When Thor: Ragnarok came crashing into cinemas, the God of Thunder was reborn. Gone was the self-serious, undeniably grand Norse hero; in his place a slightly bumbling jock, ambling through an indifferent universe. Taika Waititi’s film gave the MCU a renewed, technicolour vigour, an off-beat comedy styling, and a new lease of life for Chris Hemsworth as the titular hero. Tougher times would come – indeed, Thor’s heavy emotional lifting is key to the success of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame – but it’s an approach which his fourth outing, Love and Thunder, gleefully returns to.
Yet as the saying goes, lightning seldom strikes twice, and despite some valiant swings of his cosmic hammer, Waititi doesn’t quite recapture the spark which made Ragnarok such a joy. While Love and Thunder has crackling moments, it’s strangely unsure of itself. Perhaps that’s by design, given the existential angst which we find Thor in at the start of the film. Because despite learning he is more than the God of hammers in Ragnarok, and despite his central role in taking down Thanos, Hemsworth’s lead is unsure who he truly is.
After an enjoyable detour with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor is troubled by rumours of a god-killer on the loose. His fears are justified, as Gorr The God-Butcher, Necro-Sword in hand, is seeking vengeance against the same gods who so cruelly let him down during the film’s striking opening scene. Excellently played with a sinuous, increasingly maniacal glint by Christian Bale, Gorr sets his sights on New Asgard, and the realm of Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). So begins the plot – something which is complicated by the reappearance of Dr Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, clearly having a much better time than she did during Thor: The Dark World), though this time in a slightly more sparkling uniform.
To say anything else would be unwise, especially as – for all Waititi’s attempts at popping visuals and inventive locations – this is a film which firmly sticks to the MCU mould. There are undeniably some fun sequences, both superheroic and banal. The trip to the splendidly named home of the Gods, Omnipoten-City – ruled over by Zeus (Russell Crowe giving an utterly bonkers performance which somehow works brilliantly) – gives ample space for Waititi’s comedy, as does a montage of Jane and Thor’s whirlwind initial romance. Worth crediting too is the striking monochrome battle between Gorr, holding court in a lifeless, colourless corner of the universe, and the heroes.
But other things don’t quite click. For all its sparkling colour palette, there is a tangible lack of visual depth, while certain narrative choices, like a pair of screaming goats who, you guessed it, just scream throughout, feel like a needless addition. But more galling is the film’s jittery tone, unable to play a straight scene without undercutting it with a crow-barred joke. Of course, that has been a criticism of the MCU from the outset, but here it seems ever more acute. For instance, a hospital-based scene between Jane and Thor is beautifully played before it shoots off in pursuit of one-liners.
It’s undeniable that Thor’s move towards comedy is a clever coping mechanism for the character itself. If everything’s a joke, then nothing can hurt you, right? But the MCU seems similarly reluctant to dig deeper; instead eschewing new and creative ideas in favour of the quippy template which undeniably has been central to its success. For Love and Thunder, we’re therefore left with a string of electric moments, but it’s not quite a thunderous return/.