Note: This article contains spoilers for Thor: Love and Thunder. Proceed with caution.
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues apace, there’s an inherent need for a refreshing, if not outright reinvention, with each installment. Sometimes, change arrives quicker than anticipated. Case-in-point: the Thor series. After The Dark World received poor reviews and a sharp drop in its box office return, Marvel head Kevin Feige and star Chris Hemsworth recruited Kiwi director Taika Waititi to reimagine the God of Thunder for his third installment. The resulting revamp, Thor: Ragnarok, infused electric life into a character whose future felt otherwise uncertain. Waititi smartly pivoted Thor into a godly himbo, imbued by Hemsworth’s combination of comedic chops, impressive brawn, and surprising everyman nature. Marvel’s decision to bring back the same creative team for a follow-up—to see if lightning could strike twice—was probably an easy choice to make.
This new release, Thor: Love and Thunder, makes Thor the first individual MCU character to receive a fourth movie (matching only the Avengers quadrilogy) and brings back Waititi and Hemsworth for another—as the characters in the film often mention—“classic Thor adventure.” Through a cheeky bit of narration, Korg (Waititi) walks through Thor’s physical transformation from dad bod to god bod in the wake of the trauma he’s encountered in the last few years—losing his mom, his dad, Loki, and failing to kill Thanos at the end of Infinity War. While he’s still saving the galaxy alongside Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and the rest of the Guardians, Thor has hit a godly version of a mid-life crisis, unsure of place in this realm—or any other for that matter.
As Thor searches for purpose, another exploration is underway; the Nosferatu-like Gorr (Christian Bale) scours the universe for gods to kill—earning him the moniker “God Butcher” in the process—as he brutally fulfills a vendetta against these holy beings. When Gorr eventually lands on Earth’s New Asgard, he comes into conflict with not one but two Thors, as long-lost flame Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has somehow come into possession of Thor’s old hammer, Mjolnir. How and why Jane is worthy is better left to discover in the film. The two team up alongside Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), the reigning King of New Asgard, and Korg in pursuit of Gorr, while sorting through their lingering relationship issues.
If this sounds like a lot is happening, it’s because there is. Love and Thunder’s script, co-written by Waititi and Sweet/Vicious creator Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, is responsible for translating two of the most popular Thor comic book arcs (both written by Jason Aaron with art by Esad Ribić and Russell Dauterman) of the last decade to the screen. In the attempt to fuse together Gorr and Jane’s tales, Love and Thunder ends up feeling like it shortchanges both of them in the process. Waititi and Robinson provide Gorr with a humanistic origin story in the film’s cold open that provides some genuine pathos to his motives, making the villain compelling—and understandable—as a result. Most of Gorr’s killings happen off-screen and are only mentioned in passing throughout the exposition-ladened first half, which squanders part of Bale’s potential. When Gorr does take a front seat in the back portion, Love and Thunder has spent so much time effectively rekindling the Jane/Thor connection that you’ll likely wish the film was just focused on them in a sort of domestic, Before trilogy-like story as they sort out their relationship. There are moments wherein the movie accomplishes this—an Abba-scored flashback sequence is the closest thing the MCU will ever have to a rom-com—but it’s ultimately fleeting as the conflict with Gorr looms. As a result, Love and Thunder’s brisk sub-two-hour run time is the first time I’ve actively wished for an MCU project to be longer to provide its story beats more time to breathe.
The resulting movie feels rushed, especially as it’s pulled in a variety of different directions. The best example is a mid-movie tangent off to a gathering of gods as Thor, Jane, Valkyrie, and Korg attempt to recruit a cadre of fellow deities, including Zeus (Russell Crowe), to their cause. A fun and funny sequence—Crowe’s doing Channing Tatum doing “My name is Jefffff” for 15 minutes while his petulant and self-obsessed Zeus rants about orgy planning logistics are inspired—it comes at the cost of spending more time on Gorr and the Thor/Jane romance. Love and Thunder also opts for a decidedly saccharine approach as it nears its conclusion, one which didn’t quite work for my cold-cold heart as well as it might for others.
Bale and Portman’s performances drive most of my eagerness to see the movie focus entirely on them; two of our very best actors, they’re emboldened by Waititi’s freewheeling directorial style to loosen up. Bale commits just as hard as you’d want him to, infusing Gorr with a deranged sensibility; in one scene, he threatens a group of children with a gleeful sense of menace, perching and vocalizing his threats in a Gollum-like fashion. There’s often little scenery left by the time his moments are over. Likewise, Portman, who felt stiff with the science material of Thor and Thor: The Dark World, feels far more natural here. She’s a gifted comedian, and the projects she’s cast in don’t often take advantage of that skill set—but Love and Thunder proves to be a more than worthy vehicle for her comedy and dramatic prowess. She’s also got a willing partner in Hemsworth, who continues to relish the chance to play both straight man and buffoon in equal measure. Notably, the two performers sell the story of Thor and Jane, establishing it as one of the MCU’s most believable love stories alongside Steve/Peggy and, of course, Thor and Loki. Thompson makes the most of Valkyrie’s slightly stagnant arc; the film goes deeper into her pathos—it’s clear she wants the best for the people she’s governing as King but undeniably misses the call of battle, as evidenced by various blades she holds in just about every scene—but it’s a bummer to see her ushered to the side after having such a critical role in Ragnorak.
Visually, Love and Thunder is more candy-colored than Ragnorak, pulsing with a welcome vibrancy—especially in the godly Omnipotent City where Zeus dwells. Love and Thunder’s action sequences don’t quite capture the highs of Ragnorak’s electric “Immigrant Song” moment, but they’re not lesser than either; an opening battle alongside the Guardians is scored (as are many action moments throughout) to Guns N’ Roses. The only thing that falters slightly is a third-act battle which could have used one or two more passes on its CGI. Particularly striking is a sequence (hinted at in the trailers) where the group chases Gorr into a realm devoid of light; Barry Idoine’s (The Mandalorian) cinematography renders the world in black and white so that the only color comes from the thunderous clashing of weapons.
Thor: Love and Thunder is full of electric performances that often transcend a story that feels pulled in too many different directions. It remains enjoyable fare—as much of the MCU movies do, and I’m particularly grateful this one doesn’t have to tie into fifty different future projects like No Way Home and Multiverse of Madness have—but I can’t help but wish its pieces had clicked together a little more. To continue my tired metaphor from the start, Love and Thunder isn’t so much a second lightning strike as it is just a rumble of thunder.
Thor: Love and Thunder hits theaters on Friday, July 8.