The Marvel Cinematic Universe has entered its flimsy phase. Gone are the days of a consistent throughline and a high floor of appeal that could reach the widest possible audience.
There now seems to be more folks growing impatient with these films, and understandably so. Thor’s latest adventure is a mindless and breezy hair metal pop action-comedy that gets you in and out quick. It’s not beholden to building the Marvel mega mythology. It’s just a dumb fun movie.
After the somehow impossible achievement of a real climax and resolution, the biggest movie franchise of all time finds itself in an afterglow comedown, putting its trust in more exciting filmmaking talent to varying degrees of success. Now that we have arrived at the apparent end of phase 4, fans seem to have welcomed the studio legal department backflips and nostalgia thrills of seeing three Spider-men on-screen together much more than the creative swings of Chloe Zhao’s sad immortal power rangers and Sam Raimi’s schlocky horror splatter.
Phase Four is Now (Nearly?) Complete
In 2019, Kevin Feige stepped onto a stage and announced to the world his master plan for Phase 4. The post-Endgame MCU included their first attempts at true episodic television on the Disney+ streaming platform. There was no promise of another Avengers-style crossover event. No major overarching storyline to tie it all together. The emphasis was on new characters and new adventures.
I think that the fact that there is no major throughline is really starting to be a bit of a dealbreaker for a lot of fans. Many people are going into everything expecting to reveal a piece of the larger puzzle. And that’s just not the case with this phase. Maybe Fiege should have been more upfront about that. From what I can tell, it seems they are building up smaller interconnected arcs, and not one big one just yet. Endgame was such a high that I’m not sure they’ll ever match. And that’s okay.
Sure, all the Phase 4 movies feel a lot more inconsequential when compared to the Phase 1-3 ramp-up to Infinity War and Endgame. But just like the comic books that these films are based on, sometimes the best arcs are not the major crossover events. They are the smaller-scale sidequests in between. The latest entry in the Thor series, Love and Thunder, finds our eponymous hero (played by loveable Aussie himbo Chris Hemsworth) in such a seemingly inconsequential sidequest.
The God of Thunder Returns
The film, directed and co-written by Taika Waititi (returning after the much-beloved Thor Ragnarok), is based on two majorly beloved Thor runs, one centered on Jane Foster’s Mighty Thor (Natalie Portman making a somewhat surprising return to the role after sitting out a movie), and another on Gorr the God Butcher (a deliciously sinister Christian Bale).
We pick up with Thor after the events of Endgame, in which he beheaded Thanos and spent five years playing Fortnite and letting himself go. He had to pull himself out of a dark mental state and find it within himself to fight again to save the world. Now he’s hanging out with the Guardians of the Galaxy, jamming out and kicking ass, but struggling to find a deeper meaning to it all.
Despite growing a bit tired of the Disney machine continuing to sallow up all mainstream entertainment, I found myself thoroughly entertained by Waititi’s latest MCU entry. He seems to have the right idea, even if it’s a disservice to fans expecting faithful adaptations of the two aforementioned comic arcs upon which this story is based.
The film is simple – Gorr is an evil, revenge-driven antagonist looking to kill all gods, including our hero, the Asgardian god of thunder. Gorr kidnaps a group of Asgardian children, and so our heroes set off on a rescue mission. In tow are the rock monster Korg (voiced by Waititi), Tessa Thompon’s Valkyrie (fitting in Old Spice product placements and sporting a lazy British accent), and Portman’s Foster, now outfitted with the power of Thor as she battles stage four cancer. That’s right, cancer. This is one of the jankiest puzzle pieces struggling to fit amid the colorful humor and silliness. Love and Thunder is not interested in dealing with the weight of a cancer story. And Bale’s Gorr, as delightfully menacing and frightening as he is, also falls victim to the tonal whiplash.
But when it’s all said and done, this is the type of movie that gives you a quick 2-hour smile, and then you don’t really think about it much after you leave the theater. I put on my IMAX 3D glasses, enjoyed the fun ride, and then went on with the rest of my day. It’s not a life-changing experience, but neither is it a pile of garbage. It’s perfectly effective down-the-middle summer popcorn entertainment.
Simple things, like a pair of screaming goats and Hemsworth in a full hot dog costume, just totally won me over. I was fully on board for the ride when a kendama shows up during an ABBA needle-drop, in perfect contrast to the multiple Guns n Roses tracks keeping the dad-rock vibe going. A gorgeously rotund Russell Crowe as Zeus contributes to the fun, fully hamming it up and enjoying every second he gets on screen. Even a recurring gag putting Thor in a love triangle between his two weapons (hammer and axe) didn’t wear off on me. It’s all very silly.
The Mighty Thor
Portman’s return as Jane Foster is as confounding as it is welcome. She is one of the most talented actors working today, and her two previous appearances in the Thor films did not do anything to let audiences in on her acting skills. She was even pretty open about her lack of enthusiasm working within the Marvel machine, as she was barely more than a half-drawn love interest. But the potential was always there, as the character is a brilliant scientist with a ton to offer. This movie doesn’t quite deliver on that potential, but it’s easy to see why Portman decided to return to the role. She gets to flex her muscles instead of her acting chops and have some fun kicking ass doing the hero thing. Good for her!
(Minor spoilers below)
As the film nears its conclusion, the separate disjointed threads all start to come together. The simplified rescue plot was one of the best parts of the film, and Taika understands that ultimately this is a movie whose primary audience should be kids, not 40-something men complaining on YouTube. It’s the right call to have the climax revolve around Thor sharing his power with the kids so they can take part in their own rescue alongside him. It’s a ton of fun to see all these little ones go full Thor mode on a pack of shadow monsters and picture all the kids seeing this movie being blown away. That’s what it’s all about, I think.
And just like in Ragnarok, Waititi ensures that the main character arc is there. We go from seeing Thor searching for meaning in his life to raising a newly adopted daughter. Though not as pronounced and drastic of an arc as Ragnarok’s, it’s enough to hold the movie together, and it’s a perfect cut-to-credits moment that contextualizes the Love and Thunder subtitle. It’s fun!
I can’t blame viewers for walking away from the latest MCU entry disappointed, exhausted, or ambivalent. We are close to pushing thirty films, and the entire experiment may be starting to out-stay its welcome for many. Others may be frustrated that the highs aren’t high enough. Such were the complaints of many people expecting a strict cameo quota from Multiverse of Madness, only to find a thoroughly entertaining horror romp pulling from Raimi’s Evil Dead toolbelt.
I’m sure many are not going to enjoy the fourth Thor, and that’s okay. Much has already been said online about the terrible visuals. There’s something to be said there about how websites compress VFX-heavy shots. In the theater, this was not an issue for me at all. This has some breathtaking visual moments. Sure there are some phoned-in performances. But Taika knows not to take this whole thing seriously and just let loose. Again, it’s all very silly, and I’d rather lean into that than try to do something self-important and pompous. I won’t put it in the top tier of the MCU, but I’m confident it’ll age well as a fun and vibrant adventure for our favorite Aussie Avenger.
3.5 screaming goats out of 5
Thor: Love and Thunder is now playing in theaters.