The Big Ka-Boom
One of my favorite ways to while away a few minutes is to read one-star product reviews. But not just for anything, oh, no. The only ones that will do are the classics, the unimpeachable works that virtually everybody adores. I like to find those works, then look up the people that hate them.
For the most part, it’s like seeing who’s going for the gold in the Bad Take Olympics. A negative review for Schindler’s List was one of my favorites, which sadly seems to have been removed. The writer acknowledged the importance of memorializing the Holocaust. Their objection, however, was all the nudity and swearing, which made it a difficult viewing experience with their kids.*
Another review I think on fondly was for Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a grim tale about a fifty-year-old Batman attempting to clean up a dystopian Gotham City. The review was entitled, “Remember When Comics Were Fun?” The author lamented the fact that TDKR kicked off an insufferable trend of grimdark superheroes, masked avengers who were only slightly less amoral than the villains they fought against. To an extent, this reviewer was not wrong.
There’s a place for a mature perspective on superheroes.** HBO’s excellent series Watchmen, for example. But does anyone really need a sourpuss Superman? Balance is needed, depending on the subject, and certain characters don’t benefit from having a harsh light shone upon them. Plus, in a world that seems to be spiraling out of control, we could all do with a bit more fun. Thor: Love and Thunder has perhaps ten to fifteen percent thematic and emotional complexity. The rest of it is wall-to-wall entertainment, which ain’t such a bad thing.
Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) has kind of been through a lot. Consider that his brother tried to kill him a couple of times, his previously unknown sister tried to kill him, his Mom died, his Dad died, he failed to kill the mad Titan Thanos, he put on a bunch of weight, and…oh, yeah, he got dumped by the love of his life. That would be the astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who dropped the God of Thunder like a bad habit.
Thor deals with it by not dealing with it and instead goes on spacefaring adventures with his new pals, the Guardians of the Galaxy. Sure, it’s fun for him to lay waste to his foes with the magical axe Stormbreaker. It would just be better to have someone to share his victories with, and it would be better if he knew what his purpose was.
Unfortunately for Thor, he won’t have time for an Eat, Pray, Smite kind of situation, due to the antics of Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale). You see, Gorr lived on a planet suffering from a massive drought. He prayed to his god for deliverance. His wife, then his daughter succumbed, and he prayed for deliverance. He was the last of his people and stumbled upon his god, who informed him that there was no interest in his prayers. Gorr discovered the Necrosword, a god-killing weapon, and proceeded to strike his god down.
Now, Gorr is killing his way through supreme beings, and he has his sights set on the space Viking settlement of New Asgard. For Thor, this would ordinarily be the part where he swoops in, bops the bad guy, and saves the day. Only, another Thor has beaten him to it. It’s Jane, wielding the formerly demolished hammer Mjolnir. Where has she gotten her godly might from? Will the Thors be able to stop Gorr’s reign of terror? Will Thor and Jane finally stop being awkward around each other?
For a little while there in the MCU, the character of Thor was a crushing bore. It was a waste of Chris Hemsworth’s considerable acting chops and a waste of the audience’s time to sit through the perfectly adequate Thor and the somewhat less adequate Thor: The Dark World. The only time the character really resonated was when Hemsworth was allowed to be funny in the first two Avengers films. And then, Taika Waititi swooped in and resuscitated the character with the wildly charming Thor: Ragnarok.
Thor: Love and Thunder is basically more of the same from Waititi. You know what? I’m almost completely cool with that! The vast majority of Waititi’s film is deeply, unapologetically silly. We have buffoonish deities led by Zeus (Russell Crowe sporting not so much a Greek accent, but a “Greek” accent), thunderous action scenes accompanied by Guns N’Roses tunes, and a running joke involving two goats. While the filmmaking feels a little sloppy at times, and Waititi could have pumped the brakes a little with his pacing, he’s made nearly a pure endorphin rush of a movie.
Bear in mind that as goofy as the film is, there are a few moments of strong and legitimate emotion, thanks to the screenplay by Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson. I’m specifically thinking of two sequences that are almost short films. The first is the introduction of Gorr, and it’s interesting to see the MCU veering relatively close to a tone of hopelessness. The other is a montage of the ups and downs of Thor and Jane’s relationship. It starts off a bit silly, then drills down with genuine emotional honesty. The MCU in general and Waititi, in particular, have a habit of undercutting emotion with jokes, and here it’s as if Waititi wanted to remind the audience that he can get real when it’s necessary.
Let’s take a moment to talk about how this film pushes forward the MCU toward its next universe-shaking cataclysm. For the most part, it actually doesn’t. Again, I’m totally cool with that! In previous phases of the MCU, we understood that the films were building up to Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet. Now, the MCU feels like it’s building up to four or five unrelated things over several years. This film mostly concerns itself with itself, and that’s a nice change of pace.
With one exception, everybody in the cast gets a little time to be funny. I liked Tessa Thompson as King Valkyrie, the ruler of New Asgard, though this time around she’s second fiddle to the Thors. I very much enjoyed Natalie Portman, who doesn’t often get a chance to go full comedic. While she’s got a running joke about trying to create a catchphrase that was funnier a few decades ago, Portman is a nimble performer in both the action and the comedy. The whole thing rests on the freakishly huge shoulders of Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Hemsworth excels at portraying the prince of Asgard as a chiseled bohunk, a sunny hero who wears his heart on his sleeve. Like Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, Hemsworth has made such a memorable and enjoyable mark as Thor that I simply can’t imagine anyone else playing the character.
As Gorr, Christian Bale is not giving what I would call a hilarious performance. That feels about right as his dark intensity is a good match for Hemsworth’s lightness. Bale realizes that the best antagonists come from a place of relatability, and we can all understand how a devout man can become twisted by his faith. Bale slingshots his vocal register between a titter and a growl, and he has the physical presence to go toe to toe with Hemsworth and feel like a real threat. Gorr is a top-tier villain, and I’d put him next to Josh Brolin’s Thanos and Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger without hesitation.
Somewhere, an anonymous online product reviewer feels despair. They were confronted by a three-hour Batman film that borrows from both Seven and Zodiac. They were then struck by a Doctor Strange movie featuring a generous helping of Evil Dead. This person wants to smile, to feel the metaphorical sun on their face. Thor: Love and Thunder is just what they need.
*I can only imagine them saying, “We’re good with the depiction of Amon Goethe randomly firing upon innocent Jews, but there’s too much titty!”
**This is a good place to mention the pedantic argument against taking superheroes seriously because they were “originally created for children.” To translate, “I don’t like this genre and I’m going to make you feel bad for liking it.”