The thing about panning a Marvel film is you find yourself temporarily allied with the Marvel haters, and that’s annoying. Yes, I found the latest theatrical film in the saga, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder, incredibly tiresome and pointless, an outrageous waste of talent and resources. The haters see every Marvel film the same way. The lazy screenwriting, the silly costumes, the self-parody so smug it borders on arrogance — to point these things out would no doubt sound comically disingenuous to them. They would find it ludicrous that I see a vast difference in quality between this depressing boondoggle and, say, Avengers: Infinity War. They would simply say I’ve finally seen the light when it comes to the superhero genre, the industry-consuming bane of 21st century cinema.
And if you feel that way, I’m not here to change your mind. What can I tell you but this post is not for you?
Neither is it for the happy nerds who eat up each new installment of the franchise (and every other franchise) — quibbling only about comics accuracy or casting choices.
This post is only for the minority of dorks like me who, against their better instincts, found some artistic and cultural value in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — who were invested on an intellectual and emotional level, and now find themselves disappointed, as if it was ever going to turn out differently.
I don’t even expect very many people to read this. The MCU isn’t a worthy topic of debate for most people anymore — even Martin Scorsese’s well-publicized, grumpy boomer hatred of it is just a running joke at this point. I’m only doing this as a sort of personal accounting, a diary of how this ridiculous cultural juggernaut swept me up for a little while and then inevitably let me down.
My very first post on this blog was an earnest, cautiously disappointed review of Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, the first feature film of the MCU’s Phase Four, and the first to be released after a year off at the start of the pandemic. I always intended to tackle pop culture here, alongside weightier stuff with more political or social relevance (and I always intended to mix those things together, too). But I haven’t found much space here for negative reviews. Life has kept me from writing as much as I’d like; and the more I’ve worked on this blog, the more I’ve decided to keep my focus on culture that really inspires me. The fact that I’ve found so little inspiration in the MCU lately says a lot.
But I’m making an exception for Love and Thunder. I wanted to make sure to take time to heap some well-deserved scorn on this very cynical, very ugly, very expensive film.
Let’s just say it’s hard to believe it’s only been four years since the exhilarating highs of Black Panther and Infinity War — or for that matter, only a few months since Spider-Man: No Way Home, the only Phase Four film anywhere near as exciting and improbably engaging as the MCU used to be.
There are more serious reasons for that compression of time: the pandemic, of course, along with the climate emergency and all the other world crises that have become the unsettling norm, as late capitalism reaches its endgame (ha). It sucks to be living through the apocalypse and Marvel movies aren’t even fun anymore.
It’s hard to explain why someone like me — a film-school refugee and socialist — could become so infatuated by Marvel movies. To give you an idea of the sea change, in the years before the MCU took hold, my cinematic obsession was Asian and Middle Eastern independent film. Somehow I went from fixating on Jafar Panahi and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia to the Avengers.
I was never really into comics as a kid the way my brother was (Star Wars and Star Trek were more my jam), but the Marvel pantheon was deeply ingrained in me anyway via 70s TV — especially Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk. This is one reason I was on board when, in the millennial era, the superhero genre came of age with films like Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
Likewise I really enjoyed the first MCU film, 2008’s Iron Man, especially for its sly intelligence and light touch; but by no means did it obsess me. At some point I watched Captain America: The First Avenger on a plane and liked it, but never imagined this franchise would become a thing for me before the decade was out. A year later, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers was released and became a watershed for both the MCU and the genre, as Marvel Studios and their Disney overlords launched their diabolical plan for world domination. I was busy with a lot of life stuff that year (and busy obsessing over Turkish cinema) and had no interest at first. But, again, I watched it on a plane, and was really struck by how good it was — how unnecessarily good, given that even with pedestrian quality it would have made the same ungodly mountain of money (as proven by, for example, James Cameron’s epically boring Avatar). I loved Whedon’s combination of genuinely compelling characters with slam-bang action that reminded me of the Lucas-Spielberg classics of my youth, and the way it all felt like actually reading a comic book.
But even then it didn’t become an obsession. Years of Captain America and Thor sequels came and went, the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man were tapped in, and I paid no attention whatsoever.
