Sunday, June 23, 2024

‘Thor: Love and Thunder’ is a Deliriously Chaotic Mess

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More and more Marvel movies are embracing the goofy absurdity baked into the comic books. Yes, some comics are “gritty” and take themselves very seriously. But for decades, comics have played with fundamentally unserious subjects, of which a talking tree is among the least weird. They are also about a gazillion times more comfortable with sex, though there is no shortage of grossness in that candor, either.

So, in comes Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder, a movie that is by no means perfect, is hardly as horny as the marketing or Taika would like it, and struggles to commit to the big themes that break through the surface every once in a while. It’s a mess, but I find the best Marvel movies are the ones that don’t work 100%. 

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) shows the benefits of mediation during battle

Co-written by Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, Love And Thunder glides along at a daffy pace. Waititi and Robinson, to their credit, are trying to speak directly to the moment of not just popular culture but politically as well. Underneath all the classic rock anthems, quirky banter, and pulpish aesthetic beats an angry, broken heart at how unfair everything seems.

The problem is, unlike Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi and Robinson, never see the themes all the way thru. Ragnarok, an indictment of nationalism, finds a way to tie the “necessary” action finale to the rest of the movie. Whereas Love and Thunder never quite ties all its disparate themes together. Those themes are grief, death, and, weirdly enough, a half-hearted attempt to speak to the fermenting tide of rebellion against the elites.

I say half-hearted because while Love and Thunder spends much of its time showing us how the powerful would rather plan the annual orgy than stop Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale) from killing innocent people and “lesser gods”; it still has Thor save the day. He also incites a group of children to help him fight the God Butcher. It’s cool and obviously an attempt to allow the kids in the audience to feel as if they too could fight alongside the mighty Thor, but a celebratory child army comes off slightly askance.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is as lovable and charming as ever. He’s worked his way out of his depression, lost weight, found inner peace, to an extent, and drifting through the galaxy with Korg (Waititi), hitching a ride on Star-Lord’s (Chris Pratt) ship. Star-Lord senses Thor is searching for something that can’t be found with the Guardians. He’s right, but it’s weird seeing Star-Lord as any sort of mature figure. 

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. Soon, she hears the call of the shattered Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, and travels to New Asgard, where she teams up with Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Jane becomes the Mighty Thor. The hammer keeps her cancer at bay while draining her body of the energy to fight it. All this is a shock to Thor when he returns to find Gorr and his shadow creatures wreaking havoc on his beloved people and stealing the children.

Jane (Natalie Portman) and Thor (Hemsworth) confess their feelings

Throughout much of Love and Thunder, I couldn’t help but feel even sadder that we’ll never see Taika Waititi’s Flash Gordon remake. The film has moments that show a more profound desire to be sexier, bawdier, and broader than the Marvel machine would allow. Little gems such as Valkyrie kissing the hand of one of Zeus’ (Rusell Crowe) paramours before making a badass leap to escape the battle hint at a more broad-minded story. 

Crowe’s performance is another reminder of what we could have gotten. One of the best things about Love and Thunder Crowe’s performance is a tightrope act of absurd satire and silly antics. Zeus is a pompous playboy whose love and mercy never reach outside his personhood.

We also learn that Korg’s species mate by holding hands with their same-sex partner over a bed of lava. Or possibly gender doesn’t exist; it’s never clear, only that Korg meets a fellow Kronan named Dwayne and finds happiness. Good for Korg.

So, you have Jane dealing with her impending death, Thor and Jane trying to work through their emotions, Valkyrie yearning for something more, kidnapped children, and oh yeah, Gorr the God Butcher. Bale’s Gorr is a man whose daughter died because his god chose to do nothing. Discovering that there is no afterlife, no grand reward, he goes on a god-killing spree, taking little heed if he also kills the worshippers.

