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Thor: Love and Thunder sells out its characters for jokes

There are two very funny things about Taika Waititi’s Marvel Cinematic Universe movie Thor: Love and Thunder. The first is intentional, the second less so.

First are the goats. Early in the film, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) gets a pair of giant mythical goats, Toothgrinder and Toothgnasher. The goats are horrible: aggressive, messy, and feral. Like real goats, they can scream an awful lot like humans. They do this all the time throughout the movie, and it’s meant to be hilarious. If you’re like me, you will laugh every time they shriek. If you are not like me, then I am sorry.

The unintentionally funny thing is the villain, Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale). As the movie’s antagonist, Gorr is introduced in the movie’s opening sequence and given a clear motivation: He wants to kill all gods. That desire attracts the attention of the Necrosword (lol), a magical black blade that gives him all sorts of powers, including letting him manipulate shadows and turn them into monsters. Gorr — loosely inspired by Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic’s Thor comics — isn’t meant to be funny. In fact, he’s fairly frightening, often drenched in shadow and made to appear like the Grim Reaper. Up close, Bale relishes the opportunity to play a boogeyman, grinning and terrorizing children with ease and glee. It feels like the notoriously committed actor may have approached the role without his signature intensity, and it’s all the better for it.

The funniest thing about him, however, is that Thor: Love and Thunder seems quite committed to the idea that Gorr’s “kill the gods” quest is somehow misguided. The script takes it for granted that Gorr’s goals are evil, so much so that it never pauses to consider the ways that just about every character in the film confirms that the gods are terrible. The victims he’s chasing all make his point better than he ever could.

[Ed. note: Setup spoilers ahead for Thor: Love and Thunder.]

Photo: Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios

Directed by Taika Waititi, with a script by Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (creator of the excellent, short-lived series Sweet/Vicious), Thor: Love and Thunder catches up with Thor following the events of Avengers: Endgame. He’s spent the time traipsing around space with the Guardians of the Galaxy, getting his body back into frankly insane muscular form, but also neglecting to get his heart as fit as his bod. Even though Thor helped save the universe, he never entirely figured out how to get over his ex, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who broke up with him in the nebulous time period between 2013’s Thor: The Dark World and Waititi’s first MCU film, Thor: Ragnarok.

This is something Thor needs to figure out fast, because when Gorr sets his sights on the Asgardians who settled on Earth after Hela destroyed their home world in Ragnarok, Thor returns to find out that his once-shattered magical hammer Mjolnir has reconstituted itself, and Jane is now wielding it as the hero the Mighty Thor. Unfortunately, two Thors are not enough to stop Gorr’s rampage, and Love and Thunder soon turns into a cosmic road trip between two Thors with an awkward past and their pals, the rock alien Korg (voiced by Waititi) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), the bored king of New Asgard who longs to go back to wrecking dudes in battle.

Unfortunately, what might have been a terrific road-trip film is undercut by characters who somehow lost their entire personalities after Thanos’ snap. Thor is strangely inconsistent throughout the film — the Thor at the beginning of the movie is different from the Thor who appears 20 minutes later, who is also different from the Thor we say goodbye to again when the credits roll. Jane Foster, largely absent from the franchise for the better part of a decade, has a lot of fun relishing her new godlike powers, but there’s a tension between her newfound superhuman life and her dire normal one, and the film is too glib to sustain the tonal whiplash between the two.

Thor and Jane Foster as The Mighty Thor stand in a field in Thor: Love and Thunder

Photo: Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios

The clearest reason for that is that Thor: Love and Thunder is constructed as a delivery system for jokes above all else. Taika Waititi has become known for a particular brand of rambly, deadpan humor, where bumbling men contend with competent yet ostracized women, and scenes extend just a little longer than most people would let them run, inverting dramatic moments into laughter. This tonal pivot from the first two Thor films was a big part of why Ragnarok is one of the best MCU films. But that film also tempered its big comedy with other, equally big emotions: its villain’s rage, the frustration of loving a brother who will never quit his deceitful ways, and the simple yet powerful idea of home being people, not a place.

Love and Thunder has nothing to offer that’s as compelling or attentively crafted as its jokes. Characters appear in ways that seem engineered to be funny rather than true. It cannot be stressed enough how right Gorr is: The MCU’s gods suck. They suck in the beginning of the film, when Gorr’s daughter dies and his god doesn’t care, dismissing him in a fit of arrogance. They suck in the middle of the film, when Thor, in his quest to stop Gorr, asks other gods from various folklores for help, and gets none. And they suck at the end of the film, because the only one approaching likable at the end of Love and Thunder’s two-hour run time is Thor himself. Given how much of a blithe, garrulous oaf he is, that’s really pushing it.

Given the real-world reasons the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to exist — namely, the nigh-monopolistic status Disney enjoys in Hollywood as the corporate owner of multiple billion-dollar franchises — it’s easy to receive each new MCU outing with a cynical remove. If modern fandom is like team sports, then engaging seriously or sincerely with the nuances and flaws of an MCU film like Thor: Love and Thunder can feel like a fool’s errand, especially if all anyone wants to know is whether you’re for or against their preferred team. This isn’t a great state of affairs, but it’s the one we have.

Valkyrie stands tipsily behind the bar aboard her ship in Thor: Love and Thunder

Photo: Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios

But one of the MCU’s small miracles is that, even with all of the corporate machinery that often indicates otherwise, the latest show or movie rarely feels cynical while you’re actually watching it. There’s usually something genuine to latch on to, whether it’s an effort at better and more authentic representation (in Moon Knight or Ms. Marvel), a shot at widening the megafranchise’s genre palette (She-Hulk: Attorney at Law or Shang-Chi), or an experiment that puts Marvel characters in the hands of directors who are well removed from blockbuster fare (Eternals). These attempts don’t always succeed — in fact, they often underline the limits of what’s possible in the MCU’s shared narrative playground, in a way that can feel like a bucket of ice water on the grandiose vision Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has for a limitless blockbuster frontier.

Thor: Love and Thunder is different. In a normal, stand-alone blockbuster, the script’s dogged insistence on undermining every emotional beat with jokes, underserved characters, and a lack of sincere stakes would merely make it a passable, intermittently fun way to kill a couple hours. But cinematic universes don’t just add to the strengths of a film, they also amplify its shortcomings. As the next chapter in the story about a character who audiences have been getting to know for more than a decade, a film meant to present a new world of possibilities for what these movies can be, Thor: Love and Thunder isn’t just a misfire, it’s a scam. Its characters only move forward in the most artificial ways. Their status at the end of the film is no more intriguing than it was at the beginning. It’s the worst thing a film in this mode can be: inconsequential.

Filmmakers who work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe must contend with an unusual burden beyond the already-extreme expectations of a Hollywood production. As creators of the latest installment in an astounding moneymaking machine, they must labor to make a film that doesn’t appear to be solely interested in furthering that machine. And even with a few solid jokes and more than a few talented performers in its roster, Thor: Love and Thunder is glib in ways that suffocate all of its strengths, as well as the audience watching it. It is, surprisingly, a cynical film — one that’s equally unworthy of its noble heroes lifting magic weapons and the regular people lifting their wallets to buy tickets.

Thor: Love and Thunder debuts in theaters on July 8.

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