Friday 15 July 2022

Bad god: "Thor: Love and Thunder"

Taika Waititi is out of good ideas. 2017's Thor: Ragnarok revivified both a moribund sub-franchise and a wider movie universe reeling from the fall of the Avengers, in large part by maintaining a sense of summer-special fun about material others had approached as if it were a matter of life and death. (It also generated two of the three truly memorable MCU images.) Thor: Love and Thunder, by contrast, is a sorry splurge of recycled ideas, semi-ideas, bad ideas, and non-starting ideas; Waititi has clearly been too busy lounging around on yachts with Rita Ora to exercise much in the way of originality or quality control. The new movie replays elements of Ragnarok (the throwaway tone, the stories-within-stories, the play-within-a-film) to far lesser effect; it reunites with the Guardians of the Galaxy, who - as led by the all-new, non-funny Chris Pratt - have never seemed more like a middling streaming-TV ensemble; it introduced this viewer to characters from actual streaming shows that I don't watch and now have even less of a desire to catch up with; and it circles back to touch base with characters from those earlier, duller Thor films, primarily the ever-blah Natalie Portman. Compounding all these throwbacks: way too much Guns 'n' Roses on the soundtrack, as if that band could represent anything in 2022 beyond the dullest excesses of corporate rock. Newer ideas include a menagerie of screaming goats, perhaps the worst idea a Marvel movie has ever had, presumably here because somebody's nephew showed their uncle a clip of same on the Internet before the pandemic. (Whether or not they were funny then remains debatable; shoved in your face by a multi-million-dollar movie, they only register as aggressively unfunny.)

Within thirty minutes, Love and Thunder has undone all the goodwill Ragnarok generated: it's not good for much, this opening stretch, but it may just stand as the most prominent example of effective self-sabotage modern American movies have offered us. The high bar Top Gun: Maverick set for this summer's releases suddenly vanishes, stratospherically out of sight. Instead, your eyes are left picking over the kind of wannabe blockbuster that results when a creative is primarily engaged with lounging around on yachts with Rita Ora: half-arsed, distractible, tossed-off. So you settle in, grateful at least for the multiplex aircon, if set to wondering whether anything else here is actually going to work. For five minutes, the film comes close to recapturing some of the joy of Ragnarok, with the introduction of Russell Crowe - whose mid-career transformation into a Ray Winstone-like character actor has been one of this century's biggest surprises, and most reliable pleasures - as no less a figure than Zeus. For two or three seconds, the new film surpasses the joy of Ragnarok, as you realise Crowe will be expressing all his dialogue in a thick Greek accent, including the immortal line "this is not a rudey-nudey festival" after accidentally removing Thor (Chris Hemsworth) of his clothes. Alas and alack, Crowe is but one more playing card the film tosses absent-mindedly towards the hat, vanishing offscreen shortly thereafter only to reappear amid the end credits to set up the next chapter in the Thor legend. This Zeus is but a colourful signpost, where there might have been a memorable antagonist, and perhaps even a conflict worthy of the heavens.

What remains recovers from early disaster to tout yet more of the same Marvel mediocrity: lumpy, infodump dialogue, interrupted by setpieces shot, cut and lit with less dynamism than Tessa Thompson's Thor-adjacent First Direct ad, and neither the dramatic stakes nor the spatial geography to involve us. It's this absence of apparent care (jokingly played up by Waititi and Thompson in a viral video designed to promote their quote-unquote efforts) which bugged me throughout Love and Thunder; where Ragnarok appeared genuinely carefree - and thus presented as a blast of fresh air after the wearyingly self-serious, self-involved Avengers mythos - Love and Thunder crosses the line into open carelessness. This narrative never matters. Individual scenes don't matter. The cameos don't matter. Christian Bale, for heaven's sake, doesn't matter. The stuff that's meant to matter - Thor's reunion with the Portman character at a terminally late stage in her cancer treatment - is approached with either brisk indifference (a neat tying-up of this universe's loose ends) or outright cynicism (a means of wringing a few tears at the end of a story that scarcely merits them). The jokes that once made light of how none of this really matters are no longer funny enough to justify the fact none of this really matters; and, with the exception of the odd, fleeting establishing shot, it all looks like crap Saturday-morning television. Either they've spent no money on this one, or - more likely - the budget went on the returning actors' paycheques, which makes Waititi and Thompson's viral joshing at the expense of their underpaid technicians seem even more like punching down.

In retrospect, Ragnarok now looks like the work of a creative who was keener than most to seize the big brass ring, even if it meant playing joker in the court of corporate mythmaking. For a while, the ring was seized, as were the yachts and the trophy girlfriends. But whether it's the exhausting number of projects Waititi has on the go (including the cable-TV hits What We Do in the Shadows and Our Flag Means Death) or simply the high price paid for having your irreverence co-opted by the studio system, Love and Thunder smacks of mischief misappropriated, misdirected and misapplied. The Waititi of Ragnarok might have been tempted into subversion around those scenes in which our brawny hero saves (and lectures) the children of this particular universe. Here, like those bloody goats, these scenes seem like an overt sop - a plea for help - aimed towards the one audience who might be just juvenile enough to guzzle down content this fundamentally indifferent. (In the field of corporate endeavour, it pays to get 'em hooked on this dross early: they won't know any better.) Thus, after giving off a few sparks of comic ambition, the MCU continues with its ongoing project of reducing expectations. We laughed at the start of the last decade when its creative prime movers compared New Marvel's early offerings to Shakespeare, and we mocked how far those films fell from their goal, but at least they had a target in mind. Barely aspiring to the status of cinema, let alone must-see summer event cinema, Love and Thunder returns comic-book material to something like its original formula: cobbled-together twaddle you'd have to be direly underdeveloped or desperately uncool to respond to with any degree of enthusiasm.

Thor: Love and Thunder is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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