Taika Waititi won an Oscar for his script for Jojo Rabbit, and that sort of acclaim can be death for a comedy writer — look what’s happened to Adam McKay. Lucky for us, Waititi hasn’t lost his bearings as he takes on Thor: Love and Thunder, his second movie about the hammer-wielding superhero. The New Zealander remains a reliable gag man in a movie that runs deeper than Thor: Ragnarok.
The story picks up with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) having shed the body fat we saw in Avengers: Endgame and hanging out with the Guardians of the Galaxy when he hears about Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), a skeletal warrior with a deicidal sword who has sworn to kill all gods everywhere. Thor goes home to New Asgard and is thunderstruck to find his old ex, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), being more interesting than at any point in the series, because she has suddenly acquired his superpowers, his hammer, and a fierce set of biceps. When Gorr kidnaps the children of New Asgard, the two Thors go after them, knowing all the while it’s a trap.
I want to know more about Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) turning New Asgard into an amusement park and becoming a pitchwoman for Old Spice, but you’ll be happy to know she has kept Old Asgard’s amateur theatricals, with Matt Damon as the way-too-serious Asgardian actor starring in the show. Speaking of her, it turns out that Valkyrie isn’t the only queer character in the saga. While there’s a ton of Guns N’ Roses on the soundtrack, the narration of Thor’s backstory by Korg (voiced by Waititi himself) is set hilariously to Enya’s “Only Time.” A running joke about Thor being weirded out by Jane handling Mjölnir is funnier than it should be, as Thor’s axe Stormbreaker acts like a jealous girlfriend — boyfriend? — in light of his obsession. (It’s not easy to build a running joke around an inanimate object, let alone give it a personality.) One of the most audacious visual strategies in Marvel history comes late, when the movie turns into a black-and-white film as our heroes approach Gorr’s realm of shadows.
I haven’t even discussed the comic highlight of the movie and perhaps the entire Marvel series, an extended set piece when the protagonists visit the king of gods himself, Zeus (Russell Crowe), in a failed attempt to ask for his help dealing with Gorr. Thor is stripped naked in front of an amazed audience, a cute god of Chinese dumplings shows up, and line-for-line, this has more laughs than any single scene in all of Marvel’s superhero sagas. (“Stop! Another word, and you are not invited to the orgy!”) The humor here comes from all directions, but it’s mostly from Crowe, putting on a fruity Greek accent, dissing Asgard and Thor’s powers, tossing his thunderbolt around like it’s a basketball, and being enough of an attention whore to make you wonder why this star hasn’t done more comedy.
The wackiness effectively packages some serious stuff here, as Thor realizes he made a mistake by letting Jane go and Jane is driven by her own desperation — when we first see her here, she’s receiving chemotherapy. Their romance is conducted in front of Valkyrie, who pines into her beer about the woman she loved and lost, while Gorr’s murder spree comes after losing his young daughter after his narcissistic bastard of a god (Simon Russell Beale) failed to save her. It all culminates in a showdown in front of a magic portal that grants a wish to anyone who reaches it, when Thor convinces the villain that love is a better answer than destruction. (It’s more convincing on the screen than on paper.) This is, in some ways, the most romantic of any of the Marvel films, too, and it shows us something.
Waititi is a filmmaker who writes jokes and engineers sight gags that land, and when he’s at his best, he shows that there’s a core of decency and humanity underneath all that. That’s the case in Hunt for the Wilderpeople and in Thor: Love and Thunder, too. These superhero movies keep coming out with their own personalities, and the odd sweetness in this one makes it endearing.
Thor: Love and Thunder
Starring Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman. Written and directed by Taika Waititi. Rated PG-13.