What finally got through to me was Black Panther, in 2018. Something Marvel haters avoid discussing: out of all the MCU titles, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther was objectively an important cultural event, in all it did for Black representation onscreen, Black creatives offscreen, and Afro-futurism. It deserved all its accolades. I loved that film, and seeing what the MCU had proven itself capable of, I decided to go back and watch it all from the beginning. At that point I became hooked.
It turned out the timing was right for me. The MCU nestled into a confluence of factors in my life around that time: the all-consuming challenge of parenthood, increasing social isolation, some grief and mental-health struggles I was going through, and a world in crisis. On top of it all my son and I were both diagnosed with autism within a year of each other.
I found myself craving a fictional universe I could dive into completely and take my mind off things, while still being reasonably intelligent and stimulating. I felt justified because this idea of entertainment as self-care is being more seriously embraced lately, especially as times get harder for everyone. I have comrades who are the most brilliant and committed Marxists but who revel in reality TV or football or Sopranos memes to unwind and keep sane. The MCU was that for me.
Even more, us autistic folks have our special interests — our obsessions that give us life but also make us awkward conversationalists. Some of us obsess over Jane Austen, or baseball cards, or Grateful Dead bootlegs — nerdy things that can be categorized in popular culture. Other special interests might seem really mundane and baffling to neurotypicals. Among my son’s are fans and powerlines. Mine tend to shift over time, and that’s why in my life I’ve obsessed over all kinds of things from The Lord of the Rings to tall ships to the Bangles.
The MCU became exactly that kind of special interest for me for a while. I spent the southern summer of 2018 and 2019 watching all 22 MCU films in sequence, in a state of geeky enchantment, sensing this was something I really needed. It captured my imagination so much that I got back into reading the comics, and even collecting the toys — ostensibly for my son, but nobody was fooled. Collections are also an autistic thing; and it occurs to me that in some ways the MCU itself functions as a collection of sorts, with its endless array of different fantasy characters with their colorful costumes and interlocking stories.
But let me set aside the self-care stuff and make a more direct and fundamental argument: the MCU was actually good. It may not have been great cinema for the most part (I would argue there are a couple of exceptions, including Black Panther). But it was often surprisingly good, and almost always better and sharper than it had to be. As with Pixar (speaking of Disney fiefdoms), a lot of smart, talented people have ensured this. Anyway I’ve always loathed and disrespected the boundary between highbrow and lowbrow, or that between arthouse and mass entertainment.
As I worked my way through the MCU I found most of it so watchable and engaging and funny, with that trademark playfulness that puts the franchise way ahead of the grimdark drudgery of Christopher Nolan or Zack Snyder. I was especially delighted by the humanism — humanism that was originally baked into characters like Spider-Man and Hulk by the great Stan Lee and his collaborators way back in the 60s, and one of the major reasons why Marvel has endured for so many generations. Sure, nobody would mistake it for Robert Altman, but still that humanism elevated it above the rest of the genre.
Of course, I admit the MCU is not really “lowbrow,” in the sense that George Romero or 70s kung fu flicks are. It doesn’t have the underdog charm of trashy cult fare, thanks to market saturation and the massive amount of capital invested in it. It represents the dystopian monopolization of cinema, in an age when huge media conglomerates are devouring the film industry wholesale. As the old joke goes, “Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel.” (As it happens, the Yankees are also my favorite baseball team; maybe that says something?)
I have no defense, other than to point out that the same monopolization is happening across every aspect of our lives, from online shopping to TV to social media. Art and entertainment that’s worth our attention can happen even in this dystopia (if you don’t agree you probably haven’t read this far).
My disappointment with the MCU has been growing for some time since the cultural nuclear meltdown that was 2019’s Avengers: Endgame — but to be clear I’ve actually loved a couple of entries in Phase Four. WandaVision and No Way Home have been the high points for me. One big reason they were both so good is because they were both about something (about something other than fan service, that is), and they both tapped into real emotion.
WandaVision was an especially lovely exploration of grief and trauma — a potent topic for a show to tackle in the first year of the pandemic. It was also an utterly unique television event that actually had some cultural impact outside the core Marvel audience. Those conditions (an audience isolating at home and starved for fresh entertainment; a franchise reviving itself after the shutdown of 2020 with a clever and nostalgic satire of television itself) will never be replicated.
