Thor: Love and Thunder Review: An Electrifying and Erratic Encore

The past few years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been a time of great invention, with the franchise's "Phase Four" of movies and Disney+ shows finding new ways to reinvent the wheel of how to adapt Marvel Comics. In and amongst the emotional character studies and the canon-shattering multiversal adventures, the franchise has been at its best when it's gotten weirder, more character-driven, and more comic-accurate — all things that Thor: Love and Thunder proves to be in spades. While decidedly smaller-scale compared to some of the MCU's more recent cinematic entries, Love and Thunder has had a unique set of expectations surrounding it, both as the first "fourquel" within the overall franchise, and the long-awaited follow-up to Taika Waititi's inventive and surprising work on 2017's Thor: Ragnarok. Love and Thunder wholeheartedly works to subvert those expectations at essentially every single turn, and it becomes a more compelling, if slightly more disheveled, film because of it. At its best, Thor: Love and Thunder is unabashedly big-hearted and gleefully outrageous – even if it occasionally gets crushed by the execution of its own ambitions.

Thor: Love and Thunder picks up after the events of Avengers: Endgame, as Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) is struggling to find his inner peace after facing years of destruction and loss. Amid a string of adventures with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor gets thrown into an altercation against Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), an otherworldly being who, as his new moniker suggests, wants to kill all gods. Together with Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who is operating as the King of New Asgard; and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who has been transformed into The Mighty Thor amid her own personal hardships, Thor must try to stop Gorr before his deadly actions doom the entire galaxy.

When Ragnarok made its debut in 2017, it proved to be a balm that the MCU hadn't quite known it needed, injecting the previously painfully serious Thor movies with Jack Kirby-esque bright aesthetics, '80s camp, and a cleverly profound emotional core. To an extent, Ragnarok established a new tonal shorthand for what the MCU could be capable of going forward, and it would have been easy to imagine Love and Thunder as essentially delivering the same, but on a more extravagant scale. Instead, the film takes on a tone that, even at its most neon-hued or painfully absurd, could be best described as relaxed. There are obviously still stakes to Love and Thunder, almost all of which are matters of life or death, but they're decidedly of a smaller and more personal scale compared to Ragnarok, and even to the larger landscape of superhero blockbusters. Through it all, the film's breezy but earnest disposition remains, largely in part thanks to how Waititi and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson approach dialogue, with some of the movie's best scenes essentially consisting of two characters simply having a conversation.

That isn't to say that the tone isn't jarring in certain contexts — a number of jokes (particularly those delivered through Waititi's own motion-capture performance as Thor's Kronan sidekick Korg) almost undermine or distract from the actual emotional core of a scene, and the gravity of Gorr's god-killing actions is largely presented through implication. But even with those occasional moments of tonal dissonance, the experience of watching Love and Thunder is one that's oddly comforting, in a way that feels reminiscent of the big-hearted adventure blockbusters of the 1980s that Waititi has cited as inspiration. That sensibility ends up being an inspired way to introduce the film's various new elements, whether in the genuinely goofy pieces of Marvel Comics lore, or in Jane's tenure as Mighty Thor, which is handled in a way that balances the verisimilitude of her costumed debut in the comics and the goofiness that Ragnarok set in motion years ago.

What ultimately does Love and Thunder's noble aspirations a disservice is the film's pacing, which almost comes across like watching one of those aforementioned '80s blockbusters edited down for cable television. While the film's two-hour run time is relatively par-for-the-course compared to other MCU entries (especially those prior to the three-hour norm of Phase Three films like Endgame), the way it utilizes that run time borders on erratic. Some gags stretch on for a little too long, while some key emotional moments feel like they need one more scene to really "work." This is definitely the case for the two compelling and incredibly timely main character arcs buried within Love and Thunder — Thor is becoming emotionally vulnerable after years of pain, amid a world that wants to weaponize that exact vulnerability, while Jane is balancing her hero's journey with the feelings of burnout and self-sabotage, amid a world that hasn't quite known how to appreciate her.

Both of these stories are deeply interesting and ring true to the characters' decade-long tenure in the MCU, but feel ever-so-slightly neutered by everything going on around them. That becomes a little frustrating when the bulk of what is going on around Thor and Jane also feels underbaked, particularly with regards to Valkyrie, whose own character arc is next to nonexistent outside of tagging along for the film's larger adventure. Similarly, Gorr is only given a few key sporadic sequences to really pose a threat onscreen, despite being one of the creepier and more compelling antagonists the MCU has had. Even at its absolute best, it feels as if Love and Thunder had oodles of significant moments left on the cutting room floor (and, based on recent reporting, that already seems to be the case) – a feeling that doesn't completely detract from the experience of watching it, but definitely stops that experience from feeling entirely seamless.

Love and Thunder's aforementioned feeling of comfort is also reflected in Hemsworth's performance, as he embodies Thor Odinson at his silliest and saddest with an ease that still feels impressive after a decade-plus of him portraying the role. Portman's return as Jane is by far one of the highlights of the movie, as she manages to turn her somewhat-shaky characterization in previous MCU appearances into something truly delightful. Once Jane begins her hero's journey as Mighty Thor, the energy Portman brings is genuinely infectious and oddly cathartic in ways that will absolutely surprise audiences. Thompson's Valkyrie remains effortlessly charming and cool in every single scene she's in, and she utilizes her limited role in the film to further become an MCU fan favorite. Bale's portrayal of Gorr is inspired in so many ways, elegantly toeing the line between the scenery-chewing villain a film like this needs, and the tragic figure that the film's specific story actually requires. And Love and Thunder's supporting cast, from the various members of the Guardians of the Galaxy to Russell Crowe's ingeniously campy Zeus, manage to have fun within the increasingly zany set of stakes.

On a technical level, Love and Thunder is filled with some bright spots, beginning with Mayes C. Rubeo's excellent work on the costume design, which takes the aesthetic she originally established on Ragnarok and gives it a wiser, weirder, and more comic-accurate upgrade. While the soundtrack of "dad rock" and other 1980s hits doesn't quite capture the narratively anthemic vibe of how Ragnarok used Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," there are still some creative and fist-pumping choices. Michael Giacchino's excellent score largely takes a backseat to that soundtrack, but finds small moments of subtle brilliance amid the film's chaotic energy. The most baffling technical element of Love and Thunder might be its cinematography and CGI work, which bounce between extremes of being genuinely beautiful and being muddy. The film includes some of the most cool and inventive aesthetic decisions Marvel has had in recent memory, with a black-and-white fight scene teased in the film's marketing — as well as a comic-accurate character design not teased in it at all — that both genuinely took my breath away. But it also has pockets of borderline-distracting CGI, particularly when Thor and Jane are clad in their Thor helmets, which are inexplicably and often unsuccessfully computer-generated onto their heads. As with Love and Thunder's other flaws, those CGI choices don't completely tank the film, but they become frustrating when so many other elements of the movie manage to deliver.

Thor: Love and Thunder is undoubtedly a change of pace, whether compared to Thor: Ragnarok, Phase Four of the MCU, or even the larger tapestry of superhero adaptations. The film's heartfelt and reverential core feels perfect for its crop of characters and for the current cultural moment, but that perfection is hindered by bizarre structural choices and inconsistent CGI. At times, that messiness only further adds to the charm of Love and Thunder and its imperfect crop of characters, but it does stop the film from becoming another game-changing entry within the MCU. Luckily, just enough of Thor: Love and Thunder manages to charm and delight – especially its stellar ensemble cast – to still make it a worthwhile encore.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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Thor: Love and Thunder is poised to be released in theaters on Friday, July 7th.