Not even Christian Bale’s best performance to date can stop Thor: Love And Thunder from shattering a longstanding MCU consensus
Of all the things I expected from THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER, being an unironic homage to STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER was not one of them and yet Taika Waititi’s fourquel opens with a near shot-for-shot homage to William Shatner’s 1989 magnum opus before going on to give us a story of a religious fanatic hell-bent on reaching the centre of the universe in order to confront the ultimate god. That’s not the only thing the movie borrows from STAR TREK because now it’s pretty clear that there’s a definite odd/ even quality differential with THOR’s even-numbered cinematic outings being the lesser of the two groups and, if nothing else, THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER sure manages to upset the long-held (and largely unjustified) convention that THOR: THE DARK WORLD was the weakest Marvel movie featuring the Odinson.
Marvel’s Phase 4 has been something of a mixed bag, mostly because it’s had the misfortune to have to follow the unprecedented storytelling of The Infinity Saga. The fragmentation between theatrical and Disney+ hasn’t helped quell the sense of aimless and unfocussed roster expansion in service to an as-yet unclear narrative purpose. THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER embraces this scattergun approach and sees Waititi cranking it up to 11 and then breaking the knob off in an attempt to reach 12.
Frequently silly and often indulgent, THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER resembles nothing so much as a feature-length film version of the play-within-a-film from THOR: RAGNAROK, a trick Waititi gratuitously repeats in this movie with amusing, but notably diminishing returns. Of course, the masterstroke here is the framing device which couches the entire story as one being told by Korg (Waititi’s self-insert character and unreliable narrator par excellence), thereby giving the MCU and what follows an easy out of any of the overly indulgent nonsense this uncomfortably chimeric movie foists upon the audience.
A frenetic opening that mixes archly contrived whimsy with visuals so obviously curated for superfluous coolness you’d think JJ Abrams was at the helm not only sees Hemsworth’s Thor at his most silly and annoying but also completely wastes the Guardians Of The Galaxy as the potential hinted at in the closing moments of AVENGERS: ENDGAME is casually discarded because Waititi had no use for them – a shame considering Quill’s Celestial lineage might have played well into a story of cosmic deicide.
THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER often feels like a film scared of its own shadow and reluctant to embrace any real darkness, preferring to undercut or obfuscate the story’s emotional undercurrents in favour of whimsical schtick and arch goofiness. terrified by its own darkness and giddily inane set pieces often undermine or even obscure pivotal emotional moments with giddily whimsical set pieces. Hemsworth is a talented comedic actor and Thor is a character ripe for comic asides but THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER often treats him as a comedy buffoon rather than the tragic hero his entire character journey to this point has made him. For every joke that works – Stormbreaker’s jealousy, the screaming goats (most of the time), the one borrowed directly from RICK & MORTY – there are half a dozen that fall flat or feel awkward, forced and clumsy. Even Russell Crowe’s undoubted gravitas as Zeus is holed below the waterline by the sub-Harry Enfield Grecian farce he’s compelled to participate in.
And yet, while we’re forced to endure Waititi positively wallowing in his comfort zone THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER sees Christian Bale finally stepping out of his to deliver one of the most remarkable – and for my money, best – performances of his career to date. Bale may be a veteran of three blockbuster Batman movies but here he finally embraces the comic book absurdity of the genre and freed from the need to keep it grounded he finds a performance level that’s a world away from his usual overly mannered style. For the first time watching him perform, I saw the character first and foremost and not, as I usually find with him, the Actor Christian Bale and his performance choices. A shame, then, that Bale’s Gor The God Butcher and Hemsworth’s Thor Odinson find themselves having to face-off in a twenty-first century reimagining of Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN & ROBIN.
The garishly light tone also does a disservice to Natalie Portman’s return as Jane Foster, her battle with cancer – a potentially poignant and powerful foil to reinforce the limits of our hero’s power (much as Jonathan Kent’s heart attack serves to teach Kal-El an invaluable humility in SUPERMAN) – is reduced to a perfunctory plot contrivance, a gimmick to bring back a star name and borrow some comic book (and comic book nerd-baiting) hype.
But then LOVE AND THUNDER has little interest in life and death despite its subject matter. Time and again, it delivers what appears to be a shockingly mortal blow to a beloved character only to wuss out and keep them alive. Then again, how much dramatic impact is the supposed death of the character who’s narrating the entire thing ever going to have?
The second half of the film, where events force the silliness to take a step back is certainly stronger than the first and while the final battle takes enormous inspiration from the series finale of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, it surprisingly makes a better fist of resting its denouement on the power of tolerance, mercy and love than WONDER WOMAN 1984 did.
Hemsworth’s Asgardian charisma managed to come through the good and the bad of LOVE AND THUNDER largely unscathed, but there’s no denying after this overindulgent pean to 1980s rock music album covers, the words “Thor Will Return” evoke just a little trepidation for the first time. I’m all for Thor returning, but here’s hoping Waititi won’t, at least for a while.