In its wild, fun mashup of all three Spider-Man franchises of this century, No Way Home managed to be an unusually resonant meditation on youth, aging, regret, and the passing of time. Like WandaVision, it also dealt with grief, especially in its surprisingly bleak ending. This is the MCU I signed up for.
I would rank Loki somewhere behind these two; I liked it a lot but didn’t love it. Like all the new MCU series on Disney+ (except WandaVision), it should have been a two-hour movie instead of a six-hour series. But at least it tried to do something new and different with the format in terms of style, and mostly succeeded. I loved the retrofuturist production design and the references to Kubrick, Fincher, Bong Joon-ho and other auteurs; Tom Hiddleston has always been one of the best actors in the MCU (and, incidentally, one reason the Thor films work so well); and I was pleased that the story highlighted the climate emergency and even had a pinch of class consciousness.
The quality of the rest of Phase Four has been middling to dismal. Some of the new entries have managed to generate a sense of excitement and freshness in the first hour or the first episode, especially because of new, more diverse characters, before unravelling thanks to messy plotting and dull, derivative CGI battles. This is how I would characterize the likes of Black Widow, Ms. Marvel, and Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It makes me sad or even angry to say that. Women and marginalized communities are finally getting their due from the franchise, but now it feels like too little too late.
I’ve actively hated some of Phase Four too, and this is new for me. The MCU was always less like a movie franchise and more like a TV series in its consistent quality, perhaps foreshadowing the current era in which TV is outright cannibalizing cinema. But now that it’s landed on actual TV, the quality control has gone off the rails, thanks to the studio’s pell-mell rush to churn out streaming content for D+. I found The Falcon and the Winter Soldier just embarrassing, with its horribly muddled politics and its lack of real suspense or interest — anything to grab the viewer at all — over an excruciating six hours. Hawkeye was similarly onerous, a sloppy mix of fan service and “I’ll be home for Christmas” holiday schlock. I actually turned off the climactic episode in the middle, completely uninterested in the outcome.
But mostly I’ve not felt much at all. The standard experience of an MCU film or series for me lately is excitement when it’s rolling — which may simply be nostalgia for a few years ago, or some Pavlovian response when I see the Marvel Studios logo and hear the fanfare — soon followed by a curious feeling of emptiness as soon as I leave the cinema or turn off the TV.
Take a new entry like Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It certainly has a lot going for it: it’s cool that Sam Raimi brought both horror and psychedelia into the franchise more than ever before, and there are even some further explorations of Wanda’s character that are pretty poignant. But with this and most other Phase Four titles, I don’t find myself obsessing over them afterwards — having nerdy conversations about them with my brother, teasing out the nuances, overthinking their political significance. Most damningly of all, I don’t have much of any desire to rewatch them, compared to how many times I compulsively rewatched The Avengers or Black Panther. Neither do I find myself salivating with anticipation over the addition of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four to the milieu.
It’s not just me getting over it all. Something fundamental has changed in how these films are made. The earliest MCU entries allowed plenty of space for the characters to breathe, grow and exist as (enhanced) human beings amidst all the fluttering capes and flying shields. They may have been blockbuster cash-ins, certainly they relied on formula — but they were actual stories with drama, adventure, conflict and resolution, and relatable protagonists. A few of the newer entries still manage that level of human interest, as I mentioned above (and in my review of Black Widow), but more often now they’re so overloaded with crossover characters, with teasing future entries in the franchise, and with endless fan service that they can’t even function as entertainment anymore. It feels like watching a trailer for two hours. It’s all so meh, but the juggernaut keeps grinding on. As New Yorker critic Richard Brody put it in his very good review of Multiverse, it “isn’t merely branded entertainment; it’s branding as entertainment.” Which, like I said, the haters say is true of every Marvel film; but Brody goes out of his way to mention how weird and whimsical the first Doctor Strange film was and what a “corporate slog” this is by comparison. I see the same distinction between then and now.
Even with all that, I was still surprised by how much I hated Love and Thunder. This is the flagship MCU film of the year, as No Way Home was last year. Its production was hyped for years (I was especially aware of it since it was shot here in Sydney, where I live), and its long roster of A-list talent is ridiculous.
Above all, the previous Thor entry in the series, Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok (2017), is one of the standout films of the MCU. I don’t think it was unreasonable to expect a lot from his follow-up.
