Marvel Goes Rom-Com with Thor: Love and Thunder

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In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there may not be a more polarizing sub-franchise than the Thor films. Director Kenneth Branagh did a good job with the first film, but played it mostly safe and straightforward, leaving the levity to a few sight gags where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is shown as a stranger in a strange land. That was probably the correct approach for the early days of the MCU. Thor: The Dark World, attempted to be darker in tone under the direction of Alan Taylor, who was better known for his work in television. It didn't quite succeed and I found the overuse of Stellan Skarsgård as Erik Selvig and Kat Dennings as Darcy Lewis watered down the threat of the Dark Elves--who themselves weren't the most menacing of foes--with comic relief that never resonated with me. 

And then MCU head honcho Kevin Feige found a director from New Zealand by the name of Taika Waititi who dared to do the unthinkable: direct Thor: Ragnarok as a comedy. The results were brilliant, no matter what some Thor comic purists might say to the contrary. Thor went from being a character whose actor was beginning to grow bored in the role to being one everyone was excited for, especially Hemsworth. The MCU audience responded very positively to the change in tone. But now Waititi has done it again, and changed the formula for the most recent installment, Thor: Love and Thunder. Not entirely, mind you--there's still plenty of comedic moments. But there's also a lot more romance, and a few tugs on the heartstrings. Guys, don't panic. It's not "50 Shades of Thor." It's actually very sweet, unless you're one of those soulless drones on the coasts who get first crack at publishing your reviews and you drink the haterade more and more with every new Marvel movie that comes out. If you've been reading miserable review after miserable review for Thor: Love and Thunder, allow me to be an advocate for the side of love! It's actually Hela good! (Ah...Asgardian puns!) Very minor spoilers possible if you continue...fair warning.
The big news here is the return of Natalie Portman as Dr. Jane Foster, Thor's love interest from the first two films. I'm sure it's not hard to like working with Chris Hemsworth for a variety of reasons, but Portman has always shown greater chemistry on-screen with Hemsworth than in any other partnership I've ever seen her in, although admittedly the only other role with a love interest that I've actually seen was her role as Queen Amidala opposite Hayden Christensen's Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, a pairing that might be the least compatible on-screen couple ever. And this is where it gets interesting, because she's also playing Thor too! The plot of the film combines two major arcs from the comics, The God Butcher from Thor: God of Thunder, written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by Esad Ribic, and Jane Foster's hammer-wielding days from Mighty Thor, written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by Russell Dauterman. Dr. Foster returns to Thor's life at a time when her own hangs in the balance. There's no cure for her condition, but there is something that can help her temporarily: Mjolnir, the original Thor's original mallet of smiting! But waitaminute, didn't Thor's twisted sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett, who is not in this film), destroy Mjolnir in Ragnarok? Well, yeah, but in Marvel comics, the only thing that's ever stayed dead is Spider-Man's Uncle Ben Parker...most of the time, anyway. Mjolnir and Stormbreaker get to be characters themselves in this story, and some of the things they do with Mjolnir in particular are very cool.

The Thors face a new threat in the form of Gorr the God Butcher (former Batman Christian Bale). Bale's performance will make you sit up and take notice. One of the critics at my screening was so engaged in the character that he completely lost sight of the actor and was overheard in the lobby after the show asking "Where was Christian Bale in this movie?" To me, that's tremendously high praise for any actor. I can't say the same for Will Smith or Tom Cruise--no matter how good they've been in various roles over their careers, I only ever see Will Smith and Tom Cruise when I watch their characters in a given movie. Then again, neither Smith nor Cruise has ever had to have 6 hours of makeup applied every day they were shooting scenes like Bale did, so that might have contributed somewhat to the effect. I would place Gorr up there with Thanos and Killmonger as villains with enough tragic elements that you can sort of sympathize with them in a strange way. Of course it's hard to root for the fiend who kidnapped the children of New Asgard and severely injured original Thor's Asgardian love interest Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander). 

The Thors lead a rescue team that includes rocky alien Korg (Taika Waititi), King Valkyrie of New Asgard (Tessa Thompson) and attempt to recruit the grandest of the gods, the powerful patriarch of the Olympian pantheon, the mighty Zeus (Russell Crowe). Believe me when I say that you've never seen Russell Crowe play a more bizarre character in your life. If he wasn't already a huge star, I'd say this was a star-making turn for the man. Maybe it will spark his career resurgence for a bankable Hollywood hunk whose star seems to have dimmed a bit since the era of his Best Actor nominations at the Academy Awards for 2000-2002 (three nominations, one win in 2001 for Gladiator). Director Waititi must have a special knack for bringing out the best in his Australian/New Zealander cast. Zeus is delightfully self-absorbed and borderline insane! The heroes get what they ultimately needed from the temperamental god, but also incur his wrath and future vengeance. Thank the gods! That means we're getting another Waititi-helmed Thor sequel (right, Mr. Feige?)! Sadly, The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Eitri the Dwarf (Peter Dinklage) and his Game of Thrones co-star Lena Headey, who was reportedly joining the cast as one of the Valkyries, were all left on the cutting room floor. That's a shame, but for the sake of consolation we do get another segment of "Asgardian History Theatre" featuring Matt Damon as Loki (Tom Hiddleston is only seen in stock footage flashbacks, because, you know, he's got TVA issues), Liam Hemsworth as Thor, and Sam Neill as Odin. This time they're joined by the husband and wife duo of Melissa McCarthy as Hela and Ben Falcone as the director of their little play.

