Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Love and Thunder (Photos: Marvel & Disney)

By Matt Brunson

★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Taika Waititi
STARS Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman

It might have been an endgame off screen as well as on.

After the Phase Three-capping extravaganza Avengers: Endgame (and with an oddly inserted Spider-Man side trip shortly thereafter), it seemed that Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would have to work mighty hard to match the achievements of much of what had come before. Yet while the rubber-stamp division of the Marvel faithful has been typically effusive in its praise of all things MCU, more discerning types will note that the Four score is somewhat lacking.

Black Widow was solid but, with a dead character at its center, felt like an afterthought. The alternately nimble and numbing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was not much different in tone or style — or quality — from the lambasted Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins. Eternals was a mediocrity with too much clutter (although points for enraging the incels to a frothy degree). Spider-Man: No Way Home was beaucoup fun until that unfortunate ending. And the less said about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the better.

Currently up at bat is Thor: Love and Thunder, with Chris Hemsworth returning as the God of Thunder and Natalie Portman brought back into the fold as Jane Foster. The movie often plays like a Thor: Ragnarok revival, only with a reduction in laughs and charm. Because Ragnarok director and co-writer Taika Waititi is again on board, this is perhaps to be expected. Yet despite its ample faults, the film nevertheless earns a modest recommendation, albeit one with more reservations than beachfront hotels during Spring Break.

Christian Bale, who would doubtless bring his standard commitment and intensity to a Sprite commercial, creates a memorable villain in Gorr, a peasant who transforms into “The God Butcher” once he acquires the Necrosword and begins slashing his way through all of the galaxy’s supposed immortals. Thor is therefore on Gorr’s hit list, but our hero doesn’t have to face his new nemesis alone, as he receives support from his chums Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Korg (voiced by Waititi). He also finds an unexpected ally in his ex-girlfriend Jane Foster, whose cancer diagnosis has led to a bonding session with Thor’s former hammer Mjolnir and, with it, a temporary status as Mighty Thor (basically the “she” version to Thor’s “he”).

Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth

The chuckles in Thor: Love and Thunder are fast and furious but not always funny, with too many forced errors on Waititi’s part as co-scripter. The emphasis on Thor’s comedic chops are so pronounced, in fact, that they turn his character into something of a clod. The God of Thunder has never been the brightest of MCU heroes, but his actions and reactions in this outing bring him closer to the clueless numbskull Hemsworth played in the enjoyable Ghostbusters remake than to the Thor Odinson we all know and admire. Faring better in the humor sweepstakes is Russell Crowe, whose boisterous turn as a smarmy and self-centered Zeus ends up stealing the show.

There’s a lack of laughter in the scenes involving Gorr, and that’s why they work. As with Captain America: Civil War’s Zemo and Black Panther’s Killmonger, it’s established that there’s a method to Gorr’s murderousness, as the tragic death of his young daughter is instantly followed by the unconcerned mocking of the boorish god Rapu (Jonathan Brugh, one of the vampires in Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows). We feel sympathy for Gorr even as we condemn the more heinous of his actions. Conversely, the plight of Jane Foster never takes root in the same manner. Because she’s a good person who’s dying of cancer, audience empathy should be particularly elevated, but it’s hard to gain emotional traction with Thor and his pals all but making armpit noises as she suffers silently.

Unlike many scribes, I’ve never been one to object to tonal shifts in movies — many films, for instance, beautifully move from horror to comedy and back with the greatest of ease (The Howling comes to mind). Unfortunately, Waititi’s overreliance on guffaws comes at the expense of any gravitas. His balancing act was more accomplished in Thor: Ragnarok and Jojo Rabbit — here, he’s too often like the most obnoxious drunk at the dinner party, putting a lampshade on his head while everyone else just wants to sit back and enjoy themselves.


Review links for movies referenced in this column:
Avengers: Endgame
Black Panther
Black Widow
Captain America: Civil War
Ghostbusters (2016)
Jojo Rabbit
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins
Spider-Man: Far From Home
Thor: Ragnarok
What We Do in the Shadows

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