By far the most arresting character in Thor: Love and Thunder, the twenty-bajillionth Marvel movie, is the splendidly named villain Gorr the God Butcher. Bald, covered in scars, and draped in monklike robes, Gorr (played by Christian Bale) is a vengeful wraith who wields a mystical blade and has only one goal in mind: killing gods. Any deity he can get his hands on, no matter the faith or civilization they belong to. Gorr’s philosophy is that these immortal beings have grown complacent, doing nothing to help their followers and instead basking in their faded glory. His solution is simple: total annihilation. He may well have the right idea.
Within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, gods are merely another brand of hero, superhumans imbued with ancient powers for unknown reasons. Thor may be a real Norse deity, but he’s also a caped, lantern-jawed hunk played by Chris Hemsworth who counts Captain America and the Hulk among his best pals. Love and Thunder is Thor’s fourth solo movie, and Hemsworth’s ninth Marvel film appearance overall. The charismatic Australian actor shows no sign of slowing down, cheerfully popping up as often as he can to swing his big hammer around. And I’ve wholeheartedly enjoyed the performance. But Love and Thunder is such a hasty-feeling mess of a movie, it might get the viewer to come around to Gorr’s bloodthirsty perspective.
The film is particularly disappointing given that it’s directed by Taika Waititi, the nimbly funny New Zealander who made Thor’s previous installment, Ragnarok, a smash hit and generally has a strong track record of mixing tones, swerving from silly to sentimental with practiced ease. But almost every scene in Love and Thunder seems like it was thrown together 30 seconds before the cameras started rolling. The movie has a lot to juggle: It has to deliver a crossover with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy; reintroduce Thor’s former love interest, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman); and set her up with thunder-god powers. It also has to invest a new sense of purpose in Thor himself, who’s become something of a lonely wanderer after losing every family member over the course of several Marvel entries. Somewhere in all that, Gorr needs to make his debut, along with many of the other gods on his kill list, including the corpulent Zeus (Russell Crowe).
It’s far too much. Marvel movies usually excel at this kind of plate-spinning, adding in self-contained arcs for their protagonists while keeping the momentum going on all the larger-scale plots for the next few films. But Love and Thunder just can’t settle on a goal for its hero, and any bigger Marvel business has felt especially irrelevant of late as the franchise tries to move beyond its OG heroes, the Avengers. The return of a major actor such as Portman should feel compelling, but she’s simply part of some busy wallpaper. Bale and Crowe are instead the film’s biggest standouts, because they dare to supersize their performances.
Bale approaches the role of Gorr with appropriate relish. In a genre that’s often suffused with fake-looking CGI adornments, Gorr is refreshingly old-school in his creepiness, a cross between Nosferatu and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s seething Child Catcher. Waititi’s explanation for Gorr’s vendetta serves as the film’s tragic introduction and is the one element that rings true. The character’s origin story reminds viewers of Ragnarok’s pointed depiction of Thor and his Asgardian cohort as warlike colonizers. Almost every god Gorr encounters is mordantly disinterested in actually serving the greater good, even for their devoted followers. That callousness is enough to infuse him (and the audience) with some righteous fury.
Zeus, whom Crowe plays with the energy of a particularly horny Greek diner owner, is the most extreme example of indifference, presiding over a meeting of deities with an agenda that mostly focuses on who’s coming to the next orgy. But at the start of Love and Thunder, Thor appears similarly adrift, fighting nonurgent alien crime with Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the other Guardians of the Galaxy, whom he linked up with in the last Avengers film. Though his muscles are resplendent, his heart isn’t in it. He’s even less interested in running things in New Asgard, the Nordic fishing village that now functions as the home of fellow gods such as Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).
Gorr’s bloody crusade and Jane’s mysterious reappearance eventually shake Thor out of his reverie. But the action doesn’t exactly give him purpose—instead, he spends the whole movie chasing after dangling narrative threads. Waititi’s loose, jokey dialogue style starts to feel equally aimless, and the dramatic circumstances around Jane possessing the magic hammer Mjolnir get particularly short shrift, robbing Portman’s return of any real triumph. Love and Thunder offers the usual lightning-streaked action and tossed-off gags, but this time, there’s not enough heft behind the flashiness.