Thor: Ragnarok sure is great, isn’t it? I remember coming out of the theater from our press screening having braced myself for some level of disappointment because my colleagues who had already seen it told me to manage my expectations or that it was just “okay”. Needless to say, I emerged from the theater jubilant. Taika Waititi’s maiden voyage with Kevin Feige’s empire not only staved off a growing dissatisfaction that was beginning to set in for me with these endless Marvel entries, it also represented a kind of adventure movie that wasn’t getting made anymore. To put it plainly, Ragnarok is the literal embodiment of my childhood memories of movies like Masters of the Universe, Buckaroo Banzai and Flash Gordon. I don’t think there’s a higher compliment I can pay, except one: not only is Ragnarok the best MCU film, it’s the only one that’s maintained any kind of permanence with me. So you can imagine, even with Marvel’s Phase 4 continuing to struggle to maintain any kind of interest, my excitement for Waititi’s follow-up, Thor: Love and Thunder, was impossible to measure.
It thus brings me no pleasure to share that Thor: Love and Thunder is a very poor showing for the once most promising filmmaker’s in Feige’s stable.
Where does Waititi go wrong? To boil it down to one key factor, it’s that the filmmaker’s laser sharp focus has totally gone awry. In Ragnarok, Waititi made the material he pulled onto screen (Walt Simonson’s run, Planet Hulk) serve his own interests, while Love and Thunder is centered directly on the recent Jason Aaron/Esad Ribic/Russell Dautermann run on the character instead, and plays more like a Cliff’s Notes version – shoving 6 years of comics into a 2 hour long movie. A 2 hour long movie that can’t quite seem to reconcile what it wants to be until the very final act. I remember reading those initial God of Thunder comics when they came out in 2012, and debating with my pals, “guys, this is what a Thor movie should actually be”. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.
Love and Thunder, outside of being a broadly comic (though not terribly funny) adaptation of the Aaron etc run, also struggles to serve a number of other masters throughout. Its first act, which finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth) spending his days in a zen-dude like state with the Guardians of the Galaxy (you know who plays them), basically coming into intergalactic conflicts as the overpowered god he is, and the Guardians are a little tired of his gloryhog ways and part ways with him first chance they get. At least, I think that’s what happens, because outside of a pretty rockin’ action sequence, the writing in this segment is pretty sub-standard. They split up for reasons, okay?
So Thor is off on his own with a pair of screaming goats, that get less funny every time they’re on-screen, and his sidekick Korg (Waititi), on the path of new villain Gorr, The God Butcher (Christian Bale), whose character name says it all. The plot brings Thor back to Earth and face to face with his ex Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who is now imbued with the powers of The Mighty Thor, and wielding his old hammer, which was previously destroyed by Hela in the last movie. All of this sounds okay on paper, but the issue is that much of the opening act of Love and Thunder is predicated on two big red flags – one, the entire first act has no less than four flashback sequences (!!) – one to introduce our new villain, one to show how Thor got fit again, another Asgardian play to sum up the previous movie (which, come on, does this studio not know that the fanbase obsessively watches these things over and over?), and then a flashback to sum up the off-screen relationship between Thor and Jane that never got any real play in the previous films at all. In fairness, that’s the most necessary one by far, but by the time you get there, you can’t believe you’re hearing another Korg voiceover.
The other big problem is just one of conception. The dichotomy of Jane being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer while also becoming a superhero, despite the fact that the latter was preventing any potential therapeutic intervention in her treatments, was one of the better recent set-ups and internal struggles in superhero comics. But the catch was, Jane was at the center of those stories, and it was her perspective that we were audience to. Instead, in Love and Thunder, the story is told almost entirely from Thor’s POV. Between this making Jane’s arc mostly indecipherable and Waititi and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson leaving Thor stuck in some kind of middle aged listlessness, this extremely promising angle becomes nowhere near as compelling as it should be.
Things pick up a tad in the middle, when both Thors, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, whose role feels like it’s the most victim of the cutting room floor), and Korg hop onto Gorr’s trail and head to a haven for Gods, bringing this quartet into conflict with Zeus (Russell Crowe) in what is basically a truncated version of the Sakarr segment from the last film. Sadly, Crowe, wonderful actor that he is, has none of Goldblum’s comedic timing; so much of these wacky antics land with a thud. Better though is a nicely shot black and white sequence that pits our heroes against Gorr on a desolate planet, and gives Bale an opportunity to present some sense of menace in what is otherwise another bog-standard Marvel bad guy.
Though by the time the finale comes around, any momentum is lost, as Waititi fully embraces his worst instincts, augered by (not very good) films like The Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Jojo Rabbit, turning Love and Thunder into a children’s adventure film instead of the heavy metal odyssey that its opening moments seemingly promised. It’s hard to not feel like you fully had the rug pulled out from under you once you realize what everyone behind the scenes was up to. Basically, a mega-budget middle-aged dad movie. A fine, if unexciting premise, but it takes forever to get there, and becomes another example of a journey simply not worth the destination.
Even the soundtrack is a let-down, instead of aiming for some cool Power Metal deep cuts, Love and Thunder’s biggest beats are backed by your four most basic Guns N Roses tunes. Oh well, we’ll always have Ragnarok.