No character in the MCU has undergone a more effective glow-up than Thor Odinson. From the drab nadir of The Dark World to Ragnarok’s cosmic romp, the God of Thunder found his groove when irreverent kiwi Taika Waititi unlocked Chris Hemsworth’s criminally untapped comic chops.
Their latest pairing is more extension than reinvention. But by most metrics it’s a superior reunion – wilder, funnier, and significantly more heartfelt. If Marvel has been coasting on a comfortably unexceptional level of quality for much of Phase 4, the joyous Love and Thunder is a return to the glory days of the Infinity Saga.
When we rejoin Thor some four years after the events of Endgame, the second-strongest Avenger has gone from "dad bod to god bod", as returning rock dude Korg (Waititi) imparts during a delightful recap, and is still in league with his reluctant comrades the Guardians of the Galaxy (a treat during a brief but satisfying appearance). Effortlessly saving the day with JCVD-homaging splits and roundhouse kicks during a riotously daft opening set-piece, Thor remains physically unstoppable, but emotionally his losses have taken their toll. Thor needs something to live for once again.
One day a message from across the stars alerts him to the existence of Gorr, the God Butcher (Christian Bale) – a dark force on a one-man mission to slay every living deity with his deadly Necrosword. This brings Thor to New Asgard, which has turned into a tourist hotspot under the rule of King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and back into the orbit of his ex-girlfriend Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who has transformed into The Mighty Thor after being deemed worthy by a reformed Mjolnir.
Portman’s return to the MCU (her Endgame appearance was assembled from unused Dark World footage) gives Love and Thunder the flavor of a romcom, in much the same way that Multiverse of Madness dabbled in horror. Portman certainly looks the part, putting on a gun show worthy of big-screen superherodom. And if she’s on surer footing during the film’s affecting dramatic beats than the off-kilter comedy that has come to define Waititi’s style, that’s partly by design – Portman’s Mighty Thor is a work in progress who spends much of the film workshopping her own catchphrase and adjusting to life as a monster-stomping god.
Racing along at a relative clip – an increasing rarity in a sea of bloated superhero spectacles and mini-series – Love and Thunder takes Thor, Jane, and Valkyrie to the Omnipotent City of the gods, presided over by Russell Crowe’s hysterically funny Zeus. A preening blowhard who’s less interested in the well-being of his true believers than the logistics of his next orgy, he allows Waititi to strike gold with a screen legend in similar fashion to Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster in Ragnarok.
Also unexpectedly chucklesome is Christian Bale’s Gorr. One of the MCU’s more effective villains, the character transcends a rote revenge origin story thanks to a deliciously unhinged performance that veers between frightening and laugh-out-loud funny, often in the same sentence. In one scene Gorr delivers what can only be described as the CBeebies Bedtime Story from hell to a group of interned pre-teens, while his formidable abilities – including the power to summon freaky shadow monsters – make him a believable threat for a pantheon of gods.
The Shadow Realm which Gorr calls home is so removed from life that even color doesn’t exist there – a striking contrast to the blinding brilliance of the Omnipotent City and the kaleidoscopic color palette of the cosmic corner of the MCU. Physics obey Super Mario Galaxy rules in the Shadow Realm – one of many moments where the film can feel like a live-action cartoon. But Love and Thunder isn’t striving for Top Gun: Maverick levels of verisimilitude, or there wouldn’t be so many screaming goats.
If we’re picking nits, Valkyrie feels like a third wheel here (a fifth if you count sentient axe Stormbreaker, which can’t contain its jealousy with Mjolnir back on the scene). Thor and Jane’s relationship is also awkwardly back-loaded in a way that feels like you’re not getting enough time with the two of them together until the film is almost over. And as with Ragnarok, the dramatic stakes inevitably take a hit when there’s rarely more than a few seconds till the next tension-obliterating belly laugh.
But that’s Waititi’s proven MO, and once again the filmmaker has put his unmistakable stamp on a Marvel project, bending the MCU house style in a way that even a filmmaker as seasoned and distinctive as Sam Raimi struggled to do. There’s an infectious desire to put a smile on every audience member’s face here – try to resist the exceptional deployment of four Guns N’ Roses bangers – that means even the film’s most obvious shortcomings barely register as it careens in carefree fashion from one terrifically entertaining sequence to the next, including a late showstopper involving a group of young actors which ranks among the most overwhelmingly gleeful sequences Marvel has committed to the screen.
After four solo movies – the first Avenger to reach the milestone – it's clear there's still plenty of charge left in the God of Thunder. Whether there's a fifth remains to be seen, but on the basis of Love and Thunder Waititi and his mighty Thors are more than worthy of another outing.
Thor: Love and Thunder is in cinemas now! For more on the making of the movie, buy the Thor issue of Total Film through this link.