed to laugh as Thor is accidentally stripped naked in front of Zeus’s audience, and in the next, we’re asked to lean into a somber mood as Jane’s health weakens.
There are plenty of films and series that can handle tonal dissonance with dexterity (comedy is meant to lessen the weight of real-world troubles, after all). But Love and Thunder gets lost in the want for laughs, needing affirmation of its cleverness so badly that by the time the big, emotional payoff moments come, we don’t so much as care as we accept their arrival. In the end, despite any grief a character is feeling that we’re meant to share in, the effect is more like being told to act as if something is sad, rather than actually feeling it ourselves.
Love and Thunder is plain ugly to look at.
I have a bone to pick with Marvel about how ugly and vacant their films have looked lately (really, since the uninspired tarmac fight of Captain America: Civil War, which envisioned a big-budget, superhero throwdown to take place on…an airplane runway). With the sheer, gross amount of money lying at their disposal, why is it that there’s such a lack of texture or details to the worlds we’re visiting? I’m not saying there’s a need to switch back to all practical effects, though Top Gun: Maverick makes quite a compelling argument otherwise. But there’s simply no good reason why the backdrops should all be so busy to the point of being indecipherable.
Throughout my growing disillusionment with Marvel, I’ve still held firm on a few opinions. Iron Man succeeded due to a level of underdog practical effects and as good a performance we’ll ever get in one of these from Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. Captain America: The First Avenger loses its way story-wise but engages with color and tactical sets in a way few other MCU films do.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does what Love and Thunder aimed to do and manages to marry real emotions with a heightened color palette, complete with big, broad jokes and references from Pac-Man to Mary Poppins that work because the moments earned them, and these hijinks effortlessly match the characters. But Thor: Love and Thunder? It’s yet another troublesome sign of a studio in creative decline.
The bottom line.
My tastes have changed in the past few years — that’s fine and to be expected. I’ve found my escapism elsewhere to be just as fun, encompassing, and, frankly, better (hello, anime). We shouldn’t be in such a constant state of lowering our bars and accepting mediocrity from one of the most influential, affluent studios in the world, and we shouldn’t be required to “turn off our brains” in order to enjoy something. We can look to other action films, this year’s RRR for example, and see how filmmakers are creating an exhilarating, breathless spectacle with a smaller budget.
Thor: Love and Thunder, despite a strong precursor, the inarguable talent in front of and behind the scenes, and one of the biggest budgets in MCU history, suffers from the belief that Marvel no longer needs to try as hard as it used to. But how long will audiences be all right with that?
Thor: Love and Thunder is out in theaters now.