In the constant onslaught of glowering Hollywood superhero movies it can be easy to forget the inherent whimsy and humor of many comic books. Cheesy one-liners are requisite for Marvel heroes, who wear ridiculous costumes and often have oddly-given powers. It’s the juxtaposition of that theatricality with a world in constant peril that makes them so compelling. That sensibility is not lost on director Taika Waititi, who previously helmed 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. As he picks up the Norse god’s mantle again in Thor: Love and Thunder, Waititi turns the dial up to 11, creating an off-kilter superhero movie that is equal parts humor and heart.
THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER ★★★ (3/4 stars)
The director disposes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s lingering plot points quickly as the film opens, putting Thor through a visually hilarious bootcamp to shed his Endgame weight. The Guardians of the Galaxy make a requisite cameo, but Waititi sends Thor and his rocky pal Korg (voiced by the director himself) off on their own Guns N’ Roses-soundtracked adventure without delay. Although Thor has left New Asgard, now a thriving tourist attraction, in the hands of Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a threat emerges that draws him back to his people and urges him to become worthy of his powers yet again.
That threat is Gorr the God Butcher, played by a full-throttle Christian Bale. Gorr was once an ordinary man who lost his daughter on a decaying planet, but a confrontation with his god drove him to a hatred of all gods. Now armed with an immortal-killing necrosword, Gorr is sweeping the universe free of all-mighty deities one by one—and Thor is next on his list. The vengeful villain kidnaps the children of New Asgard and it’s up to Thor, along with Valkyrie and his former flame Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) to save the day. Jane, as it happens, has become Mighty Thor with the help of Thor’s broken hammer Mjölnir, making her a valuable addition to the team.
While Gorr’s motivation feels somewhat weak—one god was snotty to him and now he wants to kill all of them?—Waititi keeps the storyline tight and holds the run-time at a breezy two hours. The best moment comes when Thor, Jane, Valkyrie and Korg infiltrate Omnipotence City in the hopes of raising an army and implore Zeus (a brash, piss-taking Russell Crowe) for help. It’s a clever scene that exemplifies just how silly these superheroes really are. The threat of Gorr is sincere, but we don’t have to take everything about the Marvel Cinematic Universe so seriously, which Waititi emphasizes in his smallest details.
In the midst of the jokey one-liners and visual gags, Waititi also hits on a core theme: love. The film is about the love between a father and his daughter, the love between Thor and Jane, the love that we learn Valkyrie once had with a fellow warrior, the love within a community. The emotional moments hit harder because everything that surrounds them is so light-hearted and funny. Thor, despite being eons old, is still searching for his purpose, something he seems to discover by the end of the film.
If there are downsides to Thor: Love and Thunder, they are nit-picky. Only a male director would send Mighty Thor into battle with her hair blowing into her face (seriously, no woman would fight a god with sweeping curls that aren’t at least partially tied back). Valkyrie gets sidelined before the climatic fight, which feels a little too convenient. The resolution of Gorr’s story is expected, although not necessarily in a good way. There are a few too many cameos, which makes the film feel overstuffed with “Look who it is!” moments. Most importantly, a Thor movie just isn’t quite a Thor movie without Loki, whose presence is notably missed here.
But despite these flaws, Waititi has turned out two of the most fun and lively Marvel movies to date. He’s given us a hero who is complicated—Thor’s ego and lack of self-awareness continue to provide some of the best comedic moments—and who strives to be better. An epic fight scene, wrought entirely in black and white, is visually riveting and showcases the potential of future superhero showdowns. Although it’s still completely unclear where the MCU Phase Four is heading, one of the two post-credit scenes hints at what’s to come for Thor with a reveal that will have the audience cheering. Ultimately, Thor: Love and Thunder does what a good superhero movie should do: it entertains us.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.