Reader, what have you come to a Marvel review for? With an open mind and a curiosity for the contents of the film? Something that may confirm your biases? Four Thor films and nearly thirty some MCU films in, what pray tell, can the reviewer offer to you? It is unlikely that you want a detailing of the plot and the function of the movie. You either are not fussed about the story this far in or would not like any element spoiled and you know full well what this movie is for: an interconnected piece of galactic warfare fiction that aligns new heroes as a helper fourth phase film, one that sets a course for future battles and inevitably a fifth sequel (if you are not making at least five movies, the rule is that you must stop at three). It may also not concern you what kind of hero Thor is, how he can be portrayed, and whether or not the film successfully exudes the same likeness of the character as the bounty of other movies have done. Maybe you just want a simple confirmation that Marvel found their sauce again and have made another compelling argument to watch too many movies so you can see the good ones.
That’s exactly how it has gone. Thor: Love and Thunder replicates, with no small effort, the charisma and use of color that defined 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. Taika Waititi returns to direct, wiser than in his false satire film Jojo Rabbit from 2019, better settled with a formula that allows him to win: a frivolous and marvelously fun character action film with plenty of quirk and the requisite zingers. It’s a good mode for his filmmaking and a space where he exhibits his highest confidence. Rarely can the Marvel director make a movie that feels so patently of their own making, but Taika Waititi has been afforded two opportunities to act as a singular worker within a machine that prints money no matter what you make.
It helps out that Thor is a fantastic character. Bold, funny, and in the visage of Chris Hemsworth, devastatingly handsome. Waititi and Hemsworth renew their productive working relationship, continuing to get the best out of each other, some kind of New Zealand and Australia alliance that just shows its confidence on the screen. Meanwhile, our other actors also get some room to work. That is true of Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster (also, just called Thor, an idea I feel affectionately about, anyone can be Thor). Her character possesses more pathos than previously allowed. She can act circles around the cast if she wants to but plays it at just the right emotional register, being the actual source of gravitas, while Hemsworth is continually played for quippy laughs (some of them even work, here). It’s inelegant, of course, weighing its two wants: the Space Viking show and the resonant character drama of it all. But when Portman dials in, she is such a good fit for the material, and simply either fun or emotional to watch on the screen, playing a version of Jane Foster that is undergoing cancer treatment, while also playing a magnificent Thor who wields the proper noun Mjölnir (the one belonging to Hemsworth’s Thor), and has true Main Character Energy. The story, insofar as there is a story (and not just a plot) in one of these, is fundamentally about her personal struggle to balance dying from cancer while also showing that she is a battle-born shield maiden and worthy of, at least, going down in battle and ascending to Valhalla. Tessa Thompson also provides a funny pairing as a bantering Valkyrie who works as a good best friend for both versions of Thor.
All that said, it does not address the greatest piece of acting at the center here. You expect a Marvel movie to open with bombast, pop music redefined so it fits the opening comic book Marvel logo. You expect some initial conflict and action movie weight or something to anchor the story. Instead, you get Christian Bale doubled over a dying child, wraithlike and breaking bad. It’s the fastest and most efficient these movies have ever been at a character arc. We get right away why he becomes a twisted, bad dude, and what his incentives are. And then he carries on for the whole picture with a refined sense of menacing oddness. Bale’s arrival to the MCU comes with the swiftness of an actor who intuitively knows what every role demands of him. He is special and note-perfect here. Just a great old sorry baddie who is not wholly bad and not maddeningly set on destruction just for the sake of being an adversarial foil. Nay, he is very well fit into the film, and reason enough to see it.
Presumably the would-be generic throwback ’80s music tells you what kind of Marvel movie it is: one sitting inside the lineage of the Taika Waititi and James Gunn entries of “dammit, let’s see if we can wring some style out of this corporate exercise.” They always seem to work that out. Here, front and center are the band Guns N’ Roses; such a Marvel choice of a band so well past their prime to embody the spirit of a major franchise piece. It just works. It works when a kid just loves Axl Rose and decides his name should also be Axl, foregoing his Viking name, for a cool rock name, which to me, is basically living in the same spirit. Plus, Guns N’ Roses are not serious. Not serious anymore. Not serious since Chinese Democracy (2008) and the eight years it took to make it. Not serious in the way Marvel has become not serious. Cinema, sure; cinema for the masses.
It burrows in kind from the last Marvel film, Sam Raimi’s Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness from earlier this year. There are fringe horror elements. It’s clear that the focus testing, or writer’s rooms, or the comics they are now pulling from, are made for aging audiences. Marvel is now positioning itself to entertain all ages of comic book fan. Sometimes, when you do that, you end up entertaining no one at all. That has happened a few times lately. Growing pains in the journey of maturation. But with cautious optimism, we might say that over the course of the last two movies, they have reached some semblance of balance. There is more horror in these movies, wicked and twisted character designs, content more for parents than just for their children. They are walking a thin tightrope. So far, this is the only correctly balanced property that weighs greater stakes, an emphasis on slightly-more-terrifying design, and a move toward broader acceptance and incorporation of queer-centric themes (which eventually through continued use, must begin to feel properly a part of the universe, as is happening finally here).
That may all answer the fundamental question here: how are we reviewing Marvel films and is it important to a reader that we undertake that exercise alongside every other outlet on the internet? I do think so. I think we must balance our indulgence in the fashionable artisan cinema and the cinema made by authentic artists who still have vision but are making a movie for fun. We cannot lose the fun of going to the movies. We may go home and watch the Scorsese movies that were the theatrical highlights of our lives, but we go out, with the masses, because Marvel movies remain the most consistent ventures into the public consciousness, one of our few water cooler franchises. We needn’t lose touch with general audiences and what they watch. We can do multiple things. Sometimes these movies are not very good. Sometimes they are Thor. But always they are the center of a conversation about movies and how we are going to define them going forward and for better or worse, all of that matters. It matters even more when they are this fun and worthy of their endless discussion.