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A Hot Mess

There’s so much going on in “Thor: Love and Thunder” that nothing matters.

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Number Thor in the series, “Thor: Love and Thunder” suggests a reward granted by the Marvel gods to co-writer-director Taika Waititi. After the stiff-as-a-board “Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World,” each of which committed the Marvel sin of making only mortal amounts of money, Waititi was brought on to overhaul the series with “Thor: Ragnarok.” Leaning hard on Rob Reiner’s “The Princess Bride,” Waititi loosened up the apocalyptic pomp and circumstance weighing down most Marvel titles, springing flip jokes that allowed audiences to laugh at superhero cliches while lapping them up yet again anyway.

In fairness, Marvel has been using glib jokes to paper over the unending sameness of their movies since the first “Iron Man,” but Waititi’s humor has an absurdist tilt that felt new to the studio. Part of the insidious design of a formula as rigid as Marvel’s is that any difference feels new. Everyone, yes even fanboys, whether they know it or not, has been conditioned to grade these things on a bell curve that’s not applied to actual movies.

It’s easy to be cynical with Marvel, but in “Ragnarok” Waititi’s alchemy worked more often than it didn’t. And his self-consciously loose manner transformed Chris Hemsworth into a true leading man. Hemsworth seems to be going through the sort of phase that gripped Brad Pitt in the mid-to-late ‘90s. Understanding that his ludicrous hotness will get him tentpoles for at least another 10 years, and wanting something more, such as to have a career with legs, Hemsworth moonlights from Marvel with schticky roles in smaller movies. Hemsworth’s trying to show the audience that underneath his flawless body—think He-Man as a surfer—resides an ambitious and adventurous sport. See, or rather don’t see, the recent Netflix movie “Spiderhead,” in which a good George Saunders story is bastardized so that Hemsworth may riff on Oscar Isaac’s role in “Ex Machina” for some reason. Brad Pitt outgrew this sort of gimmickry, and I suspect that Hemsworth will too.

But I digress. So does “Thor: Love and Thunder.” Why don’t we roll with it? As I write this, my girlfriend walks by and reminds me to mention that Hemsworth’s hot, which I’ve done three times now. She forbade me to pan this movie, so my mixed review will not be shared with her. Hemsworth’s hotness, like Pitt’s, is so insane that it’s democratic. So unattainable that humans can relax and just enjoy it while eating the theater snacks that take us farther and farther away from Hemsworthiness. And, like Pitt, Hemsworth knows how to read a room, understanding that Waikiki allows him to maintain the illusion of playing around, thusly humanizing his studliness and saving the “Thor” brand, while he in turn grants Waikiki the sort of audience that the cult director of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” could have once only dreamed of. As symbiotic director-actor relationships go, it’s a far cry from Soderbergh and Clooney but nevertheless fun and even classy.

Buoyed by all this “Ragnarok” goodwill, “Love and Thunder” winds up being a mess though. Waititi’s reward for revitalizing “Thor,” and Hemsworth’s reward for co-shepherding roughly a 100 of these movies, is that Marvel apparently allowed them to do whatever they wanted. “Love and Thunder” has the diminished returns quality of a victory lap, a la “Iron Man 2.” Unlike “Iron Man 2,” its hot dumpster fire of clashing tones and ambitions is sporadically diverting.

It appears that Waititi knows that he can’t simply do “Ragnarok” again. He could actually, but he’s hunting bigger game in “Love and Thunder.” Instead of rehashing the prior movie’s comic sprightliness straightforwardly, Waititi nests it side by side with tragedy. “Love and Thunder” opens with stark, severe images of a desert where Gorr (Christian Bale) and his daughter are dying. They are the last of their people. Gorr appeals to his God for help and the entity mocks him. Enraged, Gorr embraces the influence of a mystical sword that can vanquish Gods while sickening his own soul. Engorged with power, Gorr goes on the requisite universe-threatening killing spree. Meanwhile, Jane (Natalie Portman) from the first two “Thor” movies is dying of cancer. A weapon similarly calls out to her in a time of crisis: Thor’s hammer Mjölnir, which was broken to pieces in “Ragnarok.” The hammer turns Jane into a new Thor, with similar hotness metrics, capable of slewing the requisite armies of monsters, while speeding up her cancer.

