When “Thor: Ragnarok” hit theaters in 2017, it gave the “Thor” series the swift resurgence it needed after a middling debut film and a rather dire sequel, “Thor: The Dark World,” in 2013. Taking more than a little inspiration from the massive success of Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” director Taika Waititi (the New Zealand comedy legend behind “What We Do in the Shadows”) injected the movie with some much-needed humor and colorful splendor. Suddenly, “Thor” went from being a second-tier “Avenger” to one of the most promising. While these Marvel movies so often feel fresh off the assembly line, Waititi managed to make a movie that feels thematically and stylistically in line with the rest of his work.
Needless to say, after almost five years, the expectations for a “Ragnarok” follow-up are sky high. And thankfully, die-hard fans of Marvel and Waititi will likely find much to appreciate in “Thor: Love and Thunder” – Waititi’s inimitable quirky humor still makes for several uproarious gags throughout, and the movie’s visuals, drawing from the colorful and outlandish heavy-metal album covers from the likes of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, make this one of the more stylistically distinct Marvel entries. Unfortunately, those strengths that carried over from “Ragnarok” must contend with a few new weaknesses in “Love and Thunder,” mainly some strange tonal clashes, awkward pacing and an underdeveloped villain.
We’re introduced to that villain, Gorr (the always-reliable Christian Bale), in an opening scene that gives us his origins as the man who becomes known as the God Butcher, a powerful supervillain who lives to decapitate gods with his magical Necrosword. (If all this sounds very silly, that’s because it is, but luckily Waititi never takes it too seriously). In his never-ending revenge quest to kill every god in the galaxy, it’s only a matter of time until he gets to our titular God of Thunder. Bale brings plenty of menace and verve to a character who, on the page, actually has very little to do.
As usual, the performances are largely what make “Love and Thunder” a total breeze. Chris Hemsworth once again proves he’s not only one of the best-looking movie stars on the planet but also one of the funniest. He’s at his best playing well-intentioned, handsome morons and both his performance and the screenplay (by Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson) lean into those charms beautifully. Natalie Portman makes her grand return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Jane Foster after nine years, and the film makes some surprising and bold decisions by revamping her as the female Thor. Her turn as the new Thor is electric, but how the script gets her there feels rushed and clumsy, with the entire transformation seeming to take roughly five minutes of screen time.
Unfortunately, that clunky pacing hurts a great deal of the movie, where massive character arcs are barely touched upon in favor of odd humorous digressions. Without giving too much away, Portman’s character is facing some heavy life circumstances, and when the story has to slow down to deal with her subplot, it feels jarring with the goofy romp that preceded it. The movie is so concerned with hitting the major plot beats of your standard superhero fare that it never gets a chance to let the character moments breathe.
Still, those who come into “Love and Thunder” hoping for more of the same charm and thrills they got from “Ragnarok” won’t have too much time to feel disappointed during this breathlessly paced blockbuster, but they might find it receding from their memory even faster once they leave the theater.