‘Thor: Love and Thunder’ Crackles With Color and Absurdist Humor

After such an overload of serious-minded, intricately interconnected movies, “Thor: Love and Thunder” brings back a sense of humor to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is Taika Waititi’s second go at the space Viking department of the franchise and it carries his colorful eye, hilarious energy and skill for needle drops. The story lacks the stronger coherence of his 2017 “Thor: Ragnarok,” and functions best as a small detour from the wider Marvel panorama. It is in fact Waititi’s sense for comedy and self-referential satire that works best. By now some of these Marvel movies are beginning to feel a bit constrained by their own formula. Every new film functions like a prelude for the next one. There is also a standard order now to every plot point, always culminating with a big CGI-heavy battle. In “Love and Thunder” the entertainment is high when Waititi winks at the audience.

When last we saw Thor (Chris Hemsworth) he had blasted off with the Guardians of the Galaxy in the wake of “Avengers: Endgame” (the movie every new MCU title flows out from). Now he’s zooming around with the cosmic misfits, fighting an army of chicken-like aliens in some remote planet. But this doesn’t last for long and Thor is called off to help what remains of his people at New Asgard, a seaside port that has replaced the old Asgard destroyed in “Ragnarok.” He drops back in on time to support his comrade, King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who has been leading the Asgardians. Their new foe is Gorr (Christian Bale), or the God Butcher, who wields the Necrosword in a quest to avenge the death of his young daughter. Hunting down and slaughtering deities, Gorr has arrived to kidnap the children of Asgard. Before Thor and King Valkyrie embark on their mission to stop Gorr, they are joined by a surprise addition, Jane (Natalie Portman), the scientist who had captured Thor’s heart in the first two movies. Now, she’s wielding his old hammer, Mjolnir, as Mighty Thor. Jane also suffers from terminal cancer, and every time she uses the awesome weapon, more of her human self is diminished.

Beginning with its great title, “Love and Thunder” has a lot of promise. Like the other lighter, funnier MCU entries, its charm is in acting as if it knows the idea of Nordic myth meets galactic adventures is rather brilliant but absurd. Basically, it understands it’s a comic book and behaves like pop art. The opening battle looks inspired by movies like “Heavy Metal,” scored to Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” with Hemsworth dressed like he belongs on a vintage album cover. For most of the film Guns N’ Roses remain the band of choice. “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Paradise City” and “November Rain” give the action and comedy scenes better lift. Aesthetically, Waititi sees Thor as a character worthy for updating those infamously bad guilty pleasures from the ‘80s like “The Barbarians” or “Masters of the Universe.” The end credits look lifted out of a straight-to-video epic from the era. All that’s missing is the worn VHS effect. “Ragnarok” had the same spirit on a fresher level.

As a director, Taika Waititi has always excelled at crafting images that have the richness of pop art, even in his Oscar-winning “Jojo Rabbit.” Yet in “Love and Thunder,” the look outruns the story. It can feel as if Waititi is desperate to rush past the obligatory Marvel narrative. The Guardians of the Galaxy are quickly shoved off the script. Little is said about how King Valkyrie runs New Asgard, or what people do there. Having Gorr kidnap a whole cage-full of children is part of the director’s fascination for fairy tale narratives, while at the same time feeling like an easy gimmick for the villain. Much of Gorr as a character is quite compelling as an idea, with allegories about the need to defy oppressive systems or question beliefs. Christian Bale brings real pain and vulnerability to a role that never lets him really go fully wild into god killer mode. He doesn’t wreck as much havoc as the premise hints. What does work better is Jane’s storyline. Natalie Portman’s character has always brought more heart and humanity to a title where the hero can be famously dull. That’s why Waititi saved this particular franchise with humor, after movies like 2011’s “Thor” (directed by Kenneth Branagh no less) tried to play the Viking and Valhalla material with a straight face. Portman brings a mix of liveliness and sadness here, asking Thor if he has a girlfriend while harboring the knowledge her time is running out. She is so good as Mighty Thor, waging battle and throwing down the hammer, that we wish Portman would get a whole movie to herself.

What lingers best is again, the comedy. Waititi indulges in satire both goofy and risqué. Thor’s friend from “Ragnarok,” former slave and rock being Korg (Waititi) is back as his wing man. After saving a planet from doom, they are awarded two giant goats who literally scream all the time. When seeking aid from fellow gods, Thor and company enter a glittering Olympus where Zeus (Russell Crowe) holds court, looking like Vangelis and talking like a real Greek. The lightning god is more concerned about organizing the evening’s orgy than fighting Gorr. Other gods present include Quetzalcoatl and Bao, god of dumplings, who is a literal, smiling dumpling sitting on a spoon. This whole sequence is Waititi at his best when he’s allowed to go slightly nuts with the gags. Thor gets stripped naked by angry Zeus and some maidens faint at the sight. We also feel some genuine sympathy for Thor’s battle axe, which slowly enters frame to express its jealousy over his owner’s obsession with Mjolnir. It’s nothing a good dose of Viking mead can’t fix. You can easily imagine Waititi happily coming up with these moments at the keyboard with co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson before realizing there’s a plot to continue.

For a Marvel movie “Love and Thunder” is short at two hours. Even then, Waititi doesn’t manage to tell a story that feels complete. You already know it ends with a titanic battle sequence involving close calls and godly hammers blasting away evil doers. So it might not all be Waititi’s fault, since this feels like a pit stop on the grander road of whatever MCU guru Kevin Feige is concocting for the next inter-locked titles. For general viewers this one might still work better than “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” since it doesn’t require you to have seen the previous dozen movies or shows to get it. The romance is corny but endearing, while the underused villain has understandable, even challenging motivations. There is just the constant feeling that this movie could have been or done much more. Maybe the old franchise constraints are beginning to run out of gas. It still delivers as purely popcorn entertainment, dropping heavy metal fantasies and hearty space Viking laughs. 

Thor: Love and Thunder” releases July 8 in theaters nationwide.