On Wednesday I took the bus into central London to see Thor: Love and Thunder, one of several simultaneous previews being shown in cinemas across Leicester Square. This wasn’t a star-studded red carpet deal — that was across the street, in a posh theater — but a cardboard Chris Hemsworth was available for selfies, and grinning fans lined up to grab a big plastic hammer. Later, as I sat in a busy auditorium waiting for the movie to start, someone behind me repeatedly tried to record an audio message for his followers, so I heard about 50 times that he summarized every plot of the Marvel movies online (no small feat) and that he was invited by Marvel to preview as a reward. He also claimed, to his obvious delight, that Hemsworth was in the building. A pre-recorded greeting later confirmed that unfortunately Hemsworth wasn’t even in the country, but writer/director/Korg Taika Waititi, Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie) and Natalie Portman (Jane Foster) wandered in from another theater to thank the crowd. “How gay is the movie?” shouted one Portman fan. “So gay,” she replied after a break, and touchingly, the crowd cheered. (In my mind, they were all brandishing large plastic hammers; this may be a false memory.)
Say what you will about the Marvel franchise, fans are 29 movies deep and still having a ball. As someone who has seen less than a quarter of these comics and not read a single one, I’m in no position to come up with an intelligent critique, or even one on the level of Martin Scorcese. What I will say, though, is that over the years it has become increasingly difficult to just dive into the franchise. Thor: Love and Thunder nailed this house. That’s not really a criticism. Instead, it’s about reckoning: At this point, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become so dense and self-referential that it’s hard to watch one of these movies without feeling like you’re missing out on all the jokes and action. You lose a lot if you don’t know the characters, basically. Love and thunder was marketed as an action film, but in many ways fits the hangout genre better.
This latest Thor is the first since then Thor: Ragnarok, also directed by Waititi. U Love and thunderthe new villain is Gorr the God Butcher, played by Christian Bale, a silver man with a smile like the moon from Majora’s mask and the voice, confusingly, like Bale’s real English accent. Gor wants to take revenge on the gods because one of them let his daughter die; conveniently, he is wielding the Necromach, a god-slaying weapon. Thor, stunningly orange in color and sculpted, each arm sun-kissed by a mountain range, must give up his association with the Guardians of the Galaxy team to stop him. At the same time, his ex, Jane Foster, was diagnosed with cancer. However, holding Thor’s old hammer seems to heal her well again, and also puts her in a costume to match a pair of goals. They meet up with Valkyrie after Gorr attacks New Asgard and escapes with the city’s children. The team’s journey will take them to the Omnipotent City, where Russell Crowe plays Zeus, doing a funny Greek (?) accent.
Writing ArtReview, Gerry Canavan reflects on what he calls Marvel’s “late style,” characterized by “hyper-self-awareness” and a “self-referential preoccupation with the heroic past.” “Without a single focus on a single plot towards which everything builds relentlessly,” Canavan writes, “the franchise is instead fixated on minor variations of itself and its own affective rhythms, on examining, grieving and remixing its own past.”
This summary pretty much captures the problem Love and thunder. Take Thor and Foster’s relationship, which blossomed in the first two Thor movies, not in the acclaimed Ragnarok. To Waititi’s credit, he does provide plenty of recaps to bring you up to speed, usually through the mouth of lovable rock man Korg, or via plays-with-plays with Matt Damon. But it can’t provide the emotional character development necessary to care about the couple’s struggles with love and cancer.
A fair answer would be to point out that the Marvel movies, like the Marvel comics, are meant to be enjoyed in conversation with each other; that they are never independent stories. But there is a noticeable aimlessness Love and thunder it’s hard to ignore if you’re not watching the movie just to see your favorite characters. In post-Endgame Out in the world, the dramatic stakes are just lower, a problem compounded by Waititi and the coldly ironic tone of his actors. These films were formed in his image, imbued with the same mischievous satire that informed his What are we doing in the shadows?. But that tone reinforces the impression that nothing really matters: we’re just here to have a good time.
And that’s okay! (Or it would be fine if the supermassive black hole of the Marvel franchise didn’t swallow the prospect of other blockbusters that didn’t feature Tom Cruise or the Minions, but that’s a well-trodden topic.) These movies don’t have to please everyone, and it’s fun, almost avant-garde, to have become so inadmissible to outsiders. But how will they age? Will an audience 30 years from now, who you would imagine will have a very different frame of reference, find them watchable? Is it possible that they will sign up for Disney+ Max and watch 50+ hours of movies to get references in one movie? Maybe, but we’re nowhere near the end. Afterwards Love and thunderCredit, Zeus appears to summon Hercules, the subject of the second film. There is a comic and a lot of lore about it.