Thor: Ragnarok was the lightning bolt kick to the pants the franchise needed.
While positioned as one of the Avengers Big Three, Ragnarok was the showcase standalone Chris Hemsworth’s Asgardian god needed to be worthy of hanging with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America.
Ragnarok was also a revelation for director Taika Waititi, whose bombastic, carefree and colorful epic was unlike anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe had seen.
The slant to a more easygoing Thor, who let his hair down ironically after getting a haircut, proved a winning formula for a character previous filmmakers had trouble making engaging on his own. Ragnarok rightfully is ranked in the Top 5 to 7 films in the entire MCU.
That cast a wide, and at times, impenetrable shadow on Hemsworth and Waititi’s follow up, Thor: Love and Thunder.
For most of the first hour, Love and Thunder feels like it’s desperately trying to recapture that (ahem) lightning in a bottle magic of Ragnarok. All the humor that flowed so effortlessly in Ragnarok feels forced. Waititi and co-screenwriter Jennifer Kaityn Robinson seem terrified of letting five minutes pass without a gag regardless if it undercuts the developing dramatic subplots.
This is especially problematic as the too eager playful tone fights with what should be a darker and more serious premise.
Gorr, a fully game Christian Bale swapping his Dark Knight cowl for a decaying body and white robes, comes into possession of a sword capable of killing gods. Like most MCU villains, Gorr has a credible reason for his god vendetta, and goes on a god killing spree.
Thor is still cruising with the Guardians of the Galaxy and going on wild adventures. His friendly rivalry with Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) remains intact, but the other Guardians are largely background players. That’s unfortunate given the unexpectedly fun dynamic of Thor with the Guardians in both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.
Still, it was a nice flex to have Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel), Nebula (Karen Gillian), Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) show up at all.
Upon learning of Gorr’s murderous actions, Thor returns to New Asgard — now a tourist destination run by his very bored ally Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).
Thor gets some unexpected help in repelling Gorr’s initial strike by a new Thor, his ex-girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who’s now wielding his mostly restored hammer Mjolnir.
Jane’s arc is mostly true to the comic minus 70% of the pathos. To refrain from spoilers, let’s say Jane’s arc had serious potential right from the start, but Waititi would prefer to focus on laughs and awkward comedy instead of taking a more substantial approach to this subplot. Sure, it’s fun to see Thor get weirded out with his now powered-up ex and old weapon, but Waititi plays that out too long.
While the biggest example there’s other signs some of Waititi’s comedic instincts fail him.
Thor’s massive goats in the comics are portrayed as bleating idiots that quickly wear out their welcome. Waititi’s CGI character, Korg, is another character that’s best in small doses. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that the film turns for the better when Korg’s screen time is reduced.
When a character learns her arm has been dismembered, she’s more dismayed she’s not going to die on the battlefield.
A detour to gain help from Zeus (Russell Crowe) takes up more time than it’s ultimately worth. At the very least there’s a payoff to this scene by the film’s conclusion that should excite comic fans.
Thankfully he dials way down on the humor in the film’s superior second half. It almost comes off like Waititi was leery of embracing the darker tone and stayed in his comfort zone until it was time to get serious.
Love and Thunder is an immensely more enjoyable film for this shift and earns the heartfelt emotion by its conclusion.
Impressively, Waititi resists the urge to go out of the way to make Jane a better Thor than Thor. It’s an unfortunate crutch of writers to make women Mary Sues in action films, but Waititi and Robinson wisely just expand the spotlight to include both Thors instead of overcompensating for Jane.
Despite the first half struggles, Love and Thunder is a gorgeous film to behold throughout. Waititi fully understands the nature of the source material visuals and stages some mesmerizing imagery.
Cinematographer Barry Baz Idoine is game with bright hues for the lightning effects and a sumptuous array of colors in the backdrop. One of the film’s most stunning sequences features a near absence of color. It makes for a shocking contrast to the vibrant colors on display.
The second half is also better as it gives Hemsworth more time to delve into the emotional turmoil Thor has endured without the need of a punchline to ruin the moment. Hemsworth was quietly the MVP of Infinity War in large part due to showing a stripped down and far more emotionally vulnerable side to Thor.
There’s a handful of moments here that provide that same opportunity and Hemsworth shines. Portman seems re-energized returning to the MCU in a feature role. Jane has vulnerabilities on another level and Waititi eventually gives Portman time to focus on them. Thompson remains a fun supporting character, but Valkyrie might be better served as the star of her own Disney+ series.
One area where there’s no letdown from Ragnarok is the fight scenes. Waititi approaches these with the vigor and imagination of a child playing with their action figures. They’re wonderfully staged with creative uses of character powers.
Ultimately, an MCU film with a promising start and lackluster second half (see Iron Man 3) is far less exciting than a film that rests on its potential before waking up for a sensational second act.
Love and Thunder might not be in the upper echelon of MCU films, but Hemsworth has settled in so firmly to this role that even an inconsistent Thor adventure is worth the ride. Just don’t forget to muzzle those goats.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Photo Credit: Disney