There’s a great idea here. A rhyming hero and villain who are granted powers that accelerate the very weaknesses that drove them to acquire said powers to begin with. Such a premise demands to be taken seriously, or to be treated as searing melodrama. Waititi does that in fits and starts, in between jokey scenes in which giant goats nag a crew while Thor is reprimanded in the manner of a jilted lover by his new weapon, an ax called Stormbreaker. The tonal discombobulating is meant to signal that anything goes, in the manner of a pop masterpiece like “Galaxy Quest.” But “Love and Thunder” just as often suggests a spit-balling session that never quite grew into a script.

I got hung up on certain things in “Love and Thunder.” Jane calls herself Thor, as the hammer grants her flowing blond locks and a suit of magical armor. When Gorr calls her “lady Thor” he is scolded severely so that, one presumes, a feminist point may be made. But is Thor a job title? I thought it was the dude’s name, which it is. Why steal his name, and isn’t this a missed opportunity to skewer male anxiety? The “New Asghard,” a replacement for the planet that was destroyed at the end of “Ragnarok,” is now a tourist attraction in America that resembles Salem, Massachusetts. Why? It’s chintzy. Probably because Waititi wants a few scenes that evoke the village vibe of the “Harry Potter” series as well as the mood of many ‘80s-era horror films. Things just seem to happen in this movie, haphazardly. Such scenes are thrown into the stew along with the tearjerking illness-of-the-week stuff and the sometimes very funny sketch comedy bits. There are also more arena rock songs, with Guns-n-Roses getting a prolonged shout-out. Another thing. If gods are killable, are they gods? It’s tough to tell whether this plot device is a signal of Waititi’s ambition or indifference. I know it comes from the comics (God forbid we ever question those sacred scrolls) but I’ve never fully understood why gods needed to dress up and fight on the front lines beside us. The gods of the “Thor” series have always suggested royal humans or, you know, garden variety superheroes. If they are tangible, requiring no faith, then why do they matter? Waititi flirts with playing with fire, using Gorr’s resentment as a symbol for the very real erosion of religious conviction in the consumerist world over the decades. No less than Zeus, played by Russell Crowe at the height of faded-star decadence, rues how superheroes have replaced gods as figureheads of worship—a source of anger that unites cinephiles, who wish fanboys would pay attention to better movies, with the religiously devout. Another great idea, especially coming from a studio, Disney, that has a virtual monopoly on pop culture. Waititi sticks his toe into such waters but doesn’t take the plunge.

There’s so much going on in “Love and Thunder” that nothing matters. Gorr is surprisingly menacing at times, suggesting a blend of Nosferatu with Death from “The Seventh Seal” and imbued with righteous, desiccating fury by Bale. Other times, Gorr reminded me of another Death altogether: the one from the “Bill and Ted” movies, with a soupcon of ‘90s-era Uncle Fester. Waititi springs images of stark, poetic beauty, such as a sequence that’s shot in black-and-white, with Thor and Jane battling Gorr atop an asteroid something-0r-other. Elsewhere, however, “Love and Thunder” courts the cheesy stream-of-consciousness of comic book movies like “Batman and Robin,” with magical children shooting lightning out of their eyes and legions of giant monsters that make about as much of an impression as any other CGI ghoulie these days.

The mind wanders. I want out of this review, as I wanted out of this engagingly weird yet stifling movie.

You’ve seen better, you’ve seen worse. You may not remember much of this movie by weekend’s end. “Ragnarok” is funnier and more consistent, while “Love and Thunder” is probably more personal. Like that song from the ‘90s, Waititi seems to be asking: What if God was one of us? Or: What if Marvel made frenzied, neurotic rock operas, rather than product?

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