For Thor: Love and Thunder, Taika Waititi delivers a masturbatory and macho step backward for Marvel’s mightiest Avenger.
There comes a moment in every new superhero’s career, before joining the pantheon, when they get sized up by the biggest swinging dick in town. For Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) it comes in the somber and magisterial Avengers: Endgame (2019), when, as the broken-hearted Avengers pow-wow a last-ditch attempt to alter Earth’s genocide by Titanic warlord Thanos, she implies things might have gone better if she’d been around. Of all the big dicks in the room, there’s none bigger than Thor (Chris Hemsworth), downing bread and beer in the corner, albeit with his characteristic flashiness dampened. Standing to his full height over Captain Marvel, Thor extends his arm, and Stormbreaker, the latest version of his slaughterous hammer, comes flying into his hand. Unintimidated, Captain Marvel bears Thor’s gaze, till Thor nods, curtly: “I like this one.”
Twice blessed, born a god and chosen by the divinely intelligent hammer, Moljnir, that can gauge a person’s inner worth – the subject of the first Thor (2011) film – Thor, Norse god of thunder, blonde, bearded, and buff, presents a stereotype of overbearing masculinity knowingly skitted by director Taika Waititi and Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnorak (2017). Since then, Hemsworth has cloaked himself in Waititi’s trademark campness wherever he appears in the MCU. Infectiously cheeky, blue-eyed, bellicose, and indomitably vain, only Thor, facing likely oblivion on the cruel battlefield of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), the precursor to Endgame, could turn to Captain America and lift our hearts by observing to his counterpart idol of masculinity, “I see you’ve copied my beard.”
In Thor’s self-obsessed world, every warrior is a greater or lesser reflection of himself, perhaps because, as Odin’s son, with such a weight of Norse manhood to bear, he never quite knows who to be. Waistcoated in leather and scored by Guns n’ Roses, Hemsworth’s Thor is a parody of today’s batshit machismo, the last hurrah of Western patriarchy that, we hope, must fail and let womxn and other genders and sexualities come to rule.
Such have been the hopes attending Waititi’s latest, Thor: Love and Thunder.
At the UK Leicester Square premiere this week, Natalie Portman, running between two packed cinemas and a sea of hammers, spoke of the “spirit of sisterhood” in the film. Asked how gay is the film, she paused, before naughtily, seductively saying, “so gay.”
“Super gay,” shouted a visibly tightly-wound Taika Waititi, while lesbian actor Tessa Thompson, playing Valkyrie, the king of New Asgaard, swung her mic in appreciation.
Since Thor: Ragnorak, when Valkyrie’s bedroom scene with a woman was cut, Thompson’s queer return to the screen, along with Portman’s performance as Dr. Jane Foster-turned-Mighty-Thor, has been hotly anticipated. Would their combined female force, joined with Waititi’s comic verve, finally, entertainingly, expose the failures of patriarchal heroism? Would Jane and Valkyrie set a new model for including alternative genders and sexualities as the basis for stable sci-fi kingdoms, following Asgard’s exclusion of ambitious women like Thor’s sister Hela and queers like his brother, Loki? Would Portman’s Thor, as in the comics, have more powers than Hemsworth’s? And finally, given the character’s central motor of machismo, would audiences buy a female Thor?
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Thor the Unworthy Jester
Much like our recent, real-world leaders like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, the integrity of this big blonde clown has never quite held together. Thor’s mythic status has enabled that light-hearted political commentary on failing America that is the MCU at its riskiest. But Thor has learned lessons, emerging as a more empathic, reflective soul.
In Kenneth Branagh’s stately, compelling Thor, Hemsworth’s Thor is, initially, a creature of glowering viciousness, a world away from Waititi’s buffoon. Wilfully bringing war upon his people, Thor is deemed unworthy by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Stripped of his ability to channel divine retribution, he’s cast out of Asgard. Odin also throws out Moljnir, having first enchanted it with the whisper:
“Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.”
In fact, Moljnir is wielded by a number of worthy folks, across the comics and MCU. Captain America, Valkyrie, Beta Ray Bill, and Vision, to name a few, have demonstrated that heroism is a collective ideal that we all intuit. These storylines have prepared the ground for the most piquant owner of Moljnir, Dr. Jane Foster, dying of cancer. In Jason Aaron’s 2014 comic, Original Sin, the hammer empowers Jane, beloved of Thor, to smite the suffering of others, while further draining her of her fast-depleting mortal energy.
