Thor: Love and ThunderDirected by Taika Waititi. Written by Taika Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Taika Waititi, Jaimie Alexander, Russel Crowe, Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Vin Diesel, Pom Klementieff, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, Kieron L. Dyer, and a few surprises

***1/2 out of ****

The Thor franchise was always a troubled one for Marvel, with all three installments having a radically different identity. The first installment brought gravitas from its cast and director, but had a weak plot and most of its characters felt like beta versions. The sequel let Tom Hiddleston cut loose as Loki, but was bogged down by a terrible villain. Then came Thor: Ragnarok, which unleashed the madness of indie director Taika Waititi on the franchise and gave us a technicolor fantasy that truly captured what the franchise could be – but was rather divisive due to its jokey nature. It’s one of my favorite Marvel movies, but many people were hoping he would rein it in for the sequel.

He did not. In fact, you might say he went Full Taika, because Thor: Love and Thunder is probably the most distinct vision a creator has ever gotten to put on a Marvel movie. Unlike Eternals, its big cosmic concepts don’t feel like they’re too big for the movie. However, this is one of the shortest Marvel movies at only two hours, and it doesn’t let that restrain its ambition at all. It takes on some of the weightiest stories the character of Thor has ever had, drawn from the epic run by Jason Aaron. While it does many of those stories justice, it’s also easy to see where things had to be cut.

We pick up with Thor after the events of the last Avengers movie, where he lost many of his friends to Thanos’ attack. He’s now essentially a cosmic version of a beach bum, getting back into shape by fighting monsters on alien planets and getting dating advice from Star-Lord of the Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a hilarious opening, but Waititi doesn’t shy away from the fact that Thor is seriously depressed. This isn’t played for laughs like it arguably was in Avengers: Endgame, and that helps to drive home that Waititi always respects his source material.

The same goes for the movie’s second lead, Natalie Portman as scientist and former Thor love interest Jane Foster. She went on with her life after she and Thor’s relationship ended, and she went on to be a world-renowned astrophysicist – but now she’s battling stage four cancer, with little hope of survival. After science doesn’t provide any answers, she seeks out another type of hope in the shattered remains of Mjolnir in the small settlement of New Asgard – and the hammer answers back. There is a pretty major twist on why the hammer answers to her now. It feels very in-character for everyone involved, but I can also see it ruffling some feathers. Portman never made much of an impression in her first two outings, but here she comes off as a full-fledged superhero in a way she hasn’t since her star turn in V for Vendetta.

And this movie will need two Thors, because it has maybe the most fearsome villain in the franchise in Christian Bale’s Gorr the God Butcher. In a harrowing prequel, he’s introduced as a lonely pilgrim seeking water and refuge in a drought on an alien planet, desperately trying to protect his young daughter and ultimately burying her, and all the while maintaining faith in his God. And when he finally meets him, the God mocks him and rejects him. Through a series of comic book contrivances, he winds up in possession of the deadly, corrupting Necrosword, which allows him to launch a genocide against anything that could be considered a God. Bale pushes his performance right up to the point of absurdity, coming off as deeply unsettling without ever truly being comical. Gorr is a ghastly mass murderer with one of the biggest-scale plans so far in the MCU outside of Thanos, but he never stops feeling human.

The main plot kicks off when Gorr invades New Asgard with a horde of shadow demons straight out of The Mist. After losing an initial bout to Thor and Thor, he absconds with all of New Asgard’s children – including Heimdall’s son Axl, played by an engaging Kieron L. Dwyer. The two Thors head off for space along with Waititi’s hilarious rock-man Korg and Tessa Thompson’s always-entertaining Valkyrie to build an army of Gods – which doesn’t work particularly well. A set piece inside a massive planet of the Gods, overseen by a hilariously sloppy Russell Crowe as Zeus, is maybe the one scene that leans a little too much into parody, but never so much that it takes you out of the movie.

At the heart of this movie is the connection between Thor and Jane Foster, and in that Waititi has his work cut out for him. He positions them as the true loves of each others’ weird, spectacular lives, which is a hard sell because their original romance in. the first two Thor movies was so perfunctory and forgettable. It’s clear that Waititi brings out the best in both actors, because the scenes they share together are packed with emotion. The story of Jane’s cancer plays out very differently here, for the simple reason that it’s playing out over a two-hour movie rather than a two-year comic book storyline. Portman gives it her all, but I can’t say the same for the makeup artist – she looks rather haggard at times, but the film never quite sells that she’s a stage-four cancer patient on the verge of death.

With the MCU, a lot of things go on behind the scenes and determine the plot, and the ending makes pretty clear who in this film is our Thor going forward. It takes some wild left-turns plot-wise, sets up a bold new status quo for the survivors of Asgard, and introduces a major new player in the stinger. It’s too jokey in points for its deathly serious subject matter, but it comes together into the kind of boldly enjoyable stew Waititi is best at. That being said, I’m assuming he’s giving us a Thor 5 as well – because if not, he’s leaving a LOT to clean up.

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