But again, Love and Thunder implicitly say Valhalla is real. Though I did enjoy how Waititi and Robinson play with liturgical interpretation as both Thor and Valkyrie tell Jane different readings of how one gets into Valhalla. Still, Valhalla existing while Gorr’s idea of an ever after is merely a fable makes for some uncomfortable implications of one true religion. It’s a half-assed indictment that inadvertently comes down on the side of the thing it’s trying to critique.

A flaw that’s easy to overlook because Waititi has upped the colorfulness of the film’s aesthetic. More and more, he seems to be embracing a more tactile yet garishly colored feel. A style that lends Love and Thunder a certain cartoonish vibe. A vibe that I love and wouldn’t change for anything. Keep your bland aesthetics, and your grim and dower muted color palette. 

Jane (Portman), Thor (Hemsworth), Korg (Taika Waititi) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) are off to meet the Wiz-Zeus

Still, the CGI monsters look like your typical GCI monsters, all the same, skeletal and indistinctive from one another. Not to mention, hair and makeup continue to be Marvel’s kryptonite. 

Yet, I can forgive it all because Waititi’s Love and Thunder is an unpolished but sincere attempt to tell a fun tale that speaks to the moment in time, even if it doesn’t always stick the landing. It’s also lovely to see Portman have fun in a role. It is akin to seeing Michelle Williams in something fun; it’s a relief to see them just vibe and let loose.  

Love and Thunder is never dull. Whether it’s a community theater production recapping the last movie or hearing “Led Zepplin” blasting during the fight scenes, Waititi zips along with the same mixture of laissez-faire zestiness that he brings to all his work. A sort of easy-going flair with a keen eye for observation when he doesn’t have a corporate behemoth breathing down his neck, making sure his movie is suitable for everyone.

More than anything, perhaps, that’s what’s most disappointing about Love and Thunder. Waititi has emerged as one of the more queer-friendly creators working today in the mainstream. His television shows, and his indie movies, all seem to share the same theme of love is love, inclusiveness, as well as just allowing queer characters to be queer. 

At the very least, Thompson has always played Valkyrie as a bisexual. The queerness of Love and Thunder is more of the variety of Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies. It’s baked into the framework, implied via aesthetic rather than any representation. Or, at least you can feel that was the aim. It largely works, but I couldn’t help but feel there was a much gayer film on the cutting room floor.

The ending, which involves explaining the film’s title, feels oddly half-hearted, even though Hemsworth and his co-star make it cute. If it seems like I’m being harsh, understand it’s because Love and Thunder are so thoroughly entertaining that it is only afterward that you begin to realize how all the disparate pieces don’t fit cohesively. It’s a testament to Waititi that despite its disjointed narrative themes, Love and Thunder is a blast and half to sit through.

To put it another way. I know it’s not perfect, and I don’t care. I had a ball with it. Waititi is sincere, which makes me forgive Love and Thunder its flaws. I cried at points and left the theater with a silly grin on my face. 

Even better, Waititi and his cameraman Barry Idoine continue to push the MCU away from big-screen television and into the cinematic. Bit by bit, movie after movie, Marvel movies are starting to feel alive visually, and I am here for it. One image that will likely haunt audiences is Bale’s Gorr lying beside his daughter’s grave, his arms cradling a mound of dirt. Idoine and Waititi make Love and Thunder as close to a feast for the eyes as any MCU movie since Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 & 2

Thor (Hemsworth) contemplates

I found Waititi’s attempt to grapple with death as we enter the third year of a worldwide pandemic in which we have seen over a million people die, moving in a way that left the characters at times ineloquent. As if the pain and fear of the unknowable left them at a loss to what to feel, think, or say. Something we can all relate to, I’m sure.

Love and Thunder will never rise to the level of Ingmar Bergman or even Simon Stone’s The Dig, but then I wouldn’t expect it to be. Instead, it moved me in a way I was unprepared for. For a silly movie about a bumbling god, his wacky sidekicks, his competent lady friends, and his two giant screeching billygoats is saying something.

Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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