Or at the very least to expect a reasonable effort by Waititi and his collaborators, but we don’t even have that. The MCU has jumped the shark, we all know that by now, and Waititi knows that, and he wants us to know that he knows that. So it’s all done with a smirk. It’s all supposed to be a big joke, and somehow that makes it even worse. Especially given how expensive it is, it’s exhausting to watch.
Satire has been latent in the MCU from the beginning. Right off the bat, the mix of wisecracks and vulnerability in Iron Man showed the creators were willing to have fun with the sillier elements of the milieu, and skewer the stiffness and machismo of the action genre. Sometimes this satirical element is more overt — as in Ant-Man or The Guardians of the Galaxy. But even the stiff-jawed Captain America has a lightness to his character, a knowing wink at the viewer, especially thanks to Chris Evans’s enormously appealing performance, which could be characterized as “nontoxic masculinity.”
Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, quietly one of the best films in the saga, is especially deft at this combination of straight-faced and sardonic — which is really the only way to go with winged helmets, capes and flying hammers. Nearly as much as Evans, Chris Hemsworth aced the balancing act of being a genuinely charismatic muscle-bound hero (and massive sex symbol, of course) while gently mocking all the attendant masculine stereotypes with his goofy stentorian voice and his comically unsuccessful efforts to repress his feelings.
The reason Ragnarok, the third Thor entry, is one of the most beloved MCU films both within and outside the fanbase is that Waititi greatly expanded on that satire and brought it to the foreground, without sacrificing the excitement, the action, or the human element. It works on so many levels: it’s both laugh-out-loud funny and touching; it deepened the MCU narrative while also functioning as a Marvel pisstake. The colorful, imaginative production design and 80s-style synth score by Mark Mothersbaugh are brilliant. Stars like Tessa Thompson, Jeff Goldblum and Cate Blanchett look like they’re having the best fun of their careers.
Love and Thunder purports to do all the same things, but fails spectacularly, collapsing under the weight of its own self-satisfied self-referentiality. We’ve descended to the level of a parody of a parody of a parody; it’s like watching the Marvel equivalent of Scary Movie 4. I’m mystified by the good reviews it’s getting; I suspect some critics don’t know a good or bad superhero film when they see one, so all the clowning around is mistaken for brilliance.
Where do I begin with all the things I hate about this film? Judging from my newsfeeds, the two things people most remember about Love and Thunder are Thor’s troubled relationship with his magical battle axe Stormbreaker, and the screaming goats. Trust me if you haven’t seen it — the goats are really annoying! About as annoying as you would reasonably expect from a running gag involving giant space goats that constantly scream. But people are talking about them, because there’s very little else in this movie to talk about. A similar creative void in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was to blame for the Dancing Zemo meme, surely the dumbest meme to come out of the MCU.
And the stupid antics with the axe are so painful, like something from a third-rate buddy sitcom, Hemsworth in cruise control. It made me want to get up and leave the theater.
Remember when Marvel screenplays had real wit, and the dialogue crackled? Like in Infinity War when Drax says to Thor, “Nidavellir? That’s a made-up word!” and Thor retorts like a philosophy student: “All words are made up.” Remember when Thor had a heart-to-heart with a talking racoon about his dead family, but somehow it worked and there was a weird level of drama there? To be clear, it’s not the silliness of the goats or the bromance with the battle axe that bothers me in and of itself; it’s the fatigue and cynicism and bankruptcy of ideas.
Despite its massive budget (US $250 million, for those keeping score at home), Love and Thunder looks curiously cheap. There was a great post on Facebook a few weeks ago, an informed and detailed rant from someone named Nolan Yost about the poor quality of production and costume design across most franchises in the age of streaming. They mostly focused on House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power — the laughably bad wigs, the fake-looking robes and armor — but they also mentioned Marvel as a chief culprit. The point is that even with literally all the money in the world behind these Amazon and Disney projects, the productions are rushed because of the “constant push for content at all cost” — so the designers simply don’t have time to do their jobs properly. And the shortcuts they take give everything a B-movie feel that’s noticed by the viewer, even if not consciously at first. “It’s going to be so fucking awful in 15 – 20 years looking back at all the potentially great but cheaply made media from this time period.”
After reading that post, I haven’t been able to look at these shows the same way again. I’ve actually enjoyed House of the Dragon a lot more than I thought I would, but the cheapness of the production is so distracting — the way the royal carriages look like rides at Universal Studios, and good lord, those wigs!
