Thor: Love and Thunder: Counting the Cost, by Tyler Smith
Any film genre that has been around for a while will naturally start to look inward. Its first instinct will be to comment on the more superficial elements of itself, creating films that are clever and observant, but rarely insightful. Soon, the genre will begin to question the implications of its own existence, usually resulting in a more meditative tone. The superhero film genre reached this first milestone years ago, while eventually arriving at the more reflective phase recently. TV series like Invincible and The Boys revisit Alan Moore territory by exploring the legal and moral ramifications of superpowered vigilantes, while the Infinity War chapters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe began to ask questions about the cost of being a hero. Taika Watiti’s Thor: Love and Thunder continues this trend, breaking its title character down to his most basic elements before suggesting that he could be so much more.
As one might expect, the introspection is buried below a gloss of humor, action, and absurdity, but it is ever-present, waiting in the quiet moments between set pieces. While there are elements that threaten to push the movie over the edge into pure ridiculousness, Waititi is mostly able to pull back just in time, keeping the film in a well-balanced limbo between wild fantasy and cold, hard emotional reality.
When we last saw Thor (Chris Hemsworth), he was grappling with the staggering losses he has experienced, still mourning his father, mother, brother, and friends. As a result, he has chosen to shut off his emotions and distance himself from love, opting instead to be a sort of Zen-like instrument of destruction. He spends his time sitting in quiet meditation until his current partners, the Guardians of the Galaxy, require his assistance, at which point he grabs his trusty ax and proceeds to hack his way through the enemy. In this way, Thor is essentially what audiences expect from their superheroes; a battle bot with just enough motivation and personality to keep us invested (but not too much, lest we miss out on precious fighting time). However, once Thor’s old flame Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) shows up, somehow wielding his mythical hammer, he reassesses his priorities. This runs parallel to the arc of Gorr (Christian Bale), a grieving father who has declared war on the nonchalant gods that allowed his daughter to die. As Thor and Jane face off with the now-faithless Gorr, they begin to understand the need for love and devotion, even when it comes at the cost of loss.
While the story may seem simple, Thor’s emotional journey is a complicated one. Not only does he try to understand the importance of love and connection, but he comes to truly comprehend the price it exacts on his heroism. The need for balance is one that every adult audience member can understand. We all want to leave the world better than we found it, but at what cost? Should we neglect those we love in order to help those we don’t know? Or should we make peace with making less of a difference if it means a deeper connection with our friends and family? Obviously, most of us will never have to fully grapple with the life-and-death consequences depicted in this film, but the dilemma remains, and it is to this film’s credit that we’re able to take the characters’ thoughts and actions and apply them to our own lives.
Of course, the duality of heroism is something that we’ve seen before, as far back as the Superman and Batman franchises of the 1980s and 90s. However, those films tend to arrive at an uplifting conclusion, allowing our heroes to achieve true happiness by embracing both halves of themselves, while never fully exploring the compromises necessary to do so. Thor: Love and Thunder carries with it real consequences, as not all of our heroes make it to the end of the film. And while the movie is largely inspirational, it has more than its share of melancholy, complete with a finale that is bittersweet.
That the film manages to explore these mournful beats in the midst of a fun, action-packed romp speaks to Taika Waititi’s improving abilities as a filmmaker. He is able to coax performances that are alternately silly and serious from his actors, all while telling a story that is genuinely disturbing at times. Hemsworth continues his journey as a comedic actor and Portman, unsurprisingly, is up to the challenge of being more than simply the love interest. She is a driving force, not merely in the story, but the action. These characters feel lived-in and their emotions feel organic, which is more than can be said for other films in the genre.
Our primary antagonist also stands out, and will likely be remembered as one of Marvel’s more impactful villains. Played with spiteful charisma by Christian Bale, Gorr (the God Butcher) is driven by righteous anger. His targeting of the different gods in our universe is meant as an act of liberation, attempting to free those that would grovel at the feet of those that might not be interested in protecting them. The deadening of Gorr’s heart matches Thor’s own dilemma, but the character is so much more than a dark reflection of our hero. He is fully-realized and his motivations, like those of many of the great Marvel villains, are uncomfortably relatable.
There are multiple sequences of humor and cosmic awe, as when our heroes visit a city run by Zeus (a very playful Russell Crowe), who presides over the lesser gods of the galaxy. Marvel’s cosmic films have always been at their best when embracing the inherent weirdness that would come with interplanetary travel and alien species. These sequences require a fertile imagination and Waititi shows that he is more than up to the challenge.
In the end, Thor: Love and Thunder does what any film in its position should do, but rarely does. At this point, we know to expect some goofy humor and legendary action in the Thor franchise, and Waititi could have done that easily. Instead, he chooses to take some thematic risks, telling a story that deepens its character instead of merely winding him up and letting him go. Thor himself toys with the idea of living a simpler life – one of mindless, meaningless violence – but chooses instead to go places that are uncomfortable, but necessary. Faced with a similar temptation, this film goes the same route, exploring the question of heroism and its often-heartbreaking cost.