‘Thor: Love and Thunder’ major disappointment, despite fun characters and grand spectacle

“Your ancestors called it magic, but you call it science,” Thor said to Jane Foster in Marvel’s first Thor movie (2011). “I come from a land where they are one and the same.”

Whatever it’s called, the magic is gone. At least for the God of Thunder’s run under director Taika Waititi.

Thor: Love and Thunder has some beautiful visuals, creative set pieces, and compelling character arcs, especially for Natalie Portman’s Foster. But the story trying to hold them all together is too weak to build a satisfying film that ranks among the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

What makes this so disappointing is that Waititi’s previous Thor film, 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, was such a refreshing change of direction from the other Marvel movies with its fast pace, outlandish color palette, and bold designs influenced by legendary artists like Jack Kirby, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Moebius. (The new wave soundtrack by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh added to the alien atmosphere.)

Yet with Love and Thunder, it feels like Waititi — who wrote the film’s screenplay with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson — ran out of ideas for Thor after reinventing and revitalizing him. Well, maybe it’s more that he had plenty of ideas but didn’t know how to build an over-arching cohesive story to bring them all together.

After 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, I wrote that Marvel should ditch Jane Foster. There was nowhere else to go with that relationship. Maybe it gave Thor a reason to travel to Earth and care about its people, but that also tied him down as a character. Plus, Portman didn’t seem particularly interested in playing the role.

But inspired by recent Marvel Comics storylines, Love and Thunder knew how to bring Foster back by making her a superhero on par with Thor. It also made her a far more compelling character with a story arc that’s both tragic and fantastic, and ties in well with the first two Thor films.

Unfortunately, Foster doesn’t quite fit in with the post-Ragnarok Thor (and Portman acts like she knows it), making it feel as if there are two different movies happening here. Using her “Mighty Thor” comes off more as fan service, which is a direction Marvel has been going in far too often with its recent movies such as Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

By making Foster a subplot to the larger story of Christian Bale’s Gorr the God Butcher vengefully attempting to wipe out all of the god-like beings in the universe, there’s a missed opportunity to explore just what makes someone worthy of wielding Mjolnir. We know from Endgame that Captain America was worthy of using Thor’s hammer. But we also never questioned that. Who is more of a pure hero than Steve Rogers?

Maybe the intention was to imply that Jane Foster is also a pure soul who seeks to save others rather than empower herself. Or maybe Mjolnir responded to someone needing its power after being abandoned by Thor. Unfortunately, Love and Thunder never looks into that, settling instead for jokes about Mjolnir feeling jilted for Stormbreaker and Thor’s new weapon resenting the old hammer coming back into his life.

Another problem is that Gorr just isn’t that interesting a villain. Bale does what he can with a limited role and the script establishes strong motivation and pathos for his revenge quest. But as fearsome as he’s set up to be, Gorr doesn’t do anything that makes him a major threat to Thor and his crew. Compare that to Cate Blanchett’s Hela creating major stakes in Ragnarok by destroying Mjolnir and banishing Thor to an unfamiliar alien world.

More importantly, Ragnarok was a vital creative reset for a character who was part of the Avengers but didn’t have a solo film that measured up to his popularity. Waititi utilized Chris Hemsworth’s natural charm and gift for comedy to make Thor far more relatable than the otherworldly, near-Medieval, god-like figure set up in his first two movies. This version of Thor was more fun and adaptable to the cosmic, science fiction setting of the MCU.

But that previous approach was necessary to establish Thor and build the world around him. The Shakespearean family drama with brother Loki and his need to live up to his father’s legacy was a key part of Thor’s story. Not to mention that setting enabled all of the entertaining “fish out of water” elements with him trying to navigate our world (or Midgard). The more human, often goofy version of Thor wouldn’t have been possible without that.

To be fair to Waititi, many of the problems with Love and Thunder may not entirely be his fault.

Thor underwent major trauma and change since Ragnarok in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. He lost his brother (though maybe a reunion with Loki is inevitable since the Disney+ series showed us that he’s very much alive). He failed to stop Thanos from snapping his fingers with the Infinity Gauntlet and wiping out half the universe. And the burden of that failure turned him into an overweight, beer-soaked recluse amid the remains of a relocated Asgard.

But Thor found redemption, thanks to the Avengers’ time-traveling scheme that restored the universe. Along the way, he also forged a new weapon, a bad-ass axe called Stormbreaker that made Mjolnir look like a trinket in comparison. And last we saw Thor, with nothing really tying him to Earth, he decided to travel the cosmos with the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Though the Guardians have their own movie (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3) still to come, teaming them up with Thor on outer-space adventures would appear to open up a whole bunch of story possibilities. Maybe Marvel’s writers and producers tried that. Maybe Waititi even gave it a shot before deciding to go in a different direction.

It’s also possible that COVID delays and cancellations altering Marvel’s release schedule killed some ideas. (Look at how rescheduling No Way Home caused the studio to overhaul Multiverse of Madness — and probably not for the better.)

But even if those factors were an obstacle, Waititi consistently makes the wrong choice — often because he’s going too hard for laughs. A joke involving giant goats is funny at first, but not the next dozen times it’s used. Russell Crowe’s Zeus is just a visual gag with no consequence to him. Even the use of Guns N’ Roses throughout the soundtrack doesn’t fit with the visual tone Waititi tries to create from the grandiose visuals of heavy metal album covers and posters.

Virtually everyone involved with Thor: Love and Thunder — notably Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie — deserved better than the final product created. Hopefully, someone else can build on where the story leaves Thor and continue evolving the character who is arguably the most intriguing in the MCU. Don’t let Hemsworth put all that work into his impressively jacked physique for nothing.

RATING: 3 OUT OF 5 STARS

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