July 14, 2022

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Thud and blunder

Movie Review
Thor: Love And Thunder
Directed By Taika Waititi

DIFFICULT to pin down Taika Waititi: he’s talented and smart but apparently tone deaf, and his films keep missing the mark. Hunt for the Wilderpeople wants to be a shaggy dog story but isn’t as funny as it thinks it is and the subplot of Hec (Sam Neill) being mistaken for a pedophile adds a sour note to an otherwise harmless comedy; What We Do in the Shadows is a funny premise (vampires of different ages and races, some legendary, share an apartment) but doesn’t seem to lead to much of anything other than a studious avoidance of cliches.

Thor: Ragnarok might be considered the spectacular introduction of Waititi’s brand of whimsy and wayward storytelling to the otherwise flavorless factory-produced content of Marvel Studios, only I keep thinking of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies and their brand of whimsy and wayward storytelling (Gunn’s also had the better mixtape). Jojo Rabbit wants to be that rare comedy about Nazis, only I keep thinking of Volker Schlondorff’s adaptation of Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum and how that was both funnier and more horrifying. I like Waititi’s ambitions and his heart is in the right place, but so far he keeps fanning air.

Enter Love and Thunder, and it’s tempting to say Waititi is now 0 for 4 for me and there’s basis for that assessment — his plotting is fuzzy as ever, his jokes fall flat as ever, and his action sequences (except for the first, where Thor [Chris Hemsworth] vanquishes an army of nondescript aliens with his usual nonchalant self-absorbed elan) flail about as pointlessly as ever. Waititi takes everything that works and doesn’t in his recent efforts from Ragnarok to Jojo Rabbit and doubles down on them, adding more unearned pathos, more narrative detours, more voiceover exposition dumps than ever; if you thought Jojo had some wild tonal shifts, Love and Thunder flips from comic to tragic to weird like a live halibut in a frying pan, trying to find a cool spot.

And I like it. Kind of. Often enjoy a filmmaker with a distinct voice indulging his perverse streak even if he hasn’t fully learned his craft, or his narrative control isn’t all that. Sometimes when Waititi swings wildly he even connects: his Zeus (Russell Crowe doing his level best to speak in an Italian accent) is a lovely comic creation, a god with an ego that if anything eclipses Thor’s; his Guardians of the Galaxy interlude is fitfully amusing —  Karen Gillian’s Nebula looks especially resentful, having maybe a two-minute cameo without any lines, just a roar of frustration (hours to put on makeup, maybe an hour to wash it off — hopefully she was paid well in royalties).

Hemsworth’s Thor was easily the dullest of superheroes, and Waititi, taking his cue from John Carpenter’s Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China, turned the thunder god’s confident machismo into a big target pinned unknowingly to his back. I missed beer paunch Thor in the otherwise flavorless Endgame but otherwise Hemsworth seemed game, seemed to be having fun, and his enjoyment is infectious even here — especially here.

Though why didn’t Thor keep his paunch? Would true love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) find it harder to fall for him again? Wouldn’t it be funnier to watch Thor become a little more defensive about his extra baggage, a little more off-balanced when fighting supervillains? Waititi and company seemed to have missed an opportunity here.

Talking of excess baggage, Christian Bale’s Gorr the God Butcher is an anchor dragging the movie down. Is he moving? Yes, especially in the opening scenes when he’s dying in a desert; unfortunately that near-death experience has also killed off the character’s sense of humor, and he goes about his business with the grim efficiency (and all the entertainment value) of an undertaker. Do I miss Cate Blanchett’s stylishly sinuous Hela with her Jack Kirby headgear? You bet your pwet —  hard to think of Christian Bale in a comic role (aside from Mary Harron’s American Psycho), and Bale and Waititi play things extra safe here, keeping his Gorr deadly serious and wit free. Blanchett’s Hela at least made her brand of evil sexy; you want to spend a little more time with her, at the peril of your immortal soul.

Then there’s Portman’s Jane Foster. Granted the movie gives Foster Mjolnir and a cool helmet, couldn’t it also give her better dialogue? Does she have to be as serious as Gorr? What law decrees that cancer victims can’t crack jokes about their condition — maybe needle Thor about his paunch? The most oddball Foster gets is when she tries to think up a catchphrase to say when using her hammer; she claims to have found one but we never find out what (Peter Gabriel? MC Hammer?). Portman and Bale (sounds like a law firm) stand like forbidding poles at the opposite end of the narrative, hands held up in warning: NO TRESPASSING, HUMOR-FREE ZONE. More Russell Crowe in a German accent please.

Waititi’s doubling down includes the visual palette —  if Gunn in his Guardian movies opted for a 1970s disco look and Waititi in Ragnarok looks like he’s broken open the world’s largest watercolor paint set, Love and Death harkens back to Frank Frazetta covers of Conan books —  lush colors, a love for extravagant costumes and muscled flesh. I do think Frazetta’s art inhabits a more twilight world, with deeper shadows, the air a touch hazy with misted blood; alas Waititi stops his adoration short of including any of that.

There’s a nice little moment when (skip to the end of the paragraph if you haven’t seen the movie!) Thor energizes all the Asgardian kids with a bit of his power, and they charge Gorr’s minions; a funny conceit but what follows doesn’t capitalize on the potential comedy of kids taking on shadow-monsters, and isn’t even decent action filmmaking. Which pretty much summarizes Waititi’s problem: he comes up with good ideas, but the execution is lacking.

I do like it — somewhat. Clumsy to the point of fumbling even its villain’s central premise (when Gorr declares his intention to kill all gods, someone — maybe Thor, I don’t remember — asks “what about innocent gods?” That for me was the movie’s single genuinely funny line: there are no innocent gods and when you really think about it Gorr is right (Nick Fury would agree with me there): we’re better off without any of them, and (again) Waititi and his collaborators missed a chance on making a more substantial potentially better movie by studiously avoiding the question raised.

Clumsy, underdeveloped, underwritten, but still the director stepping up his game (somewhat), putting what he and not the fanboys think should be on the big screen. No, Love and Thunder isn’t the best Marvel in recent memory (it isn’t even as good as Ragnarok, which I don’t consider a high bar). It is however the most enjoyable Waititi I’ve seen to date, though what it really needs more of is Russell Crowe in a Russian accent.