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‘Thor: Love and Thunder’ review: Gods, goats, Hemsworth and Portman, as Marvel tests the limits of camp

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 7/5/2022 Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
Natalie Portman, left, and Chris Hemsworth in Marvel Studios' "Thor: Love and Thunder." © Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios/TNS Natalie Portman, left, and Chris Hemsworth in Marvel Studios' "Thor: Love and Thunder."

Twenty-nine films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a playful and flexible narrative arena in theory, too often a realm of granite solemnity in practice — if you can’t mess around a little then really: Why make all that money in the first place?

In other words, the giant screaming goats hit the spot in “Thor: Love and Thunder,” which should be called “Thor: Love, Thunder, Goats, Guns N’ Roses.” The digital vessel-haulers known as Toothgrinder and Toothgnasher enjoy a modest but welcome amount of screen time in co-writer and director Taika Waititi’s aggressively nutty follow-up to “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017). That film zazzed up Thor’s corner of the MCU enough to justify more of the same. This time we’re confronted with stranger things, more outlandish detours and wilder tonal shifts. Plus four Guns N’ Roses songs, to set the mood.

It’s a strange result: half inventive, half shopworn. Pictorially Waititi’s sequel is a little bit heavy metal album cover, a little bit “H.R. Pufnstuf” — garish, bright, willfully tacky in a big-budget way. The tackiness is part of the joke in the scenes set in the coastal town of New Asgard, where Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, sporting strapping new battle armor and a “Phantom of the Opera” sweatshirt, depending) oversees a heavily touristed attraction, full of Thor lore and merch. “Thor: Lore and Merch” also works as an alternate title.

Against the grain of Waititi’s comic streak, “Love and Thunder” raises the emotional stakes straight off. We’re reintroduced to Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) at a crisis point: She is a cancer patient with a stage IV diagnosis. The plotline derives from one of the Thor comic book series; the goats come from another.

In her guise as Mighty Thor, wielding ex-boyfriend Thor’s hammer, Jane is the powerful hero she cannot be in her earthly human form. It’s a bold move, opening a largely antic movie with a woman’s debilitating medical condition. “Love and Thunder” establishes in the prologue the latest threat to intergalactic extinction: an ordinary soul on a planet far, far away, played by Christian Bale, wandering with his daughter in the desert. He suffers a grievous loss and then transforms into Gorr, the God Butcher, hellbent on wiping out those privileged paragons who, in this outing, forsake mere mortals left, right and center. “Suffering for your gods is your only purpose,” the Bale character’s tormentor informs him at the start.

I suppose every Marvel movie needs one of these menacing, one-note types to destabilize the worlds depicted. But even a crafty, compelling actor like Bale has a hard time making Gorr distinctive. “Love and Thunder” is more at home with the love, and the comic frills, than with the thunder.

Hemsworth’s Thor is learning, uneasily, to be a more progressive and empathic specimen of godly hunk, a team player instead of a solo act. The storyline concerns, among other things, the children of New Asgard, swept up and kidnapped by Gorr (dark shades of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s” Child Catcher). Their rescue requires the Thors and Valkyrie leads the A-team straight to the enemy.


Video: Chris Hemsworth reveals how many calories he ate to bulk up for 'Thor: Love and Thunder' (USA TODAY)

Do these zigzags and mood swings work? Not entirely. But at its fizziest, the camaraderie among the principals buoys the picture. Hemsworth and Thompson in particular toss off their lines with throwaway aplomb. Waititi’s heart plainly belongs to the muttered asides and the eccentric details; the action sequences, meanwhile, squeak by, and barely. Many will find “Love and Thunder” too frivolous and “Ragnarok”-y. Whatever. I’m Team Goat, because they’re genuinely funny running gags, the gag being the amount and pitch of their screaming — “panicky airplane passenger about to die”-level screaming, straight out of the “Airport” movies.

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'THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER'

2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, some suggestive material, and partial nudity)

Running time: 2:05

How to watch: In theaters Friday

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©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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