There are two schools of thought regarding Taika Waititi’s first entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as director: those who regard it as one of the brightest, boldest and most entertaining films of the franchise, with others seeing it as a comedic betrayal of a serious character, and an unfortunate departure from the previous two films. For the first time in the MCU, a solo character gets a fourth film, Thor: Love and Thunder, and it recaptures the vibrancy and humour of Ragnarok (the film, not the apocalypse), but with some tonal shifts so jarring they’re in danger of inducing whiplash.
Any series that’s this well-established runs the risk of re-treading the same ground. The fourth phase of the Marvel saga has attempted to diverge its storytelling more than ever, but for the successes of Shang-Chi and Spider-Man: No Way Home, the Doctor Strange sequel and Black Widow failed to give the overall series momentum, failing to progress their characters in any meaningful way. It’s reasonably uncharted territory for a cinematic series to reach a twenty-ninth film; of those few examples where it’s happened, the most unfortunate parallels are in the Carry On franchise, giving us an extended clip show of former glories, framed by Kenneth Williams and Barbara Windsor, it was a concept with limitless potential that had run out of steam.
And yet, here we are with an opening sequence with Waititi’s Korg substituting for Williams and Windsor while narrating a series of loosely interconnected clips from Thor and Avengers movies to outline the history of the thunder god (Chris Hemsworth) and Doctor Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), now one of the planet’s most eminent scientists who skipped a few films thanks to an awkward break-up with the Norse man-child. It’s been evident for a while that he’s never really dealt with the emotional fall-out from that break-up; or, for that matter, fully resolved any of the long-standing and frequently exacerbated grief issues caused by almost everyone dear to him having been killed off. (The best way to guarantee immortality in the MCU is clearly not to get too close to Thor.)
When we last saw him in Avengers: Endgame, he was departing for pastures new with the Guardians of The Galaxy; thus storytelling necessity dictates that we find him once again as co-galaxy guard, shedding the excess pounds in a godlike training montage glimpsed in the trailers. It doesn’t say much for Marvel’s forward planning that it left a set of characters together, only to have to spend unnecessary time again forcing them apart. It’s these early scenes with Thor at his most one-dimensional, condescending and clumsy, not helped by Hemsworth hamming his way through almost every line reading, which is jarring. While Thor at his best is cocky, self-assured and slightly oblivious, it takes a while for Love and Thunder to re-establish the Thor we know and love.
It’s also not helped by those paradigm shifts in tone, the first of which comes between the prologue and this opening sequence, a mood switch so sudden and absolute it’ll leave you reaching for the nearest neck brace. The pre-title scene introduces Gorr (Christian Bale), a man convinced rapidly and unfailingly of the moral corruption of gods by a single traumatic incident, and cursed to wield the Necrosword, a weapon powerful enough to strike down even gods. For a film with so much narrative baggage created by its predecessors, it’s no surprise that it needs to set up its own antagonist with barely a few sentences and begs the question why any backstory was even deemed necessary.
But, when Waititi and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson manage to cast off this baggage and settle into the rhythm of telling their own story, being informed by the characters’ histories rather than tied down by them, what results is near to being the equal of Ragnarok’s riotous rainbow of rapture. Those stakes were on a planetary level, here the real consequences are very personal and more compelling, from King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) dealing with the ennui of becoming ruler of an untroubled tourist attraction, to dealing with the loose ends of Thor and Jane’s relationship, and her more immediate situation as a new version of the Mjolnir-wielding superhero.
There are also two standout additions to the series: the first is Russell Crowe’s Zeus, wielding a shiny lightning bolt and a Greek accent so cheesy you could melt it on toast. Pitching the level of fun perfectly for what the latter Thors have set out to achieve, an extended sequence muses on the relationship between gods and mortals and succeeds in positioning just why such characters can exist in a world where they’ve not been seen before, while providing some of the most significant laugh-out-loud moments. The other is Christian Bale’s Gorr, and where Cate Blanchett’s Hela was operatic and melodramatic, Bale spins a different angle, playful and sinister, oozing malevolence with unparalleled ease. While his set-up might be one note, the character offers a level of genuine threat rarely seen in the MCU.
If anything, the film needs more of both, and character arcs occasionally feel pinched rather than stretched. While this latest round of movie Marvels have increasingly shied away from three-hour Avengers epics, and the tauter approach is generally applauded, this is the first entry in some time that could have benefitted from more, not less. It’s also a sign that, once the tricky opening has passed, this difficult fourth album for the Asgardian with a middle-aged rock star vibe hits the high notes more often than not, offering progression and character insights in a way that’s not always been easy; we even learn a little more about Thor’s relationship with his favourite hammer and axe.
There are also, unsurprisingly, fan pleasing moments and references, although this feels more of a Thor continuation than a summary of wider Marvel lore. While those disparate elements of previous Thor outings, the brashness of Ragnarok and angst of its predecessors, don’t necessarily gel, they do eventually sit side by side in harmony, delivering a confident, satisfying blockbuster, if you can ignore the missteps in the opening stretch.