Meanwhile, the Thor of the Avengers’ films has suffered, too, making him a worthy consort for the doctor devoted to cutting-edge ways to alleviate human pain. Thor’s losses in battle – beloved, wise mother, complex and maddening brother, have pushed his adamantine visage into crevices of guilt and remorse. Hemsworth’s blue eyes have become hooded with an emotionally avoidant gaze.
Glimmering with self-doubt, Thor has become the jester among The Avengers. In Endgame, sitting on a sofa with his stone-species friend Korg (Taika Waititi), he’s a beer-bellied gamer, a depressed alcoholic overcome with guilt over his violent lack of self-control that’s cost the Avengers their simplest change of resurrecting the Earth’s lost people. Thor has made Valkyrie the king of New Asgaard, yet from Hemsworth’s below-the-bluster shiftiness, you get the feeling that Thor never really thought he was worthy to rule, anyway.
At the same time, there’s cut-up energy to Thor’s appearances, when he pops up, lovably rumbunctious, to pop the bubble of his own or others’ pompousness across the MCU. Hemsworth’s misguided courtliness, in the Avengers films, hilariously critiques gendered entitlement. Like many an elitist cis-man, Hemsworth stumbles about worlds benignly misnaming creatures different from himself, like Rocket, the pugilistic raccoon from Guardians of the Galaxy, whom Thor insists on calling “Sweet Rabbit.” Hemsworth, dancing on brawny toes on a tightrope of dramedy, has created a uniquely post-modern, meta hero, commenting on heroism that’s surely ripe for toppling.
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Men and Their Tools
The new Thor film opens in the sandy desolation of a parched desert, where Gor (Christian Bale, vulnerable and demented), the lone, gaunt survivor of a perishing tribe, blistered with dried blood, watches his little daughter die from hunger. Finally escaping, he encounters the god of his people, one of the first camp gods in the film, a bitchy male queen in a diadem who mocks, then throttles Gor for his belief that his faith will be rewarded. Called to new powers as the avenging God Butcher by the magical sword of a recently killed heretic, Gor sets forth on a rampage of revenge against uncaring gods, Thor among them. He heads to New Asgard, where he meets Thor, Jane, and Valkyrie.
The emotionally-charged counter plot, of Jane’s Stage Four cancer, her brief transformation into The Mighty Thor, and her lovers’ reunion with Thor, is stuffed into a story-within-a-story told by Waititi’s own character, Korg, who takes the position of mythic narrator in the manner of a third-rate stand-up, repeatedly misnaming Jane Foster (“Jane Fonda… Jodie Foster”). This device holds us at arm’s length from our heroes, effectively rubbishing their motives. Voicing over a montage of Thor’s previous – and better – films, Waititi/Korg skits the idea that there’s been anything to regret, or learn, from Thor’s tragedies, prior to Love and Thunder: “from dadbod, to godbod… to sadbod.”
The script, co-written by Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, flattens Hemsworth’s cut-up vim into a cut-out of his former self. From Thor’s first appearance, posing as a meditative hippy in a robe and man-bun, we never get beyond a series of fatuous sketches.
Portman, in the matter-of-fact lighting of a chemotherapy suite, is given a minute or two to dig beneath the hollows around Jane’s eyes, before she valiantly, and with a full head of hair, does her science-y thing of trying to cure herself, followed by the hero-ish thing of throwing a hammer. The startling sight of Jane’s destroyed face, in the comic books, offers a bold confrontation with our mortal fragility. But Waititi offers a couple of lines about wanting to live a bit.
Like a child, Waititi ditches death-talk to lark about with weapons. The writer Audre Lorde once said you don’t dismantle the master’s house with his tools. A feminist hero is one able to break free of old structures and find new tools. True, we’re in superhero land, but that gives imaginative freedom to our inventions. In the comics, when Jane answers the call of Moljnir, she develops powers that reflect her interests as a scientist. She can create stars. She has the electrokinetic ability to manipulate lightning in the sky. She can redirect Moljnir’s path of action after she’s thrown it. She is, indeed, doing this when Thor encounters “that guy” who looks and fights like himself. But the meeting between Thor and Jane is thrown away. Portman’s transformation into Mighty Thor occurs off-screen, with no difficulty. When she slaps down Gor for calling her Lady Thor, she’s like a woman educating an old guy to say ‘Ms’ not “Miss’:
“First off, the name is Mighty Thor and if you can’t say Mighty Thor, it’s Dr. Jane Foster.”
Her underwhelming discussions with Thor about handling his powers are limited to yet another of Waititi’s jokes about Jane “workshopping” a battle cry to go with her hammer.
