Every moment Christian Bale is on screen in Thor: Love and Thunder is manna in the Marvel desert, a gift from the gods of the vile comic book landscape-chewing. The man who was Christopher Nolan’s Batman is this time cast as a vengeful vampire heavyweight: Gorr, the so-called God Butcher, a disillusioned disciple determined to destroy the gods who ignored his prayers and abandoned his dying family. Bale looks terrifying in the role, with his hairless graveyard emaciation and blackened dagger smile. But he also does his best under all that makeup—bringing a mix of acid rage and curdled heartache to what could have just been another new addition to the Avengers villain gallery.
The truth is, Gorr, as presented by Bale’s wonderfully engaged horror show performance, may have come in from a completely different movie. Only during his welcome but incongruous scenes does love and thunder ever threaten to accumulate any gravity. this fourth Thor movie is the second to be written and directed by Taika Waititi, but don’t expect more from his buddy comedy inspired Thor: Ragnarok† After apparently using up all of his best jokes in the last episode, this time the Kiwi funny has emerged with a sketchy cartoon diversion that often feels like a lame parody of his own franchise. It is the rare marvel movie that hardly lasts.
When we last saw the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth, who slips more than usual on our supposed affection for his Herculean himbo), he was carrying some extra depressed weight and preparing for another adventure with that patchwork of cuddly bandits, the Guardians of the universe. love and thunder spends his inelegant opening act racing full speed through that premise: Chris Pratt and company log a few near-wordless scenes (their group cameo has the leanness of a botched contract negotiation), while Thor sheds the extra pounds via a training montage about too fast to hit the target. retro-cheese-sweet spot. Superimposed on these early scenes is a blatantly explanatory voiceover from Waititi, who reprises the role of good-hearted rock monster and newly minted backstory reiterator Korg.
The script, which Waititi co-wrote with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, is heavily based on: Jason Aaron’s acclaimed, multi-year run on the Thor comic – a striking collection of large canvas stories, big screen stories spanning eons and galaxies. love and thunder awkwardly mashes together two major arcs of his tenure. On the one hand, this is the story of Thor heading out to rescue a bunch of kidnapped Asgardian children from Bale’s fallen believer, who has sent many lesser gods on a one-way street, prematurely to Valhalla. On the other hand, it’s the hastily set up story of how scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) gets hold of her old squiggle’s magic hammer and takes on Thor’s mantle.
There’s romantic/comic potential in the reunion of these literally star-crossed lovers. Hemsworth and Portman had good chemistry in the original Thor, largely due to the way the latter piqued her scientific curiosity with a dollop of longing for her awesome love interest. Yet love and thunder curiously not enough to rekindle that flame completely, or even get a lot of sitcom from Thor being forced to essentially team up with his super ex-girlfriend. The promise of a Marvel twist on the comedy of remarriage has been largely unfulfilled – although as missed opportunities go, that’s nothing in the way. Waititi even denies us a single scene where Jane discovers and enjoys her newly acquired divine powers. (The movie eliminates that fun in favor of a “surprise” reveal, already ruined by the trailers, of her in full regalia.)
love and thunder is absent-minded as comedy and never finds its groove. The usual MCU quippage gives way to a sub-Mel Brooksian scrip of Clash of the Titans fare, with Russell Crowe scoring some faint chuckles like a vain, ineffective Zeus. Waititi plays the notoriously uneven effects and gaudy production design of this cinematic universe to deliberately laugh; mileage will vary whether he lands them. His stabs at satire, such as the revelation that the New Asgard settlement has become a tourist destination, lack either purpose or precision. When recently crowned King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, who was nowhere near enough to do after her more spirited debut in Ragnarok) appears in a Old Spice commercialit’s hard to tell if that’s a nod to Marvel’s move to cross-promotion or just product placement disguised as humor.
It is reminded that Waititi made the hapless one Holocaust crowd puller Jojo Rabbit between these tent poles. love and thunder finally betrays itself as an expression of the same blatantly sentimental worldview – this is yet another, only slightly funny joke machine that, in its viscous bum, glorifies the transformative power of love. (Thor’s whole journey, you see, learns to open his heart again.) At least the film will only offend aesthetic sensibilities. While Ragnarok looted Zeppelin’s songbook for just (if obvious) needle drops, the new Thor types for throwback Sunset Strip kitsch with no less than four Guns N’ Roses hits on the soundtrack†
if love and thunder never quite falls into a complete, funny irrelevance, it’s because Bale is around to pull it back from the abyss, and the occasional detour from real threat. He is given a great introduction, suffering in the barren wilderness like a Christ figure before finding his dark target – an opening sequence that promises a much grittier, heavier opus than the next. Later, Gorr sets a trap for the heroes in an interstellar dead zone, and Waititi literally sucks the color out of the frame for a set piece that, vaguely but striking, captures the ominous monochromatic beauty of an Akira Kurosawa fight† The sequence is practically a metaphor for the prolific dampening effect of Bale’s turn: when he shows up, he sucks the Day-Glo folly right out of the movie and brings it to dramatic life.