Hammered Beyond Belief
One of those words that we currently don't have but really could have done with for several decades now is the name for that thing when – you know, when someone comes along and does something unusual and unexpected and it turns out to be rather successful and much acclaimed. So then they naturally leap to a slightly erroneous conclusion and do the same thing all over again as a follow-up, only much moreso, and this time the end result is just a bit too much to cope with. In the Bond franchise I would direct you to Moonraker, which has the fantasy and comedy elements of The Spy Who Loved Me dialled up to 11, and probably also SPECTRE, which likewise takes the distinctive things about Skyfall – the general glumness of tone and attempts at psychological complexity – and concentrates on them to the point where they start getting in the way of the fun of the movie.
I'm tempted to call one of these an exequel – a sort of portmanteau of excess and sequel, and you heard it here first, folks – and it's a word which may well come up in our imminent discussion of the well-nigh-inescapable Taika Waititi's Thor: Love and Thunder. This is, as you have doubtless guessed, the latest Marvel Studios production – 29th of that ilk, should you be keeping count – and the fourth in the particular strand following the doings of Norse god Thor (Chris Hemsworth). (For the purposes of this movie's plot the original clarification that Thor is not actually a divine being but a representative of a supremely advanced alien culture is quietly forgotten about.)
When we last saw Thor (and I hope you will indulge me in the 'we', given I know that there are people reading this who would more happily donate a major organ without anaesthetic than watch a Kevin Feige production), he was flying off into space with the Guardians of the Galaxy to try and find himself, following the deaths of pretty much his entire family and the destruction of his home realm. The new movie finds him still with them, along with his rock-like sidekick Korg (Waititi again).
However, a series of distress calls reveals that the galaxy is experiencing a sort of theological crisis, as somebody is hunting down and slaughtering the gods of every civilisation, leaving chaos and turmoil in their wake. (This turns out to be Christian Bale, playing a character called 'Gorr the God Butcher' whose name is certainly descriptive.) Thor leaves the Guardians to sort out the galaxy (off-screen) and heads back to his people's enclave on Earth, which he has learned is next on the God Butcher's hit list. However, a surprise awaits him here, as also helping in the defence of New Asgard is another hammer-wielding red-cloaked warrior – one who turns out to be his ex Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who now wields his old weapon Mjolnir and likes to go by the name of Mighty Thor. Can the two ex-lovers put their complicated baggage to one side, figure out just exactly what Gorr is up to, and find a way of stopping him?
Well, on one level this plays as another Marvel movie in the usual style – and if you look at it from a certain angle, the storyline is distinctly reminiscent of the one in the very last movie they released, in that the antagonist initially seems to be an alarming, horrific figure on a metaphysical quest, who eventually proves to be not entirely unsympathetic. And, you know, it's a Marvel Studios production, so it's breezily entertaining and colourful and the pace never drags; there may be the odd reference that goes soaring over the heads (or perhaps beneath the contempt) of any normal people who have wandered into the cinema by mistake, but that's par for the course by now. You're certainly never in any doubt as to what's going on or who the bad guy really is.
On the other hand, partway through the film – during the bit where Russell Crowe comes on in a skirt and plays Zeus the King of the Gods with the same accent Harry Enfield used to employ as Stavros the kebab-shop man – I found myself compelled to lean over to my companion and say 'This is the silliest film I have ever seen.' That may not strictly be true, but it has a sort of pugnaciously daft quality; it's not afraid to be stupid and often seems to be challenging the audience to actually complain about this. Waititi has talked about feeling the need to challenge himself and stay creatively invested in the project, and this seems to be code for including, amongst other things, more tongue-in-cheek cameos, screaming goats, semi-gratuitous male nudity, out-and-out surrealism, needily jealous sentient weapons, nostalgic hair metal, and much more – all played entirely for laughs. This is as openly a comedy film as anything else Marvel have ever released, and why I would suggest it is basically doing all the things that Ragnorak did, only even more extremely.
You might therefore think that it is an extremely dubious decision for Waititi to include some of the story elements he has gone for – a dead child prominently features in the plot, while another character is suffering from !terminal cancer. This would usually be a very bad fit for a wacky comedic fantasy, but the slightly baffling thing is that Waititi somehow manages to get away with it – it doesn't quite have the turn-on-a-dime quality that some Paul Verhoeven films, for instance, possess, but neither does it feel particularly choppy in terms of its tone. Much of the credit for this should probably go to the performers, who deliver deftly-pitched turns. The star attraction this time around is Christian Bale, who consistently comes up with surprising and engaging line-readings and never quite plays the God Butcher in the obvious way one might expect.
Still, the film is so self-conscious and arch that it never quite coheres into an entirely satisfying and involving story the way that Ragnarok or the other top-tier Marvel movies do. It may also be just a generational thing, but I found the film's politics to be a bit too on-the-nose and laboured in places; turning Jane Foster into a Thor-equivalent, for instance, is a reasonable enough idea (although exactly what's going on here is really skated over, to be honest), but quite why she's so insistent on actually being called Mighty Thor is a bit baffling (beyond the fact that it's a comics reference). She's gained equivalent powers to Thor, she hasn't actually stolen his identity.
The Marvel franchise may well have reached the point where one's fond memories of the collective successes of all the previous films flow together and ensure that each individual new film can't quite live up to expectations – or at least, makes doing that much more difficult (we're back in Bond franchise territory again). Nevertheless, I would be lying if I said that there wasn't a huge amount that I really enjoyed about Love and Thunder, and very little that I found outright objectionable. But if the trajectory of this series continues along the same lines, the next sequel will probably take place on ice, in Welsh, performed in semaphore.