Thor: Love And Thunder Review: A Shaky Attempt To Recapture Lightning In A Bottle

There's a fine line between sincerity and glibness, and "Thor: Love and Thunder" has a very difficult time straddling that line. Where the last film focused on the God of Thunder, at least as depicted within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was breezy and fun and delightfully weird, "Thor: Love and Thunder" has a surprisingly difficult time trying to recapture that goofy lightning in a bottle, in spite of the fact that director Taika Waititi has returned and now serves as co-writer. This is ostensibly even more Waititi's film than "Thor: Ragnarok" was, considering how big a success that film was creatively and commercially, but its attempts at humor are as sweaty as they are frequent, and its attempts at pathos and tragedy are both unexpected and ill-handled. Parts of "Thor: Love and Thunder" are effectively managed, but more often than not, this latest extension of the MCU struggles to right the ship.

We last left Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) with the Guardians of the Galaxy and also with a little extra body fat. But as his rocky friend Korg (voiced by Waititi) explains, Thor worked through his pain — primarily that of having lost his true love, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) — by losing his weight and taking on all manners of alien beasties with the ragtag group led by Star-Lord (Chris Pratt). It is, however, obvious to everyone but Thor that his presence is a little tiring, so when a distress call from Thor's old Asgardian friend Sif (Jaimie Alexander) comes through, the Guardians use that as an excuse to vamoose. From Sif, Thor learns of a mysterious villain named Gorr (Christian Bale), who goes by the moniker "The God Butcher" because he has a powerful sword that can kill gods, and he's been using it ... a lot. Gorr's latest target is New Asgard, where Thor is shocked to find his ex Jane is inexplicably wielding his hammer Mjolnir and is imbued with Thor-like powers.

"Thor: Love and Thunder" runs into trouble from the start, with a grim prologue introducing us to Gorr and making clear why he wants to kill gods, to the extent that he has an extremely effective, if heartbreaking, argument for fighting against the rulers who care so little for those below them. Gorr sees gods like Thor as being selfish, ignorant, and destructive, and then the film proceeds to further that argument by showing us Thor acting ... well, selfish, ignorant, and destructive. It's an intentional creative choice meant to help establish an arc of growth for Thor, but the problem is that this is a Marvel movie, so the good guys are going to win and Gorr is not the good guy. (That he rouses Thor into action alongside Jane and Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie by kidnapping a group of children helps establish Gorr as the bad guy.)

A superhero film with tonal whiplash

The real issue comes down to the script, by Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, which veers from dark and dour tragedy to glib, dismissive comedy often in the same scene. Much of the backstory surrounding Jane Foster's return, and why it is that she's transformed herself into The Mighty Thor, is steeped in pathos ... until she tries to riff her way into getting the right catchphrase. (Jane's return also leads to Thor dealing with a love triangle of sorts between himself, Mjolnir, and his newly created ax.) Though it's very nice to see Portman on the big screen again — with this being her first mainstream movie since "Annihilation" — it remains more than a little difficult to buy the love between Jane and Thor as having been so massive and epic on the same level as even that of Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter. It's not that Chris Hemsworth has more chemistry with either Tessa Thompson (who's more than a bit underused here) or Thor's hammer Mjolnir, but his chemistry with Portman isn't exactly off the charts.

Where "Thor: Love and Thunder" does work unequivocally is in serving as a reminder that Christian Bale is an excellent actor. For a cinematic franchise built on good guys vs. bad, there are not a ton of truly memorable villains in the MCU, but Bale makes Gorr pretty close to unforgettable with his genuinely very solid performance. Bale, like Portman, hasn't been on the big screen in a few years, not since "Ford v. Ferrari." While he's no stranger to the world of comic-book movies, Bale's performance is predictably a far cry from his Batman. The risk of Gorr is that his character's brief backstory is a very emphatic warning that "Love and Thunder" is going to try to be a bit darker than "Ragnarok." The good news is, Bale makes that shift to a grimmer tone work very well; even when Gorr tries to entertain the abducted children with a warped bedtime story of sorts, he's extremely creepy. 

The flip side is simple: by making a good chunk of this new "Thor" movie fairly dark, Waititi and Robinson end up stumbling when it comes to bringing back — or trying to bring back — the flippant comedy that made "Ragnarok" stand out. Some of the jokes are just lazy, as when we get a variation on the sitcommy gag of one character talking badly about another, pausing, and then saying "They're right behind me, aren't they?" Then there are largely soulless one-liners, as when Valkyrie, upon seeing Thor destroy the ceiling of a New Asgard building, says "I'm going to invoice you for that." Even the gags that work only work so much, because of the grim overarching story.

The best thing that can be said about "Thor: Love and Thunder" is that as rough as the experience is, it's nowhere near as bad as "Thor: The Dark World." And Christian Bale is going for it as Gorr. (The same can also be said for his "3:10 to Yuma" co-star Russell Crowe, who makes an extended cameo appearance as the legendary god Zeus here, turning the Olympian god into a fey and selfish ninny. If any part of the movie is truly hilarious, it's the scene with Zeus, and it's because of Crowe.) But maybe "Thor: Ragnarok" was, at least for the world of Marvel, too good to be topped. Or maybe you can only get so lucky so many times. As hard as the cast and Taika Waititi try, though, it just doesn't work. "Thor: Ragnarok" felt effortless. "Thor: Love and Thunder" is working very hard, and not getting a lot to show for it.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10