Mild spoilers for Thor: Love and Thunder
Fans, general moviegoers, and critics can point to recurring elements that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), both its films and Disney+ shows. With so many entries under its belt, it’s no surprise producer Kevin Feige and company have found their groove and play up the qualities that shot the franchise to unparalleled success. Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder is, unbelievably, the 29th installment in the overarching MCU storyline.
What exactly constitutes an MCU movie? Great casting, stories of heroism inspired by the original comic book runs, giant blues rays falling from the sky during the climax, and teases for subsequent films. Somewhere along the way, comedy became a key component. Sure, the original Iron Man and Captain America have some funny bits. It’s mass entertainment after all. But at some point, comedy, both the variety and volume of jokes per film, increased. Some MCU installments are, essentially, comedies in of themselves. When stories feature end-of-the-world stakes, mythic characters whose exploits live forever, are so many gags really the best option? Thor: Love and Thunder is the ultimate example of this trend as of now.
But first, to appreciate the punchline there needs to be set-up.
Joke Factory Ground Zero
The first few MCU films feature some levity to balance the drama and action. That said, however talented, Joe Johnston, Kenneth Branagh, and Jon Favreau are not comedic geniuses. Irrespective of the public’s opinion of Joss Whedon (you can read about allegations controversies here), he can certainly crack out solid one-liners, soaked in pop culture references. His hiring to write and direct The Avengers, the biggest, most important movie of them all (how quaint), was surprising. He earned his spurs with television projects, not motion pictures that make or break a billion-dollar franchise.
Lo and behold, the first Avengers was a remarkable success, both critically and financially. More to the point, many people thought it was hysterical. “We have a Hulk!”, “Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?”, “I understood that reference!”, etc. Say what one will about its writer-director, the 2012 mega-hit overflows with comedy.
From that point on the Feige gameplan adjusted its approach. A lot of what made Phase 1 successful continued, but with a more generous peppering of humour. One year later audiences got Iron Man 3, written by Shane Black, also known for his comedic bent. Summer 2014 featured The Guardians of the Galaxy, 2015 Ant-Man and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Come to the theatre for the MCU. See action, spectacle, and laugh. A lot. Laugh all the time.
How About a Taste of Kiwi?
By the time Marvel got around to planning the third Thor film, a change was needed. The first two featured a few chuckles but were predominantly somber affairs. That was no longer the vibe the studio rode.
Enter New Zealander director Taika Waititi.
Coming off the lauded Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi seemed to fit precisely what the MCU was doing more and more of. Clever, a bit zany, a bit madcap, yet capable of delivering a solid story.
He directed 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, a movie that took everything audiences thought they knew about the cinematic God of Thunder and threw it in a colourful, laugh riot blender whether they liked it or not. The response was largely favourable, in addition to flexing impressive box office muscle. People loved how cooky it was. It threw everything on the wall to see what stuck. Thor himself was often, albeit not exclusively, the butt of the joke.
In Norse mythology word the ragnarök refers to a series of cataclysmic events that see will the death and destruction of society. Yes, the villainess Hela (Cate Blanchette) is literally the goddess of death but make her funny. She’s been trapped by her father Odin for centuries, but once unleashed have her be sassy like a 21st-century New Yorker. Kill Odin. Sunder Asgard, turn it to dust. But look! Jeff Goldblum is being a hilarious version of his popularized persona. Coldly murder the supporting characters from the previous films but make sure the heroes fly their ship through a portal known as the “Devil’s Anus.”
The article is not meant to be contrarian for contrarian’s sake. There’s no point in that. Nevertheless, however analytical one strives to be, any published piece about pop culture will be from a certain point of view. The movie is certainly funny. It’s downright hilarious at times. But very little of the drama is given its due because there are so many jokes. By the time Thor gets his mojo back just before Hela cuts him down, it feels as if we’ve spent two hours knee-slapping rather than witnessing a character arc.
Thor: Love, Thunder, and Laughter
Which brings us to the latest Thor picture, also directed by Waititi. Notwithstanding outliers, the simplest way of putting is thus: if you thought Ragnarok was the bee’s knees, odds are you’ll like Love and Thunder. If you were indifferent towards the previous entry, that probably won’t change with the fourth. If you disliked the third installment, well, you get the drift.
Its opening scene in which a pre-god butcher Gorr (Christian Bale) loses his daughter suggests that perhaps Waititi will take the material with a pinch more seriousness this time. It’s quite effective and sad. Might this be an adventure in which the gods are punished for erring astray in their relationship with their devotees? Within minutes Gorr, who had been lost in a desert storm, finds his way to his deity’s lush paradise, replete with fauna, flora, and food. Heartbroken, tired, on death’s bed, Gorr informs his god that most of the followers have been wiped out but that he is still ready to accept whatever great reward their religious teachings have promised. The deity, dressed in a costume that would fit right in a low-budget high school play, cartoonishly laughs in his face, mocking the fact that his idols still believed in a silly “great reward.”
Ah yes, this is a Taika Waititi film.
Ironically, or perhaps even intentionally, the opening sequence’s tonal dissonance resonates throughout the picture. Again, at the risk of sounding repetitive, Waititi has a great knack for comedy. Of that, there is no doubt. When Jane Foster (Nathalie Portman), the new Mighty Thor, is told by ex-beau Thor they are on their way to see Zeus, she is aghast. “ZEUS Zeus?!” she inquires for clarification, to which the protagonist admits he doesn’t know if Zeus has a second name. Sif makes a brief return. Missing one arm, she lies wounded on a battlefield but is happy she will enter Valhalla. Thor informs her that to reach the promised hereafter one must die in battle, not after. He follows up by clumsily reassuring her that perhaps her arm is in Valhalla.
There is unquestionably good stuff here, material that will assuredly have audiences erupting in laughter. As it should for that matter. But much like with the previous chapter, Waititi attempts to balance the gags, which come at the viewer like bullets from a chain gun, with very hefty drama. Children from New Asgard are kidnapped and kept in Gorr’s shadow world. He intentionally terrifies them with mean-spirited tricks. The gods, supposedly supreme beings, are played for nothing more than a barrel of laughs. A character is dying of cancer.
So what’s the punchline?
Is laughter always the best medicine? Exceptions aside, Marvel movies fair very well financially, with critics, and audiences. Chances are Love and Thunder will perform well too. Ragnarok did and this new installment is very similar to it. And to be clear: there is nothing inherently wrong with that. The public will enjoy whatever suits its fancy. Fair play.
A lot of people think Thor and Dark World could have been less drab. They aren’t entirely wrong. Now though it feels as if almost nothing is to be taken seriously, even when Asgard’s very existence lies in the balance, the queen of death slaughters thousands, gods laugh in our face, children are threatened and stage 4 cancer hits. There is hardly any balance.
Laughter can indeed be very effective medicine. But so too can sober second thought.