“This is the future that liberals want.”
At times the fourth Thor film really does feel like an attempt to expand that now-venerable meme to feature length. Just look at this parade of un-American filth. At least one sidekick is bisexual. Some sort of WOMAN undermines the hero’s once-potent masculinity. The computer-generated imagery refashions the cosmos into a candy-coloured amalgam of My Little Pony and an explosion in a lipstick factory.
Worst of all (best of all?), Taika Waititi, returning after the excellent Thor: Ragnarok, has abandoned any effort to take the great American institution that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe even halfway seriously. They used to argue that, given how comically self-aware the Bond films were, the many attempts at pastiche were redundant. Something similar happened with Marvel.
But, if Thor: The Dark World was Moonraker, then Love and Thunder travels all the way to Austin Powers’s boudoir. Scarcely a line is delivered without it being immediately undermined by a follow-up crack. Application of the Batman Scale — assessed with Batmus Paper? — locates Chris Hemsworth a lot closer to Adam West than to Christian Bale. And so on.
All this is great until it isn’t. The approach is certainly preferable to Chloe Zhao’s all-too-comprehensive conversion of Eternals into something neighbouring a sober East Village book group. For much of the time, the Love and Thunder audience will extract as much fun as the cast seem to be having (if that is possible).
Love and Thunder quickly hits its lolloping stride. The actual Christian Bale, adrift in a barren wasteland, finds relief at an unlikely oasis. For about five minutes or so we could be in one of the bleaker DC flicks, but, soon enough, various talking flowers and animated acid visions take us back to Taika Waititi’s Magic Roundabout. Bale is playing a relatively recent Marvel comics’ creation called Gorr the God Butcher and he is not holding back on the malign dementia.
Given how sensitive people are about these things, we probably shouldn’t lay out too many details of the subsequent plot, but Thor is dragged out of hippie retirement and, now brandishing an axe rather than a hammer, he reunites with various old chums in an effort to stop Gorr completing his advertised deicide.
Russell Crowe, always at his best when at his most deliberately absurd, turns up as a version of Zeus apparently modelled on Harry Enfield’s kebab-shop owner Stavros. Tessa Thompson can’t repeat the MVP heroics from Ragnarok, but her Valkyrie remains a wise-cracking super-person of the post-war screwball school.
Among other agreeably absurd routines, Hemsworth gets to spar with his semi-sentient axe as if it were a jealous romantic partner. Though considerably more ramshackle than the previous adventure, Carry on Thor is inventive enough to remain distracting throughout.
There is, nonetheless, a huge “but” waiting to drop. As you will probably be aware, the always strong Natalie Portman reappears as Jane Foster, former love interest to the hero and, now in possession of the reconstructed hammer Mjolnir, imminent rival as a distaff “Mighty Thor”. Portman handles the cadet superhero stuff adroitly. She has fun experimenting with catchphrases. She warms to the costume.
The script, however, cannot make sense of its decision to manoeuvre Jane through cancer treatment. To this point, every line-reading, every music cue, every computer-generated arabesque is demanding that we take nothing of what we are watching seriously.
For good or ill (mostly for good), the film is pitched as the level of a Mad Magazine romp. That approach sits comfortably enough with the potential annihilation of the entire universe. It sits less easily with an effort to have us connect emotionally with more sobering everyday traumas. That plot strand is not in bad taste exactly. But it belongs somewhere else.
A strange, strange film. Often in a good way. Sometimes not.