The Strenuous Comedy of Thor: Love and Thunder

Taika Waititi’s second Thor film doubles down on his trademark mix of silliness and somberness. It still works — but it might not survive another sequel.

Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth star in Thor: Love and Thunder. (Walt Disney Studios)

Taika Waititi is so busy setting a tone of burbling silliness in Thor: Love and Thunder that it makes this Marvel Cinematic Universe sequel seem very much made for children. This would be a welcome trend if only children would once again become the main audience for this stuff and everyone else would act like adults and pay to see grown-up movies. Candy colors dominate the production, and the narrative is presented as a whimsical tall tale told by cheerful stone-warrior sidekick Korg (Waititi) celebrating the adventures of Thor and his fellow galaxy guardians, who are “fighting the good fight for those who can’t fight good.” It’s the most successful Thor movie opening yet.

Waititi is following up on his profitable effort to bring larky humor to the Marvel Universe in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), which intertwined silliness and somberness. The serious strains continue in Thor: Love and Thunder, beginning with the villain’s backstory, showing us how Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale) got his fully justified grudge against the do-nothing gods and took possession of the god-slaying sword:

“The sword chose you. You are now cursed.”

“That’s funny, it doesn’t feel like a curse.”

God-repudiating and god-slaying narratives are naturally compelling, and briefly, I had high hopes for this one. But after this early sequence, the movie doesn’t do much with it. Gorr becomes just another bad guy who must be stopped, and his argument against the cruel abuses of the gods gets mostly played for laughs. One bad-apple god gets killed in a comical way — though admittedly it’s a very major god in the pantheon — in order to satisfy a vague, Gorr-instigated sense that bowing and scraping to wholly ineffective authority is probably a mistake at every level.

Serious Plot Strand Number Two involves scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Now cancer-stricken and determined to live her best life in the time remaining to her, she’s fighting cosmic evildoers alongside Thor, suiting up in Viking-wear and claiming Thor’s smashed hammer, now reconstituted, as her own weapon. This leads to a lot of comedy bits as Thor and Jane, long-since parted by a bad breakup, struggle with the awkward reunion phase of their relationship. Thor pines for both Jane and his old weapon — which makes his new battle-ax quite jealous — and endures the sympathy of his friends: “It must be hard for you to see your ex-girlfriend and ex-hammer hanging out and getting along so well.”

The comedy is handled pretty well by the naturally funny Chris Hemsworth as Thor, much more than the comedy-impaired Portman. Hemsworth is so awesomely muscular he can’t put his bulging arms down at his sides. Realizing he doesn’t really look human anymore, he plays his cartoonish handsomeness for humor. His godly self-centeredness and tendency toward pompous speechmaking maddens everyone, even when he’s claiming to be on a humble search for peace because “my superhero-ing days are over.”

Also helping to beef up the comic material is a talented cast in supporting roles. There are the Guardians of the Galaxy crew in a few early scenes, Tessa Thompson as King Valkyrie, and colorful cameos by Matt Damon, Melissa McCarthy, Sam Neill, and Luke Hemsworth as earnest Asgardian thespians reenacting cheesy stage versions of Thor adventures for tourists.

Most notably, Russell Crowe as Zeus is bringing all the hilarity he can muster. He’s so beefy and gone to seed as to be virtually unrecognizable if you still remember the intense, good-looking New Zealand–born star from back in his L.A. Confidential and Gladiator heyday. But he seems to have a sense of humor about it. He plays the temperamental top god in a sleeveless ensemble featuring a gold breastplate that shows off his flabby arms and a soft frilly underskirt that he lifts delicately when descending a giant staircase to confront Thor. Crowe is also clearly enjoying his own garbled Greek accent — at least, I guess it’s supposed to be Greek.

And if all that doesn’t amuse you, there are always the giant screaming goats pulling the flying Viking ship. And if you’re getting a feeling of strain from all these efforts to be funny, you’ve got the right sense of the movie. It seems to be trying hard and only succeeding part of the time. It could be Waititi is just getting tired.

Waititi has become omnipresent since his Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for JoJo Rabbit in 2020. In addition to the Thor films, he’s playing Blackbeard the Pirate in the HBO Max comedy Our Flag Means Death, and a recent New York Times profile is all about his crazy work schedule and media ubiquity:

On TV, Waititi, 46, has had a hand in the FX comedies “Reservation Dogs” (as a co-creator) and “What We Do in the Shadows” (a series based on a movie he co-wrote and co-directed), as well as a “Shadows” spinoff, “Wellington Paranormal.” At the movies, you can hear him voice a good guy in “Lightyear” or see him play a bad guy in “Free Guy.”

Waititi is also editing “Next Goal Wins,” a soccer comedy-drama that he co-wrote and directed for Searchlight. He’s writing a new “Star Wars” movie for Lucasfilm, a “Time Bandits” series for Apple TV+. He’s preparing two Roald Dahl projects for Netflix and adapting a graphic novel by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius for a feature film.

He’s really risking overexposure. With every new high-profile project, Waititi seems to be touring the world talking more solemnly about how he approaches comedy as the key to fighting fascism, addressing vital social issues, and having sensitive talks with others about the nature of love and what it means to be a man. He’s given a TED Talk. He participated in the Time 100 Summit on the importance of comedy in learning history.

It can really make you long for the relaxing old days of pre–JoJo Rabbit Taika Waititi, when What We Do in the Shadows (2014) was a sweet-natured and hilarious vampire mockumentary, soon to be a delightful television series, cowritten and codirected by Waititi and his old Flight of the Conchords pal Jemaine Clement, and nobody involved was talking about their comedy as an essential tool in saving the world from fascism.