Thor is the closest thing the MCU has to a standard-bearer in the post-Endgame era. The death of Tony Stark left behind a void that shouldn’t necessarily be filled at all, with the gigantic, interconnected universe heading in about a million different directions. Thor: Ragnarok demonstrated how much fun the Son of Asgard could have unburdened from both the weight of the Avengers and the budding continuity established in his first two solo efforts. It’s hard to think of a character better poised than Thor to thrive in the Phase 4 climate, free of most obligations to set up future films.
As the first MCU hero to earn a fourth solo outing, director Taika Waititi could have taken Thor just about anywhere in the universe. There have been over seven hundred Thor comic books, a lifetime of material to draw on. Thor: Love and Thunder puts Mjolnir in the hands of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), drawing on the 2014 “Original Sin” arc, a comic book storyline younger than Thor’s first two big-screen films. It is worth pointing out that no one working on the first Thor film in 2011 had any idea that they were setting up the Asgardian’s genius love interest as the heir apparent to his iconic hammer. Waititi doesn’t seem to know what to do with her either.
The entirety of Love and Thunder seems centered around the novelty of the idea that it might be fun to see Jane Foster as Thor. A character whose near-complete absence from the MCU since 2013, unceremoniously discarded from Ragnarok’s narrative, is now once again at the forefront, essentially as a gimmick. There is no imperative driving Love and Thunder beyond its obligations to the gods of content, an empty shell of a film covered up with endless jokes and attractive people standing in front of exceedingly bland green screens.
The plot is almost not worth mentioning. Gorr (Christian Bale) wants to kill all gods with a weapon called the Necrosword, kidnapping a bunch of kids from New Asgard to draw Thor into open battle. The fact that most of the kids were kidnapped while Thor was standing on the battlefield having idle chitchat with Jane is irrelevant to a film that treats its narrative like one big gag. Jane, dying of cancer, comes to New Asgard to seek Mjolnir, forging an unusual alliance between ex-girlfriend and ex-weapon.
Though the characters occasionally mention that kids are in danger and maybe the universe might end if Gorr succeeds in his mission, the film doesn’t really care much about any of that Each line is an opportunity for the script to ram a few more jokes in. Some of the humor is quite amusing, but after a while, it becomes clear that Waititi would rather make a romantic comedy than an action film. Bale does his best to make Gorr into a menacing villain, but there’s little he can do to change the fact that Love and Thunder doesn’t really want to have a bad guy.
The special effects are truly horrendous. Disney’s approach to green screen cinematography as of late has favored monotonic background palettes with stale lighting. One can’t help but look at its overbearing ugliness with a sense of profound sadness that filmmaking has stooped to these lows. Love and Thunder would have been better off using cardboard boxes decorated with crayons than the hideous CGI Disney tries to call state-of-the-art technology. At least there would be some artistic merit to the crayon drawings.
Waititi does do an okay job exploring the on-screen lore that Thor has built over the past decade. Brief cameos from Drs. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) remind viewers of how much the emotional core of this series has shifted since its early days. Trouble is, Thor himself has regressed as a character back to the aimlessness that defined his role in the first movie. He’s learned nothing from the events of Endgame, a film largely irrelevant to this narrative besides a pointless first-act cameo from the Guardians of the Galaxy, including a bafflingly-wooden Chris Pratt who looks like he’d rather be anywhere else. Waititi has absolutely nothing for Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to do, a tragic waste of Ragnarok’s most interesting character.
What does Love and Thunder want to be? Nothing. This is content, mandated into existence by Disney. Waititi spruced things up with some jokes and a nod to a storyline younger than this film series, wish-fulfillment akin to Marvel’s long running “What-If” series. If this is the future of the MCU, maybe Thanos wasn’t so wrong to snap his fingers. A refined output might actually bring some thought back into this content farm masquerading as a blockbuster franchise.