Isn’t there a saying that goes: If you act like a fool, everybody will treat you like a clown? I could’ve sworn there was, but I found no mention of it online. My searches for the quote only led to infinite variations of “will a woman respect me if I act like a clown?” (Not sure what that says about my search history…) I bring this up only because I kept thinking about this apparently nonexistent quote while watching the first half of Thor: Love and Thunder.
The fourth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Thor series is very goofy. Too goofy. I know the series already took a major shift in tone and characterization in the previous film, Ragnarok, because audiences, and even Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, grew tired of the stoic and increasingly humorless Nordic god. The zanier tone worked perfectly in that film, but here it’s a little much. Everything is a joke and at the center of it all is a Thor who resembles a clown prince more than the god of thunder.
Is this movie really from the same director, Taika Waititi, who so successfully rebooted the franchise five years ago? Because here he seems to be trying way too hard with the humor and way too little with the action. The first couple of action sequences are the definition of banal: seemingly random shots of people swinging and throwing magical hammers and axes at indistinct CGI shadow monsters. I don’t remember Ragnarok being so indifferent to its set pieces.
I mean, I was still entertained. A crackling pace and the overall charms of the cast saw to that. Hemsworth, goofy or not, is still a great Thor; Natalie Portman returns in a beefier, more centrally heroic role after sitting out the last movie; the exceedingly charming Tessa Thompson pops up again also as (now King) Valkyrie, and Christian Bale chews some serious scenery as the main villain. And I’ll always take trying too hard over not trying at all, so while the jokey tone goes overboard, I must admit I laughed quite a bit. But it all seemed increasingly empty somehow, a little too lightweight.
That was the first half of the movie.
Mr. Waititi, who’s responsible for some great entertainment outside of the Marvel universe, like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows (both movie and hilarious tv show), knows how to shift tone and isn’t afraid of making narrative hard rights into darker territory. Love and Thunder’s tonal shifts aren’t as abrupt and painful as in the director’s other work (remember when little Jojo noticed his mom’s red shoes in JoJo Rabbit?) but they’re here also, and especially considering the flaky nature of the first half, they’re very welcome. Just as I thought “this needs to start going somewhere” for the final time, it…started going somewhere, finding a dramatic focus it was sorely lacking and moving into an overall satisfying last half of the movie.
Even the action picks up. Oh, it’s still patchworky, mostly cobbled together in the editing room kind of stuff, but the settings become more interesting. A fantastic battle in a “shadow dimension” that’s mostly in black and white except for a few highlighted accents of color comes to mind, especially as it ramps up to include a constantly shifting light source that throws ever undulating shadows around the film’s heroes and villains while in combat.
And the finale? The finale is a good mixture of fun and gravitas as it continues the perfect use of Guns N’ Roses needle drops (already alluded to in the film’s trailers), answering the question, “are they only going to focus solely on Appetite for Destruction era Guns or will they include Use Your Illusion also?” And then it pivots again with a surprisingly heartfelt ending. Talk about sticking the landing.
…Or not. As this is a Marvel movie, there are two extra scenes during the end credits and the second one kinda undoes the drama of the finale. So, do with that what you will.
Still, I definitely enjoyed the second half of the picture.
But, driving home after the screening, I began voicing my concerns with the unflinchingly goofy first half to my brother, who joined me at the screening. My bro is basically a Viking: a lover of the arctic cold, obsessed with Norse history, lore, and art, his name is even derived from the term Norseman (but that’s just a coincidence). I babbled on, “I get that Thor’s characterization has changed, but he’s too much of a flake this time around…”. My older, wiser brethren posited this theory in response: Maybe it was on purpose. The movie establishes early on that Thor, at this point in the continuing Marvel Universe story, isn’t himself because of the myriad hardships and losses he’s faced. He’s lost himself, unsure of his identity, and so he fills that hole with bravado and jokes. This makes him goofy, foolish…a flake. Thus, the movie treats him like a clown. But as the story evolves, he begins to find himself again, finds a reason to live, a reason to go on, and as he finds his place in the world, the movie finds a properly heroic place for him….
Why didn’t I think of that?
Maybe I’m the fool?