In many cultures, the idea of wanting more for yourself is valorized. We want more money, more success, and more awards. Some of us simply want to tell our own stories to differentiate ourselves. In the case of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the want for more has resulted in something of a problem. The film studio conquered the box office long ago and now must keep up a nearly impossible pipeline of movies, shows, and graphic novels that have sustained the Walt Disney Company. In a way, the release of Thor: Love and Thunder shows the very best and worst of this approach. While Taika Waititi returns to direct the fourth film about the God of Lightning (making Chris Hemsworth the only original Avenger with four namesake films), it also runs the risk of upsetting what we expect from our superhero films.
Waititi allows us to catch up with Thor for the first time since Avengers: Endgame paired him off. Thor seeks a new life away from the battlefield alongside The Guardians of the Galaxy. However, he continues to find himself wanting more for himself, specifically a family of his own. When he finds himself called back to New Asgard, he discovers that Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale) seeks to live up to his namesake. To lure out Thor, he kidnaps Asgard’s children. Thor mounts a rescue mission with King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Korg (Waititi), and the Mjolnir-wielding Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). As Thor and Jane grow close once more, Thor begins to wonder if the life he wants is with his old paramour.
The tricky thing about Love and Thunder becomes the balance it strikes early. On one hand, Waititi seems driven to tell a story about Gorr and Jane Foster, allowing Bale and Portman to outshine their peers. The two Oscar-winning performers certainly get plenty of material to shine. Bale simply outclasses the rest of the cast, appearing as both obscenely menacing and haunted by grief. Portman displays confidence here that was not present in her previous performances. The interpersonal moments between characters continue to showcase Waititi’s strength as a director and fleshes out the emotional arcs of the narrative. However, in a film with Thor as its namesake, his story takes a backseat to Waititi’s new friends.
Concurrently, Waititi massively struggles with the visual composition of many sequences. The same issues of sludgy CGI and questionable lighting are present throughout the film. The consistent use of CGI helmets and gears cuts through any realism, allowing cartoonish blobs to enter the frames. Yet a sequence in the Shadow Realm astounds as some of the best visual imagery in the entire MCU. The unique world, zapped of color, adds to the tension and anxiety of the sequence. One could easily argue its among the best fifteen-minute stretches in the entire franchise to date.
Perhaps this is what makes Thor: Love and Thunder such a frustrating experience. At times, it delivers some exemplary sequences of blockbuster filmmaking. We want directors like Taika to traverse new technological paths on the studio’s dime. Yet Love and Thunder runs twenty minutes too long, mostly due to shocking lapses of attention from Waititi. While we may want more from the MCU and from Taika as a filmmaker, it’s clear that may not be possible given the requirement to serve other masters.
Thor: Love and Thunder will not be a perfect exercise in creating a lasting piece of art. It seems unlikely that it will score among the highlights of the MCU, of Chris Hemsworth’s action hero career, or place high on lists reviewing Taika’s filmography. However, this is what we get by wanting more of the MCU: an imperfect and shockingly frustrating film. As the pressure from Disney continues to mount on Marvel, even the great Kevin Feige may not be able to save his universe from crumbling. Instead, the nonstop demands and expectations will harm the product. While Love and Thunder mostly succeeds as a chapter in Thor’s much longer MCU story, one cannot ignore how close it comes to true greatness, only to fall short.