de facto film reviews 2 stars

When filmmaker Taika Waititi, known for quirky, heartfelt indies such as Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows, joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it felt like a perfect match. His Thor: Ragnarok was a massive step up from the stiff, lifeless solo outings for Chris Hemsworth’s lovable God of Thunder. Waititi’s colorful, Flash Gordon-inspired visuals and playful, cheeky sense of humor finally gave Hemsworth’s hero the film he deserved. In the five years since Ragnarok, Waititi has won an Oscar for his screenplay for his WW2 satire JoJo Rabbit and has proven to be a major figure in Hollywood. Returning to the MCU, Waititi’s follow-up, Love and Thunder, retains many of Waititi’s charms, doubling down on its Saturday morning cartoon tone and upping the hair metal count significantly. Unfortunately, the ratio for soulless construction and vibrant spectacle is 2:1.

If the tone of Thor: Ragnarok was established by Led Zeppelin, Love and Thunder is established by Gun N’ Roses and Dio. Thor, now having lost his entire family, with his homeplace of Asgard now turned into New Asgard, a commercialized little village run by now-King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), has since cleaned himself up following the events of Avengers: Endgame. In the time since, he has taken up fighting alongside the Guardians of the Galaxy, who are beyond his himbo antics. When the mysterious Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale, making a mighty return to the Superhero genre) attacks New Asgard, taking off with the town’s children, Thor enlists his pal Korg (Waititi), Valkyrie, and his ex-girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, returning to the franchise) who has since donned Mjolnir to become the new Mighty Thor, to stop Gorr from opening a gate to Eternity.

Waititi’s ability to match singular laughs with honest, emotional depth has always been one of the New Zealander’s strengths. Here, that fine line is consistently fumbled over. Waititi’s brand of humor is in full swing, and it does work. Hemsworth’s gifts as a comedic actor are still in top-form. Waititi implements the use of new sight gags such as powerful screaming goats, that… well, scream. The cast comradery is on point, with Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie still proving to be pitch-perfect. Russell Crowe is hysterical making an appearance as the god, Zeus, who loves nothing but living like a god and throwing orgies. Despite the amount of humor that works, it aggressively fights against any genuine emotional gravitas. The film opens with an artful and heart-wrenching sequence of Gorr’s tragic backstory, with Christian Bale delivering a performance that far exceeds what’s typically expected of a Marvel baddie. Bale’s Gorr is a frightening and sadistically playful villain whose performance is emotionally rich and layered. The villain is by far the most interesting character in the film and stands next to Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger as the best villain in the MCU. When Waititi is exploring the tragedy in his characters, namely Thor and Jane, you can feel the filmmaker reaching for some sort of resonance, and he sometimes gets there. Unfortunately, the cheeky humor undercuts so much of depth, making much of it feel unearned.

Taika Waititi proved with Ragnarok that he can pull off some visually astonishing set pieces that exist almost exclusively in a digital environment. With Love and Thunder, there is one sequence in particular, filmed in monochromatic black and white that is downright stunning. This sequence practically feels like a Frank Miller comic, specifically Sin City, and Waititi saves some of his best compositions for this sequence, as well. However, for every visually unique or inventive sequence, there’s an additional three to four that are just visually repugnant. There are entire sections of Thor: Love and Thunder that don’t look remotely finished, with a staggering amount of poor vfx; a sign that the Marvel machine is, indeed, in full effect.

Marvel’s over-producing is at its most soul-crushing here. The easy thing would be to blame the pandemic, but this has been a consistency in Marvel’s productions for quite some time now. When Chloe Zhao made Kevin Feige discover exteriors and practical locations with Eternals, it felt like a breath of fresh air, but one that also sharply contradicted the Marvel formula. Now, we’ve continued to fall down the rabbit hole of shoddy green screen compositing and fuzzy-looking digital backgrounds. Despite hundreds of millions being thrown at the screen, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single practical film set. There are entire sequences where its clear the four actors on-screen together aren’t even in the same room. So much of the first hour features the most egregiously inept and lazily produced filmmaking in modern blockbusters, which is saying a lot. There is also no narrative drive until over an hour into the runtime, making that first hour feel much slower than it actually is.

You can never shake the feeling the whole film is rushed from the very beginning. There’s a lack of heart from Thor: Love and Thunder that was most assuredly felt in Ragnarok. Waititi’s direction bounces back and forth between hack job and spurts of inspiration. A majority of the opening 30 minutes feel like deleted scenes from a different movie, with half the Guardians of the Galaxy not having any dialogue. Countless vfx shots stick out as unfinished, but hey, when you overwork and underpay your union-less effects artists, this is what you’re left with. The cinematography can be brutal, with harsh lighting, most notably on Portman, showing the Oscar-winner unnecessarily caked in make-up. Credit where it’s due, Waititi’s progressive values feel genuine. Characters get to own their sexuality and unlike many of Disney’s previously pandering attempts, here it feels natural and not in the studio’s typical three lines of dialogue or screen time that can be easily editing out for international markets kind of way. 

Thor: Love and Thunder is a frustrating, often baffling, experience. For every inventive or visually striking sequence, there’s three to four cheap, ugly-looking ones to counter it. Waititi’s usually sharp blend of thrills, cheeky laughs and emotional depth is haphazardly constructed, leaving a mess of a film that has plenty of high marks, but continues Marvel’s soul-crushing sense of filmmaking.