From the inception of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the foundation of the franchise has been the original Avengers: Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the mightiest of them all, Thor. These six characters laid the groundwork for pretty much every single event that has happened over the course of the last 14 years, pushing the superhero genre to places it had never gone before and making it the biggest cinematic property in Hollywood. The culmination of a decade’s worth of work came to a head with Avengers Endgame, which saw Iron Man, Captain America, and Black Widow exit the MCU, with Hulk and Hawkeye looking to take lesser roles for the foreseeable future. This left Thor (Chris Hemsworth), whose home planet of Asgard had been destroyed in Thor: Ragnarok, leading his people to relocate to Earth where they had to rebuild their lives. He is also picking up the pieces of his life after fighting off Thanos, losing, and having to redeem himself for the loss of so many lives around the galaxy due to the events of Avengers: Infinite War.
When it was all said and done, everyone but Thor seemed to be at peace at the end of Endgame, and that is where we find our hero in his fourth solo adventure Thor: Love and Thunder. Directed by Academy Award-winning writer/director Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit), Thor is at a personal crossroads, the perfect jumping off point for the best Thor movie in the MCU and one of the best entries in the franchise in some time.
We find Thor running missions with the members of the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Pom Klementieff, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper) as well as his friend Korg (voiced by Waititi), saving innocent people one planet at a time. Though he is a vital asset to the Guardians, it is clear that they have grown tired of Thor’s act and are ready for him to move on, mostly due to the fact that he is a one man wrecking crew that doesn’t meld well with the vibe of a team. When a distress signal comes in from his old friend Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), requesting assistance in fighting off a mysterious new foe, Thor and Korg leave the Guardians to investigate what has happened to Sif, only to find that she encountered a being known as Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), who has been trying to wipe out every god in the universe to avenge the death of his daughter who died under the subservience of the heartless god who he worshiped. With this, Thor races back to Earth to warn the Asgardians, but it is too late, as Gorr has beaten him to the punch, and starts attacking the town. In the midst of battle, Thor encounters Gorr’s shadow monsters, and in doing so, discovers he isn’t the only god fighting off the beasts, as the Mighty Thor is there fighting alongside him, who happens to be his ex-girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, who absolutely rocks in this movie).
For context of this shocking interaction, we are reintroduced to Jane earlier in the film. We haven’t seen her appear in the franchise since Thor: The Dark World and things aren’t looking good for the brilliant scientist as she has been diagnosed with stage-4 cancer. For months, she has been doing everything she possibly can to cure herself but to no luck. This all changes when she starts reading about Norse mythology and how Thor’s former instrument of destruction, Mjölnir, has the capacity to keep her healthy as long as she wields its power. When she arrives at the new Asgardian village and finds the pieces of the hammer, they come together and transform her into a version of Thor, cape and all. But the price of these powers takes a heavy toll on Jane, as she slowly realizes that in an effort to gain strength as the Mighty Thor, she is rapidly deteriorating in her regular human form. Knowing this, Jane hides this as this new version of herself is the best she has ever felt in her entire life and has found a new purpose of helping people, one swing of Mjölnir at a time.
When the two Thors meet on the battlefield, they are genuinely surprised, confused, and uncomfortable since these two haven’t seen each other in about eight years since they were in a relationship. In their post Dark World life their courtship goes from the salad days of newness to growing apart physically and emotionally in their efforts to balance the importance of Jane’s work and Thor’s responsibilities as an Avenger. But as they are reconnecting, and in one of the film’s good examples of Waititi’s high wire act of tone mixing, Gorr has rounded up the Asgardian children and escaped with him back to his home in the shadow realm, a place of consistent darkness and despair. Thor, Jane, Korg, and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) the king of New Asgard (which has become a tourist attraction), set out on a galactic rescue mission to get the children back home and stop Gorr from reaching Infinity, a center of the Earth realm where with just one wish, he could complete his nefarious plan.
Waititi, one of the busiest artists working in Hollywood right now, has crafted one of his best films yet by embracing blending his zany, wacky humor with elegant, heart-pounding action set pieces and centering it all around a grounded, emotional love story that we have yet to see within the MCU to this point. We yearn to see Thor and Jane get back together, as we see in flashback sequences, because they are brilliantly made for each other, and so when they are on screen, Hemsworth and Portman’s chemistry is electric, sending shockwaves around the multiverse. And within the romance, we get to see them go to places that other Marvel characters in this franchise seem to never have the chance to go to, which is to deeply personal place that force them to make the hardest choices in lives in saying goodbye to the person they want to be, no matter how much they love them, and the sacrifices that decision has on them. It’s beautiful, confident writing by Waititi and his co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson that is perfectly elevated by Hemsworth and Portman’s performances with their best work in the MCU to date.
The other shining star in this vehicle is Bale as Gorr, whose gothic, slightly unhinged performance is one of the best comic book villains in recent memory. He too has depth and layers that have been lost within antagonists not named Thanos in the MCU, as we get to see his full rise and fall from the moment the film begins, as we see how he becomes the God Butcher. Within this Waititi and Bale explore one’s disdain for the gods, as well as a true sense of faith being taken away from them, with only revenge able to consume their cold heart. By doing this, he is a man on a mission, with true purpose, which is a wonderful contrast to Thor and Jane their uncertainty as both heroes and partners. Mix their struggling ideologies together, and Thor: Love and Thunder molds into a fascinating mortality tale of the role a god, or superhero, must play in the lives of everyone around the universe. Bale, one of the best actors on the planet, is used perfectly here and dominates the screen with the right mixture of menace and unpredictability that makes his work here so memorable.
Within all these nuanced, poignant moments also lies some terrific humor by Waititi, Thompson, the members of the Guardians, and even a wonderful, unhinged performance by Russell Crowe (doing an accent so wild you will have to see and hear it to believe it) as Zeus, the king of the Olympians. But none of them compare to the breakout stars of the film, which are two goats that are gifted to Thor at the beginning of the film, screeching in a horrifying yet hilarious fashion. This is what Waititi is known for, finding the right balance of heart and hilarity in melding them together into something special. And in doing it here, he has crafted the best installment in the “Phase 4” era of the MCU and one that should be the model going forward for the entire franchise; smaller one-off stories crafted by a comfortable filmmaker is interested in real character development and emotion rather than where this film will fit into the grand plot of the MCU. Thor: Love and Thunder is a breath of fresh air from the MCU, providing hope that the Marvel machine can still surprise us going forward.
Walt Disney and Marvel Studios will release Thor: Love and Thunder on July 8 only in theaters.
Photo: Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios