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Thor: Love and Thunder review – the wheels are coming off the Marvel machine

Though Christian Bale and Russell Crowe make great additions to the MCU, Taika Waititi's latest mostly feels uninspired and stale

After the disruption of COVID, pretty much all of Hollywood has been making up for lost time, but no-one has run this catch-up race at quite the sprint that Marvel has. After a 2020 with no MCU content at all, Thor: Love and Thunder marks the sixth film they’ve released across 2021 and 2022 – and that’s before we even get to the seven TV shows (with the eighth, She-Hulk, due imminently). It's safe to say this deluge has finally reached exhaustion point: here is an entry from a franchise clearly running out of road, a stale product trying to recapture past glories, only occasionally livened up by the new blood the studio have brought aboard.

One of the original “Big Three” Avengers alongside Captain America and Iron Man, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) makes MCU history here with his fourth solo outing – the most for any of these superheroes – and returning writer-director Taika Waititi has pulled out the big guns in order to tell this tale. Love and Thunder, at least in part, adapts Jason Aaron’s “Godbomb” run from the comics, arguably the strongest Thor story Marvel has ever put to paper, but it ends up being a poor fit for Waititi’s sensibilities, especially when a reunion with Thor’s ex Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, returning after a nine-year MCU hiatus) is thrown into the mix.

Again cribbing straight from the source material, Love and Thunder reintroduces us to Jane as she’s going through treatment for Stage IV cancer. Sensing her imminent death, Thor’s shattered hammer Mjolnir reconstitutes itself and flies to her, granting Jane her own set of powers and reuniting her with her old Asgardian boyfriend. Together they set out on an adventure to stop villain Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), whose mission to kill all gods in existence is wreaking havoc across the universe.

But Waititi never finds the right balance between the Thor-Jane reunion story and the Gorr story, and so both end up feeling underserved, while the handling of Jane’s cancer is just woeful. If you thought Waititi’s tackling of Nazism in Jojo Rabbit was cloying, wait until you see how he deals with terminal illness, mostly trying to quip his way through before an “empowering” ending that is anything but. And after being genuinely compelling as Thor in Ragnarok and the two-part Avengers finale, Hemsworth just looks like he’s on autopilot here, while Portman is clearly slumming it to fund her next few indie projects, performance barely registering. The long-running Thor franchise problem of Hemsworth and Portman having minimal chemistry has, unsurprisingly, not been remedied.

It’s a real shame that the core cast end up so uninteresting (the heavily trailered Guardians of the Galaxy disappear from the story and are forgotten at lightning speed), as the franchise newbies end up as some of the best characters of this fourth phase Marvel project. Bale really brings the creep factor as Gorr, making for an instantly iconic villain that could almost go toe-to-toe with Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin as a genuinely menacing Big Bad. He almost slithers around the screen, Gorr’s magic sword draining colour and life from its surroundings and you end up wishing you got to spend far more time with both him and fellow new arrival Russell Crowe.

Crowe is Zeus, essentially the king of all gods, regardless of pantheon, in the Marvel cosmos, and he’s a delight, even if his appearance only really plays as a bit of an extended cameo. Pompous but conniving, Crowe plays this Allfather as, basically, an old Greek pervert version of his Nice Guys character and it is wonderful. You just wish he and Bale had been given a far better film in which to strut their stuff, as they’re the undisputed highlights and any scene without them is rendered utterly forgettable.

Whenever Love and Thunder isn’t embracing the new, it’s attempting to ride the same wave that made Ragnarok probably the most fun MCU entry to date, but it’s a plan that backfires, only highlighting its  inadequacies. The barrage of jokes that had such a high hit rate in Ragnarok feels forced and abrasive here, Waititi’s humour actively damaging the stakes of his story, while a climactic showdown set to a classic rock song is muted and low-energy and straight-up steals its “showstopper” moment from the DCEU’s Shazam, though with far less emotional payoff. There’s enough here to keep the hardcore fans ticking along, including the best MCU post-credits scene in a while, but something fundamental needs to change if this series is to thrive as it once did.

Thor: Love and Thunder is released in UK cinemas on 8 July.

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