I think it would be fair to say that after 11 years of playing Thor, Chris Hemsworth is currently the face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Other longtime players like Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson have moved on. Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner are still technically in the fold, but have never headlined a feature film; Doctor Strange and Spider-man, while successful, are still relatively new. Only Hemsworth’s Thor lasted long enough to merit a fourth solo adventure, which allowed for greater fusion between the character and the actor’s sensibilities. And if you’ve seen it in things like the 2016 ghost hunters reboot or the recent Netflix sci-fi thriller spider headyou know that Chris Hemsworth is actually a comedian born into the sculpted body of a god.
Writer/director Taika Waititi was able to harness some of that energy for 2017 Thor: Ragnarok, creating an MCU entry that felt more like pure comedy than anything else in the franchise to date. It makes sense he’d lean into that sensibility for his return to directing Thor: Love and Thunder, but he attaches that goofy vibe to a story where it doesn’t really make sense. For some reason, Waititi thought it was reasonable to take a tale about despair, vulnerability, and loss of faith, and decide that the hilarity follows naturally.
The story begins with an alien father named Gorr (Christian Bale) whose grief and anger at his god over the death of his daughter finds purpose when he puts himself in the stance of a sword with the power to slay gods. This naturally puts him on a collision course with the survivors of Asgard, including the God of Thunder. Or, in the end, do that Gods of Thunder, plural, as Thor’s former flame, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), becomes the wielder of Mjolnir, the hammer that had seemed destroyed in Ragnarok.
Waititi stirs the pot with plenty of quirky scenarios designed for punchlines as much as punches. The seaside village dubbed “New Asgard” has become a tourist attraction with cheesy dramatic recreations and slanderously named retail outlets, with Asgardian warrior/leader Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) stuck in ceremonial duties. There’s a fun sideline where Thor Stormbreaker’s ax semi-sentience manifests in jealousy of the reconstituted Mjolnir; a fun montage reveals the story of Thor and Jane’s breakup; this internet meme involving screaming goats kind of turns into a running gag. And then you have Russell Crowe, who does it masterfully as Zeus far more interested in flashy entrances and planning the next orgy than interceding in affairs under his station.
It all has its entertainment value, but it starts to clash quite heavily with the apparent central plot. Gorr the God-Butcher of Bale – pale, bald, with fangs and generally a visual clone of Ralph Fiennes’ Lord Voldemort – has a compelling arc, exploring the rage that can accompany a sense of divine indifference to mortal suffering. Meanwhile, Jane faces a life-threatening health crisis, and Thor grapples with what it would mean to open himself up to love again after he’s already been heartbroken. But it never feels like Waititi really takes this material seriously. No matter how furiously Bale tries to turn the idea of being forsaken by God into genuine pain, or how many moments we get at a hospital bedside, it always feels like something Waititi is obligated to. to include between jokes.
At least it has Hemsworth at the helm, and that masks a host of sins, including a bland visual style and Waititi’s excessive penchant for slow-motion shots of his heroes jumping left and right. By now, the actor has honed the notion of Thor as a swaggering beefcake raging through his battles with abandon but somewhat haunted by his vulnerabilities and past failures. His comedic timing is ace, and he fully understands how to walk the tightrope between the image of invincibility that Thor is trying to convey and the reality that it’s just an image. When Thor: Love and Thunder is simply an action comedy, it plays to the strengths of its star and filmmaker. If Hemsworth does indeed stick around for more Thor, perhaps he could just be allowed to do what he does best.
THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER
Available July 8 in theaters