“Life is about growth,” Thor once told his poisonous and conflicted brother, Loki in Waititi’s far superior previous film. Here, with no comparable sidekick to Tom Hiddleston’s mercurial, charismatic Loki, Thor appears oddly isolated and static. His clumsy attempts to know himself are centered around his weapons. He chats up Moljnir (“come to Daddy”) and consoles a jealous, out-of-control Stormbreaker. Fellas and their tools, eh?
Waititi’s recasting of Thor as a stunted macho man with a masturbatory relationship with his tools is a backward misstep, a sabotaging of what Waititi himself created with Hemsworth’s emotional playfulness in Thor: Ragnarok. He needs to learn that you can’t put your tongue in your cheek if you’ve ripped off your face.
In a script that abounds with clichés, Thor, stripped and attacked by his own ideal hero, Zeus (an obvious parallel with his original stripping by his father), says, “You know what they say. You should never meet your heroes.”
We never get to really meet this Thor. Waititi and Robinson ridicule super-heroism, over-telling, and hard-selling, till one starts to wonder whether Waititi has lost respect for the MCU and hates himself for being involved. There’s some half-hearted comedy about the corporate appropriation of heroism, (Thor’s speech-making undermined by someone taking minutes, or Valkyrie’s comment that kingship is “all meetings that could have been raven mails”). But it distracts rather than deepens.
Required to make stirring speeches to Asgard’s children, who have been kidnapped by Gor (but sadly not by an acting coach), Hemsworth acts like an actor playing a superhero who gets cornered at a fan convention and struggles to say something inspirational. The wholesale jettisoning of Asgardian courtly language (Valkyrie talking about “bum-rushing” Zeus or Jane asking about “kinging and stuff”) is another of this film’s deflating breakdown of heroic tools. And there’s something surely deliberately plasticky about the wardrobe and sets.
The entire film, jerking from the blood and ashen opening scenes to the quaint, “dozy little fishing village” of Asgard (thanks, Korg, we noticed) seems to operate within quote marks, a tonal mishmash that satirizes any possibilities of beauty or menace, busily elbowing us in the eye. Such meta ambitions are a waste of a strong cast who seem to have found themselves wearing LARPing costumes doing comedy improv, rather than a superhero film. Or ‘a superhero film’. Even Matt Damon and Sam Neill find themselves in cameos as the Hamlet-style players, or luvvies, of Asgaard, creating plays about the myth, as the myth unfolds.
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One bloated ray of golden light does, however, light up this flailing codswallop, in the form of Russel Crowe’s Zeus. Tubby and selfish, mincing in his little skirt like a cheerleader – or a burlesque Gladiator – Crowe indulges in an appalling, probably offensive ‘Greek’ accent. His portrayal of a smarmy, orgy-obsessed showman, famous for his Superbowl-style entrances, is subtly laced with meanness. We laugh but feel that this god is a nasty piece of work, not easily pushed around by Waititi’s breathless zaniness.
Portman and Waititi’s claims of the film’s gayness are misleading. The gods lisp and bitch and, at the height of this pantomime, Zeus’ handmaidens faint at the sight of a naked Hemsworth. But just as Thor, butt naked, shows us nothing, Waititi’s extravagant camp is avoidance of actual queerness. It’s gay if you’re straight. Playing to panto stereotype, the camp gods are villains. Meanwhile, hopes for Tessa Thompson’s LGBTQ+ representation are dashed. She gets to kiss a nymph’s hand and talk about her safely dead girlfriend. Where’s the lust, wildness, belligerence? No wonder her earthy, everyday Valkyrie looks bored with her routine life.
Meanwhile, the only gay character with sexual desire is Waititi’s. Korg’s Kronan homosexuality is another safe image: there’s nothing flesh-and-blood threatening to straights about bodies of rock melting down to make rock babies.
Most disappointingly, this film about a female Thor has no femaleness in it. The “spirit of sisterhood” claimed by Portman at the premiere is limited to one scene where she and Thompson talk in what looks like a BnB for swish hen parties. Valkyrie checks in on Jane’s (brief and photogenic) struggles. Jane checks in on Valkyrie’s “kinging and stuff”, and stunningly reveals that Valkyrie’s real name is…
But why spoil it, when Waititi’s immature, hubristic cartoonishness, can do it for you? Heroism is an ideal, not limited to a single person, gender, or species. But when the real world is far from ideal, there’s scope for contemporary superhero films to right wrongs through the exuberant celebration of those heroes – feminine, Black, of color, queer, differently-abled – too long erased from our collective imagination.
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