Within the first few minutes of the fourth Thor movie, my mind drew to Star Trek: The Final Frontier, which opens similarly with a bald man seeking salvation in the desert. That film also came with the notable aspect of rejecting God when asking the comical yet telling question, “What does God need with a starship?” A similar sense of existential teeth is present in Love and Thunder but struggles to find just where to sink its fangs in a film about killing gods, getting over the loss of others, and coming to terms with death. These are all heavy topics and Thor kinda stumbles trying to address it all while still having a chipper adventure of magic and monsters.
Christian Bale is at least an interesting villain as Gorr, The God Butcher. Having suffered the loss of his daughter, he is hoping some hope will come if he seeks out those which he prays towards. When he finally meets his god of choice and realizes that there’s no reward for such praise, the bitter disciple picks up a god-killing sword and decides to go on a god-slaying rampage across the galaxy. Naturally, the cocky Thor (Chris Hemsworth), back to his old ways of being brash and bone-headed, is a prime target on that list.
Despite how much fun Thor once more has with using his trusty ax Stormbreaker, he’ll need to find a better way to defeat Gorr than just smashing him really hard. At the heart of the matter is love and this is where Thor’s ex-flame Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) returns to the stage in a rather profound way. Not only is Thor shocked to see his former lover once more but now she’s on the battlefield wielding his old hammer. This leads to some awkward exchanges not only with Thor being unable to let go of Jane but also not being content with letting go of his former weapon. There’s some decent absurdity woven in with Stormbreaker somehow showing jealousy.
While Thor’s Stormbreaker certainly lands plenty of forceful impacts, the comedic levity has a lesser punch. This is mostly because returning director Taika Waitit tries a bit too hard to play the greatest hits from Ragnarok once more. Silly aspects of reenacting previous events in a corny stage play are reiterated with less comedy, despite yet another surprise casting. The dry wit of the rock monster Korg (voiced by Waititi) feels strangely lacking and too passive for the adventure at play. Even the fresher gags of Thor now bringing along some giant screaming goats for his adventures ahead becomes a one-joke bit that grows tiresome quick.
The squandered potential of the picture is perhaps best personified through Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). She assumes the duties of residing as mayor of New Asgard but finds herself bored with the mundane tasks of opening new stores and negotiating with political figures. She desires to be back on the battlefield, riding a pegasus, swinging a sword, and drinking beer. She gets to do a little bit of that but doesn’t find much purpose in a picture that struggles to find something to do with our bi-sexual sidekick. Even her heartfelt chat with Korg about romance feels like half a conversation that doesn’t build up too much of anything.
The duct tape of cohesiveness for the Marvel Cinematic Universe is most present in this entry. Waititi shaves off the lingering threads from Avengers: Endgame by quickly making Thor lose his weight and ditch his pals of the Guardians of the Galaxy fairly early on. That’d be fine if it weren’t for the fact that most of the first act goes back to all the same hallmarks of the previous Thor film with far less impact. Thor also has to keep stating that nearly everything he does is a “classic Thor adventure,” as if to wink to the audience about how much they dig little change in their superheroes. It’s only in the final act of the film where the true heart and soul of Thor’s adventure is revealed, coming off like too little too late given the somewhat mixed messaging throughout.
A highlight of the picture is when Thor and company visit the council of gods to form an army against The God Butcher. They’re approached by a pompous, overweight, and lazy Zeus (Russell Crowe) who is more than a little reluctant to offer Thor any help. Despite how much of the jokes in this scene fall flat (Zeus loves talking about orgies a lot), there’s a bit of a cathartic and poignant scene for when our heroes ask for help to save children, have that request denied to them by powerful gods, and then just obliterate a room full of gods, displaying how the powerful and corrupt are not above being challenged.
And, sure, the film does look pretty, even if it never quite hit that 1980s fantasy psychedelic tone the soundtrack, typography, and marketing imply. Quieter scenes of Thor and Jane reconnecting amid a galaxy of vibrant colors and singing dolphins are quite the sight. A battle scene on a tiny planet with an absence of color has a rather bold effect and perfectly nails the darker tone required for such a scene. The fight scenes are also decent, despite how much CGI coats the characters, to the point where needless CGI armor is slathered on our heroes for little reason. Why does Thor need a CGI helmet with wings? He doesn’t but he just wants to show it off for one scene to prove to you that he can do it.
Thor: Love and Thunder has its heart in the right place but its power for adventure and levity feel like they’re off in another movie. The clunky assembly of quickly jumping to a hammer-wielding Natalie Portman and tapping the power of eternal god powers leaves little room for a deeper exploration of existential concern, enduring love, and coming to terms with letting go of women and weapons. Is it the worst Thor film? No, it still has a greater thematic edge over The Dark World but only just. The best way to describe the film might be with its screaming goats; it’s funny for a bit but they soon wear out their welcome where you wish the goats would do more than the same old thing.