Lest I forget, the film starts off where Thor: Ragnarok ended with the Guardians of the Galaxy joining their brooding godchild companion on a classic Thor adventure of wanton destruction all set to classic rock tunes from the Guns and Roses catalogue of hits. Starlord (Chris Pine), Rocket (Bradly Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel--he's so Groot!), Drax the Destroyer (David Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Nebula (Karen Gillian) and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) reprise their roles from director James Gunn's corner of the MCU, though conspicuous by her absence was Zoe Saldaña as Gamora, who died in Avengers: Infinity War but returned in Avengers: Endgame from a different timeline. Hey, nobody ever said keeping track of characters and subplots for 29 MCU films was easy, and that's not including the Sonyverse films such as Venom and Morbius. Sony apparently doesn't read Kevin Feige's notes and really should just sell the Spider-Man characters back to Marvel/Disney for a Celestial's weight in cash because their Marvel-independent movies are mostly unwatchable garbage.

Unfortunately, that unwatchable garbage made them profits over the budgets for these crappy films. Morbius, one of the worst reviewed superhero films featuring a Marvel character, made $163 million dollars over a $75 million dollar budget. Venom: Let There Be Carnage, raked in $502 million over a budget of $110 million, and the original Venom with a similar budget pulled in an eye-popping $856 million bucks, making it the 8th most successful Sony film ever. In case you're wondering, the entire Top 10 grossing Sony films all come from only three film franchises: Spider-Man (with or without Marvel's involvement), James Bond, and Jumanji. If you'd have told me that Morbius would make more money than Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby or A League of Their Own, I'd have said you were crazy! With a budget of $250 million, Thor: Love and Thunder sits tied with Captain America: Civil War for the highest budget for a solo Avenger movie to date, and let's be honest, for all intents and purposes, Civil War really was an Avengers movie. That's a hefty price tag for Waitiki and company to recoup. But if recent history is any indicator, movie audiences have not yet reached the point of superhero saturation or MCU overload. Thor: Ragnarok equaled Venom's box office numbers against a much higher budget of $180 million. I think Thor: Love and Thunder will put up very respectable numbers, depending on how well word-of-mouth travels. The early critics were harsh, but then they almost always are, which begs the question of why Hollywood caters to these haters in the first place? Hopefully folks will see for themselves. I, for one, would never see or skip a movie on the say-so of some anonymous movie critic...unless it's Jeff Ritter for His reviews are kind of different, and usually spot on--if he tells you a movie is awful, you can trust and believe that your time and money will be better spent elsewhere! Why such industry stalwarts such as Rolling Stone or NPR, hasn't stolen him away by now is anybody's guess.  
There's much to like in the fourth Thor movie, from the zany humor of Taika Waititi to the palpable chemistry between Hemsworth and Portman, and the super "Awwww!" moment when you realize that the macguffin of the whole film is Hemsworth's own actual daughter, 10 year old India Hemsworth, who appears to be a chip off the ol' block herself! The film's score, when not drowned out by Guns and Roses' guitarist Slash's soaring riffs, was composed by Michael Giacchino, who probably isn't better known simply because his name isn't John Williams. He's composed some very memorable scores including Mission: Impossible, Jurassic World, Star Wars: Rogue One, Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Batman, and many others. It's a shame he's not more of a household name for his contributions to movie music. Nami Melumad, who has composed for a few of the recent Star Trek productions, among others, is also credited as a composer. Mayes C. Rubeo does a terrific job designing the costumes, and the set designs and special effects are all top notch.
Thor: Love and Thunder, is another marvelous entry into the MCU. Yes, of course you should stay for the two end credit scenes, the first featuring Idris Elba as Heimdall and the second featuring crazy Russell Crowe enlisting Brett Goldstein (Ted Lasso's Roy Kent) aid as Hercules. Finally, Marvel is back to setting up films with their credit scenes again! At just 119 minutes, this is one of the shorter Marvel films, but the runtime felt just right to me. I'm not typically a romantic comedy guy, but seeing a god like Thor dealing with the heartache of love and loss just proves we're all only human after all. The film officially opens July 8th, but there's a ton of times showing in theaters in my market already today. I guess official openings don't matter anymore? The film is rated PG-13.
5.0 / 5.0