The last Thor movie was a lot of fun, you'll recall. Taking over the franchise reins for Marvel's third solo romp with the hunky thunder god, director Taika Waititi injected the 2017 Thor: Ragnarok with impish wit (even the fire demon got a cute line) and managed to freshen up a key component of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (an enterprise now in its fourteenth year).
Waititi's second Thor outing, Love and Thunder, is also fun, but not as much. A down-shift is apparent right at the beginning, as we watch a pitiful character called Gorr (Christian Bale) traipsing across a vast desert salt flat with a dying child in his arms. The child is Gorr's daughter, and when she does in fact die, he curses the gods who failed to save her and the rest of his family. Vowing to destroy all deities—Greek, Roman, Aztec, whichever—he becomes Gorr the God Butcher, and our story begins.
This is a relatively slow, bleak open for a Marvel movie, but Waititi and his co-screenwriter, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, are clearly trying to bring real-life emotion into their hugely expensive superhero tale. In doing this, though—and in later introducing terminal cancer as a plot point—they can't help but diminish the cartoony brio that has made these pictures so never-endingly popular.
Since the movie runs a few seconds under two hours, the story's setup is briskly sketched in. We see Thor onboard the Guardians of the Galaxy spaceship with Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the rest of that gang. And we see his ex-girlfriend, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman)—last on-hand for the 2013 Thor: The Dark World—undergoing chemotherapy in a New York City hospital. Although her cancer is incurable, Jane thinks there could be a medically restorative power in Thor's magical battle hammer, Mjölnir—now residing, in pieces, in Thor's home world of Asgard (which has become a complete space-tourist trap). Arriving there, she is startled to see the dismantled hammer reassemble itself and make a beeline for her hand—turning her into a new superhero: The Mighty Thor. (Later, checking out her cape and her metal breastplate and her familiar long blond locks, Thor says, "That's my hammer you've got there. And my look.")
Chris Hemsworth is an unimprovable Thor, of course, and it's nice to have Tessa Thompson back on the Marvel beat as the cheerily queer warrior woman Valkyrie, whose romantic interest in Portman's character rivals Thor's own. ("We're on the same team," she tells the big galoot. "Team Jane!") But while Christian Bale is an actor of capacious ability, there's not a lot he can do with Gorr—a character entirely defined by grief and rage (and, okay, a useful ability to summon monsters from the bowels of the Earth). And bringing Russell Crowe into this movie to play Zeus is an idea that must have been hatched during an all-night mead bender. In a scene that goes on much too long (in which the Greek uber-god is given a pro-wrestling-style intro as "the man, the myth, the legend"), Crowe for some reason adopts a bellowing Italian accent that wouldn't be out of place in a Super Mario vignette. (Whether this is ridiculous or actually kind of funny will be a personal call for each viewer.)
The movie is skillfully made—especially Gorr's shadowy, near-black-and-white homeland, which recalls the rich grayscales of old Universal horror films. Elsewhere, though, the picture is busily over-designed, and aglow with colors that suggest an explosion in a candy factory.
But the fundamental problem with Thor: Love and Thunder is its feeling of incompleteness. Waititi has said in interviews that he shot four hours' worth of footage for the picture, then edited it down to two. That's a lot of cutting, and there are times when you can feel the absence of necessary plot detail. (Scenes featuring Lena Heady, of Game of Thrones, had to be cut, and Christian Bale has said that scenes he did with Peter Dinklage and Jeff Goldblum were likewise excised.) This material will no doubt turn up somewhere down the line in expanded versions of the movie. Until then, all props to Waititi right now for committing totally to a very grown-up love story amid the powerful corporate tides of blockbuster cinema. We'll see how the fans feel.