Movies

Has The MCU Formula Broken Down? Exploring The Strange Contradictions Of ‘Thor: Love And Thunder’

Usually when I say a movie is “weird” I mean that as a compliment. Weirdness can be an expression of humanity, something refreshing to feel in an art form that feels increasingly focus-grouped and factory made. Yet Thor: Love And Thunder doesn’t feel weird in any of the humanity-affirming kind of ways. It’s weird more in a desperate, humanity-pushed-to-its-breaking-point kind of way, like it had so many commercial requirements pressing on its artistic sensibilities that the whole thing popped like a zit.

The chief operating principle of MCU characters is that they can’t die. This “IP” — and that’s what characters are in this universe, intellectual property, assets meant to appreciate, like stocks or NFTs — can only replicate and metastasize, reappearing often enough that they still count towards the parent company’s ledger. Thor:Love and Thunder is a movie, sorta, but mostly it’s a substrate for all that IP. The portfolio is all here: Thor, Jane Foster, Loki, Heimdall, the whole gang from Guardians of the Galaxy, Korg, and a whole bunch of characters whose names you probably never bothered to learn. Because why would you? If every character becomes a major character, soon none of them are.

The narrative Taika Waititi and his co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson construct to try to contain all this begins with Gorr (Christian Bale), a grey bald dude with racing stripes on his head who’s dying of thirst on a distant planet, along with his daughter. Gorr prays pathetically to his god to save them, to no avail. Transported into that god’s realm (by what method I honestly don’t know, I looked down for a second to let another patron pass and missed it) he meets his maker, a lounging aristocrat type who couldn’t care less about Gorr’s problems. This god (a lesser one, I guess?) underlines the point by lifting puny Gorr up by the throat in a scene Prometheus did better. “But where’s my eternal reward?” Gorr blubbers.

To which his God responds, essentially, that the mortal’s lot is to worship, serve his god, and die — no reward! Only suffering and death!

Pretty dark for a kids’ movie, eh? Instead, through the magic of a Macguffin, Gorr transforms into “Gorr the God Butcher” slaying gods the galaxy over. Which is kind of cool, in a metaphysical “Let’s Lynch The Landlord” kind of way. Yet Thor is determined not to let it happen for some reason. Is it self-preservation, because Thor is “the god of thunder?”

Love And Thunder breezes through some possible explanations for this (chaos! collateral damage! Thor is lonely!) and then just has Gorr kidnap some kids. Meanwhile, a strange glibness ensues, along with characters frequently saying “shit.” It’s like Waititi half realized that not much of his movie actually qualified as comedy to adults, so he tried to compensate with the maximum number of S-words in a PG-13 movie.

Waititi’s approach to the material is truly bizarre, yet sort of understandable given what’s being asked of him. How do you keep this many characters alive and relevant in a single story that has nothing to do with them? It feels like the demands of commerce led Taika Waititi to invent a whole new Thor-centric religion for Love And Thunder, while the necessity to maintain his own personal brand, of “subversive funny guy,” led him to sort of make fun of that religion every 30 seconds. The result plays like a paranoid schizophrenic who keeps interrupting his own ravings with one liners. Waititi leans on death to be both stakes and punchline, ending up with some kind of self-slaughtering sacred cow.

Like a sitcom, Love And Thunder has an A story, a B story, and a C story (and some more). The A story is about Gorr the God Butcher butchering gods (he must be stopped for some reason!). The B story is about Thor being lonely at first, and later about his one true love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) being stricken with stage 4 cancer. Foster employs some magic (again, eliding here) that makes her look basically like a deep-fake Natalie Portman head on a female MMA fighter’s body for 70% of the film, which is very distracting. The C story is about Tessa Thompson’s character, Valkyrie, whose accent is as distracting as Portman’s body (sort of Mid-Atlantic with shades of Kiwi), who now runs a kind of space-Viking themed colonial village, where A-list actors cameo as Thor reenactors.

How are any of these things related, you ask? It’s hard to say without sounding like you’re having a stroke. Some of Waititi’s choices are admirably bold in a vacuum, but there’s so little connective tissue holding this skeleton together that the whole thing is like a bag of weird bones rolling down a hill. In a movie universe so divorced from any recognizable rules of cause and effect, what does it even mean to butcher a god, to die of cancer, to lose a child, to fall in love?

Having to explain all that would probably take forever and be kind of tedious, which Waititi seems to understand, but his solution is to just skip straight to zany jokes. Like that there’s a Thor-reenacting Asgardian potemkin village where Matt Damon lives, or that Korg the Kiwi-accented Rock Man (voiced by Waititi) has a pair of giant screaming goats. People in my screening audience laughed uproariously every time the goats screamed, as if all they needed for comedy was a sound cue. Which made me feel like I was having a mental breakdown. Sorry, I can’t laugh until you explain why this otherwise cutesy kids movie has stage 4 cancer and god murder.

Gorr, Eternia, “Omnipotent City,” the Bifrost, Zeus (played by Russell Crowe with a Greek accent) — what even is this weird ball of random shit? Who is it for? Waititi makes fun of Asgardian death, in which the deceased turn into clouds of glitter and float away (as seen in Thor: The Dark World), only to try to stage an earnest one later in his own film. Marvel has spent their last seven movies training us not to trust any onscreen death as permanent but still rely on them for narrative gravity. Taika Waititi seems to think he can carry us through a ludicrous story on the strength of a performative comedian’s confidence alone, but it’s just too transparent.

For a long time, Marvel had a formula for these movies, which was irritatingly generic, but seemed to produce a fair-to-middling movie every time out. From Eternals through Doctor Strange 2 to this (all with directors who seem more branding device than auteur), it feels like that formula has broken down. As if the MCU suits are finally asking more of MCU creatives than those creatives can bear.

‘Thor: Love And Thunder’ is available only in theaters July 8th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.

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