Famously sexless, MCU movies have little to no interest in romantic entanglements between their superpowered characters and whatever actor has been hired to play the role of opposite sex counterpart. Gwyneth Paltrow, the first of these thankless parts, can’t even remember which of the MCU entries she shows up in. Portman was another early cast member, way back in 2009, and it’s telling that the franchise forgot about her until there was a moment to bring her back with superpowers. This is the only way they know how to judge a character as interesting. Waititi has spoken about how he wanted to make a romance, as it wasn’t something he’s ever done before, and aided by co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, he should stick with the adventure stories and comedies that he’s proven himself with. Hemsworth and Portman didn’t have great chemistry in the first two Thor films, but here, they have anti-chemistry. He’s been doing this long enough that he’s practically typecast, but Portman is far out of her depth, giving the worst performance of her otherwise impressive career. A combination of tennis-ball CGI acting and Waititi’s improvised dialogue are ill-suited for her, and her sweaty delivery makes a believable romance impossible.
If the romance aspect fails, there’s plenty of other areas where Love and Thunder could conceivably make up lost ground. Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok is regarded as one of the best films in the MCU, combining a loose humor with mythic spectacle. Surely, he can recapture that earlier film’s magic. Alas, there’s nowhere for Love and Thunder’s rank mediocrity to hide. Gorr’s sword allows for the creation of shadow beasts for characters to fight, because it wouldn’t be a Marvel movie without nameless hordes to kill in action that gets muddier every time the budget goes up by another $10 million. Love and Thunder supposedly cost a quarter of a billion dollars, and parts of it look like a reasonably expensive theater production while other parts are mired in CGI technology of the early 2000’s. Jokes from Ragnarok are recycled as mere references. Based on their extensive screentime, Waititi thinks a pair of giant goats gifted to Thor are hilarious, when they’re nothing more than an annoying meme from a decade ago. The Guardians have been turned into a bunch of dreary monologists, totally drained of any wit or timing without James Gunn writing for them. The film’s tone tries and fails to navigate between D-level gags like characters fainting at the sight of Thor’s dick and intense themes like impending death and a parent grieving a child. It’s an endless stream of miscalculations and lazy stopgap solutions.
What saves the film from being completely useless is Bale, though there’s plenty to raise an eyebrow at in Gorr’s part of the world. The famously chameleonic actor wasn’t forced to go through the male Marvelification of chicken breasts and steroids, but is instead allowed to more or less look like himself, albeit bald and with a mouth full of black gunk. The character’s strength comes from his sword, so he doesn’t need a full transformation. The simplicity of it allows for Bale to play the raw melodrama of the role, and it’s effective when he cradles his dying daughter in his arms. The trend in Marvel villains has been to let them make a good point but be too zealous in turning that point into a reality. Gorr has been badly treated by his god, and therefore wants to kill all gods if they’re not going to do anything. Gods are vaguely defined in the MCU, though it seems like every god who’s ever been dreamed up by humanity is real. Their indifference supposedly contrasts them with the superheroes of the franchise, but these aren’t really questions the MCU is equipped to grapple with. If some kid writes Ant-Man a letter asking him to shrink down and laser out the cancer in their dad’s body, and he doesn’t do it, is that an unanswered prayer that will incur the wrath of Gorr? Why would the MCU even entertain these ideas when there’s no chance anything approaching a thorny, complicating moral issue will ever be examined?
One might think that a film so interested in murdered gods and dying characters would take this opportunity to do something new by the end. Shake the plot up, free some actors from their contracts, allow for new characters to take their place in this undying behemoth. Love and Thunder continues its total lack of imagination by presenting the potential closure of multi-film arcs and laughing them away, dooming Hemsworth and Thompson to more of (waves hands) all this. There’s a feeling in something like Batman Returns of a director who’s had enough of this franchise and wants to get fired, but in that case, Tim Burton makes a weird, disturbing, and horny film whose oddities have it regarded as the best entry in that initial run of Batman movies. Here, Waititi gives off the same energy, but his version of a half-erect Penguin is shoddiness in every corner. Disney and Marvel should take the hint and free Waititi to do something else, like he’s freed me from this franchise. D+