There is only one mention of Thanos in Thor: Love and Thunder. What’s more, it comes during one of those Thor skits with Matt Damon as Loki. There's no snap, no Avengers, not even much Loki. Perhaps this is Marvel finally shaking off the effects of Endgame and looking to the future. Certainly, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has shrugged off the funk—and the weight—of that film and is casting about for a purpose. When he hears of Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), who’s on a deity-killing spree, it seems he’s found one.
Gorr may look like Gandhi but he chooses violence. Having just lost his young daughter, he finally meets the god he’s been praying to all his life. But when Rapu mocks him, Gorr grabs a sword that conveniently materializes and kills him. He then sets out to kill all gods. Meanwhile, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman)—Thor’s human partner in the first two films—is dying of cancer. She reads a book on Vikings and hears Mjolnir call out to her. Next thing you know, she’s Thor—another Thor, in addition to her confused ex.
This is what our cinema has become. Anyway…
At least Waititi doesn’t pretend there’s a deeper significance to any of this. His Thor: Ragnarok was a day-glo farce that built up to a potent image: a world destroyed, its residents now immigrants on a raft in space. Love and Thunder has the same zaniness, but nothing solid to anchor it. I thought Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit had the same problem: when everything’s a joke, you can’t expect viewers to care when you need them to. Jane battling cancer is such an obvious bid for sympathy; the laziness with which she’s reintroduced is almost offensive, and Portman seems unsure how to pitch her performance.
For someone whose films, all things considered, afford me a good deal of pleasure, I’m not sure Waititi has cracked the medium yet. They have the looseness of sketch comedy, a preference for bits over arcs. Some of the gags in Love and Thunder are brilliantly weird, like the giant screaming goats Thor receives as a gift, or the mechanics of Kronan mating (you hold hands over lava…). Others are promising on paper but wear out their welcome, like the passage where Thor, Jane and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) infiltrate a gathering of the gods and end up fighting a randy Zeus (Russell Crowe), or the recurring lover’s tiff between Thor and his battleaxe, Stormbreaker, after the reappearance of Mjolnir, his ex-hammer, in Jane's hand. I’ll take Waititi’s irreverence over the sanctimoniousness of Eternals or the blandness of the Spider-man films any day. But you only have to place his Marvel work next to those of James Gunn’s to see how even smart-alecky films can be structured and resonant.
In Raganarok, Waititi managed to unlock something in Hemsworth. The gruff Shakespearean family drama was shelved, and what emerged was a funnier, more appealing Thor. Hemsworth has become a wonderfully adept comic actor over his many appearances in the Thor and Avengers films. Though Love and Thunder doesn't further Thor as a character, Hemsworth and Waititi add an abiding sweetness to his comic vanity, prominent in his scenes with Jane but also when he's interacting with children.
There are a few arresting images late in the film, when the Thors hunt Gorr in the Shadow Realm. Instance of staging this on a flat landscape, the film keeps showing them jutting out from the surface of a large, uninhabited three-dimensional rock, the vastness of space in the background. Rendered in inky black-and-white with brief strokes of colour, these images seem to come from an earlier, primordial cinema. It’s a reminder that Waititi has the visions in his head to justify his making movies on this scale. He definitely imposes himself on his material, but it's not singing the way it should. News emerged recently that he’s taking on a Star Wars movie. Brightening up turgid franchises will keep him gainfully employed, but I hope he finds a project along the way that helps him unlock himself.