Thor: Love and Thunder is the kind of mess that would be forgettable if it didn’t reflect the deadly avenues the film industry is traveling down. As the fourth entry in the Thor series and the 29th in the MCU with an advertising pitch revolving around recognition and nostalgia (and a dash of absurdly muscled bodies) whose end product is an incoherent jumble of half baked subplots and effects, Love and Thunder might as well be called MCU Fatigue: The Movie. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except movie theaters are being overrun with variations on this formula, their offerings bordering on monoliths devoid of artistic variety.
Cinema is, of course, a malleable thing. That’s why Disney was able to morph the blockbuster landscape to its MCU/Star Wars/Pixar will, and it’s why there used to be enough variety to dissuade alarm until the double whammy of the overthrow of the Paramount Decrees and the pandemic severely restricted our idea of what a film experienced in a theater should be. The latter is an understandable development; once people got used to streaming everything in the (for most of us) inexpensive comfort of our homes, the fuss of going to a theater became a harder sell. The former is an industry nerd stressor, the kind of thing the average moviegoer wouldn’t know about even as it shifts the landscape beneath their feet. Basically, it was the tossing of the U.S. Supreme Court case that prevented film companies from controlling both distribution and exhibition (hence, no vertical monopoly controlling what you get to see where).
The combination of the two, along with minor stressors like the collapse of the mid-budget movie and the rise of television miniseries to replace adult film dramas has not only made your choices at the movie theater look unrecognizable to what you saw 20 years ago but has fundamentally shifted what people think a theatrical experience should be. The box office returns tell the story; 9 out of the 10 highest grossing movies of 2022 so far are IP-based extravaganzas, and once Thor: Love and Thunder gets a few weeks under its belt, you can safely assume that number will be 10 of 10.
And no, none of this makes Love and Thunder or any of the IP-based films bad. Any film made for any reason can achieve greatness (or at least goodness), but it makes the belly flop that is the fourth Thor movie a sickening splat on the draining theatrical experience.
When done well, even the most rote MCU outings have their base pleasures. They’re generally affable stories with loveable characters played by charismatic actors with loud action peppering their substantial runtimes. One walks away feeling like you’ve seen a Movie, but that most people now define these gargantuan attention grabbers as Movies and not the smaller, more emotional punchers like The Shawshank Redemption or Casablanca that have historically been thought of as Movies represents a formidable shift in cinema. One that, given the aforementioned restrictions bearing down on what is available at the average theater, threatens to change what an entire generation thinks a Movie is. And once we let this happen, is there any coming back from that?
I’m aware this is a stodgy, esoteric plunge into the state of cinema that most won’t care about and that Thor: Love and Thunder doesn’t have to answer for the long history that led to its existence, but I’ve always identified with Clint Eastwood growling “get off my lawn”, even before it was immortalized on screen. My lawn, and I like to think most film critics’ lawns, is the theater, and the ineptitude of the MCU’s latest outing feels like a breaking point. If we let this slide, if we let this disjointed, ugly, meaningless mess of a movie pass with a shrug of the shoulders, we may as well pack up, go inside, and let whoever wants to crap on our lawns.
Because Love and Thunder is, quite simply, a mess. It lacks fundamentals like consistent characters and resolutions to narrative arcs. Its humor, which should be a high point in a film co-written and directed by Taika Waititi, is at its best when it rips off the Taylor Swift goat remix. And the action, which is so frequently chastised in the MCU for shoddy CGI, hits a point so low it can only be described as incomprehensibly ugly.
Again I ask: if we let this slide, what are we degrading our expectations to?
It’s not that there’s no redeeming points to Love and Thunder. It’s intermittently funny and there’s a certain buoyant energy that seeps through a movie where it looks like everyone had a good time making it. But these are paltry offerings in comparison to what cinema can offer. It’s paltry in comparison to this year’s great blockbusters like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Top Gun: Maverick. It’s paltry in comparison to the smaller stuff that’s graced the big screen like After Yang and X. It is, pure and simple, a movie that didn’t come together, and familiar recognition shouldn’t override that, even if we have been trained by 28 movies before it to acquiesce.
Release: in theaters July 7th
Director: Taika Waititi
Writers: Taika Waititi, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Taika Waititi, Russell Crowe