Every moment Christian Bale is on the screen in Thor: Love and Thunder is manna in the Marvel desert, a gift from the gods of villainous comic book scenery-chewing. The man who was Christopher Nolan’s Batman has been cast this time as a vengefully vampiric heavy: Gorr, the so-called God Butcher, a disillusioned disciple hell-bent on destroying the deities who ignored his prayers and abandoned his dying family. Bale looks fearsome in the role, with his hairless graveyard emaciation and blackened dagger smile. But he’s also acting his method ass off under all that makeup — bringing a blend of sour fury and curdled heartache to what could have been just another stock addition to the Avengers rogues’ gallery.
The truth is that Gorr, as presented by Bale’s deliciously committed horror-show performance, might have wandered in from an entirely different movie. Only during his welcome but incongruous scenes does Love and Thunder ever threaten to accumulate any gravity. This fourth Thor movie is the second to be written and directed by Taika Waititi, but don’t expect more of the inspired buddy comedy of his Thor: Ragnarok. Having apparently used up all of his best gags in the last installment, the Kiwi funnyman has this time emerged with a sketchy cartoon diversion that often feels like a wan spoof of its own franchise. It’s the rare Marvel movie that barely holds together.
When last we saw the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth, coasting more than usual on our assumed affection for his herculean himbo), he was carrying some extra depression weight and preparing to embark on a new adventure with that ragtag band of cuddly outlaws, the Guardians of the Galaxy. Love and Thunder spends its inelegant opening act racing through that premise at full speed: Chris Pratt and company log a couple of near-wordless scenes (their group cameo has the skimpiness of a failed contract negotiation), while Thor sheds the extra pounds via a training montage over too quickly to hit the intended retro-cheese sweet spot. Papering over these early scenes is a blatantly expository voice-over from Waititi, reprising the role of kindhearted rock monster and newly minted backstory reiterator Korg.
The script, which Waititi co-wrote with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, draws heavily from Jason Aaron’s acclaimed, multiyear run on the Thor comic — a striking collection of big-canvas, big-picture stories that spanned eons and star systems. Love and Thunder awkwardly mashes two key arcs of his tenure together. On the one hand, this is the story of Thor heading out to rescue a gaggle of kidnapped Asgardian children from Bale’s fallen believer, who’s sent plenty of lesser gods on a one-way, premature trip to Valhalla. On the other, it’s the hastily set-up tale of how the scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) gets her hands on her old squeeze’s magic hammer and assumes the mantle of Thor.
There’s romantic/comic potential in the reunion of these literally star-crossed lovers. Hemsworth and Portman had good chemistry in the original Thormuch of it courtesy of the way the latter spiked her scientific curiosity with a dollop of desire for her awesomely abbed love interest. Yet Love and Thunder curiously fails to fully reignite that flame, or even get much sitcom cringe out of Thor being forced to essentially collaborate with his super ex-girlfriend. The promise of a Marvel spin on the comedy of remarriage is largely unfulfilled — though as missed opportunities go, that’s got nothing on the way Waititi denies us even a single scene of Jane discovering and reveling in her freshly acquired godlike abilities. (The film elides that fun in favor of a “surprise” reveal, already ruined by the trailers, of her in full regalia.)
Love and Thunder is scattershot as comedy, never finding its groove. The usual MCU quippage gives way to a sub-Mel Brooksian lampoon of Clash of the Titans fare, with Russell Crowe scoring some faint chuckles as a vain, ineffectual Zeus. Waititi plays the notoriously uneven effects and gaudy production design of this cinematic universe for deliberate laughs; mileage will vary on whether he lands them. His stabs at satire, like the revelation that the New Asgard settlement has become a tourist destination, lack purpose or precision. When the recently crowned King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, given not nearly enough to do after her more spirited debut in Ragnarok) appears in an Old Spice commercialit’s difficult to tell if that’s a wink at Marvel’s move into cross-promotion or just product placement disguised as humor.
One is reminded that Waititi made the unfortunate Holocaust crowd-pleaser Jojo Rabbit between these tentpoles. Love and Thunder ultimately betrays itself as an expression of the same egregiously sentimental worldview — this is another only fitfully funny joke machine that extols, in its syrupy backstretch, the transformative power of love. (Thor’s whole journey, you see, is learning to open his heart again.) At least the movie will offend only aesthetic sensibilities. While Ragnarok pillaged Zeppelin’s songbook for righteous (if obvious) needle drops, the new Thor strains for throwback Sunset Strip kitsch with no less than four Guns N’ Roses hits on the soundtrack.
If Love and Thunder never quite collapses into complete jokey irrelevance, it’s because Bale is around to pull it back from the abyss, and into occasional detours of genuine menace. He gets a great introduction, suffering in the arid wilderness like a Christ figure before finding his dark purpose — an opening scene that promises a much grimmer, heavier opus than the one that follows. Later, Gorr sets a trap for the heroes in an interstellar dead zone, and Waititi literally leeches the color out of the frame for a set piece that evokes, vaguely but strikingly, the doomy monochromatic beauty of an Akira Kurosawa battle. The sequence is practically a metaphor for the productive dampening effect of Bale’s turn: whenever he shows up, he sucks the Day-Glo silliness right out of the movie, bringing it to dramatic life.