Love and Thunder looks terrible too. Both Thor costumes (Hemsworth’s and Natalie Portman’s) look like something from a Mel Brooks spoof (I would much rather watch Mel Brooks, but just saying). In the Halloween episode of WandaVision, the two leads wear tacky, silly versions of their own costumes as a fun tribute to the classic look of their characters on the comics page. Well, the ones in Love and Thunder all look that tacky and there’s no Halloween subplot to justify it. It’s not clear how much of it is the production problems Yost points out, and how much is that smirking parody — in other words, did Waititi want the costumes to look cheap and tacky to make a point? I’m guessing it’s a bit of both, but it sucks either way.
The film’s McGuffin is a lightning bolt, a mystical weapon which the pair of Thors and their companions intend to steal from the god Zeus. It’s hilariously, distractingly cheap-looking — again, like a Halloween prop, or something you’d see at Burning Man.
Can we talk about Russell Crowe as Zeus? Why on earth is he putting on that fake Greek accent? I swear it’s as if he and Waititi joked over their morning coffee about doing the whole thing with a bad Greek accent — because he’s a Greek god, get it? — and then decided to go with it because fuck it. I don’t know if Greek audiences would be offended or not; I’m not trying to make a case that it’s culturally insensitive. It’s just annoying, and smacks of a desperate attempt to milk comedy out of a listless screenplay.
In general there is the ugly impression of a bunch of wealthy, famous and good-looking people cranking this thing out and not even enjoying it, like they showed up to the set hungover and are just going through the motions. The awkwardness of the early scenes featuring the Guardians of the Galaxy is truly something to behold. Chris Pratt looks so uncomfortable and barely present as he’s delivering his lines, like he really resents this. Karen Gillan, Dave Bautista and the others seem to have been allocated one line each for budget reasons. It’s seriously strange to see these characters we actually learned to care about in previous installments stand around halfheartedly in the background and do nothing for five minutes, like extras in a school Christmas pageant, before abruptly blasting off because the screenplay has no more use for them.
The subplot involving Jane Foster’s terminal cancer is so jarring compared to the inanity and cartoonishness of the rest of the film. Of course you can tackle death and grief in comedy, that’s a perfectly legit thing to do; but when it’s this muddled and half-assed it’s a cringe. Natalie Portman is a great actor and she does her best, but the writing is so limp. Waititi seems really unsure of what he was going for with this aspect of the story and flails terribly in trying to find the right tone.
The same applies to the film’s efforts at feminism, in making Jane the new iteration of the Mjölnir-wielding Thor (in this identity she is referred to as Mighty Thor). Both the character and Portman deserve a lot better than the confused, rushed scenes in which she suddenly apprehends her new superpowers — a poor substitute for the origin story you would hope for. And (spoiler alert), almost as soon as Jane/Mighty Thor is manifested as a new hero, she dies. It’s meant to be a tragic sacrifice, but because we got no time at all with her new identity, it’s sadly anticlimactic. Meanwhile, this commentary in Vulture by Roxana Hadadi argues convincingly that the screenplay fundamentally fails at establishing Mighty Thor as a strong female hero with her own motivations. Insidiously, it’s as if she needed Thor’s permission to wield Mjölnir.
This is all a shame, because representation of women and LGBT people (Valkyrie and Korg are both confirmed as gay) is about the only thing the film has going for it. It sucks that girls and LGBT kids out there who are no doubt eager to see more people like themselves on the big screen are subjected to a shambles like this.
The action is boring, but that isn’t surprising. With a couple of spectacular exceptions (The Avengers, the Russo brothers’ Captain America sequels, and Infinity War chief among them) the action in the MCU has always been hit or miss. It was never really about the action for me, it was about the characters and the stories. But since Love and Thunder fails on those things and just about everything else, the action scenes are that much more tedious. Especially since most of them are scored by Guns N’ Roses songs — a tired effort to recapture the awesomeness of hearing Led Zep’s “The Immigrant Song” in the climactic battle of Ragnarok. So much of this film is tired.
It’s not completely devoid of worthwhile moments. Christian Bale’s performance as villain Gorr the God Butcher is actually good. Aside from Portman, Bale is practically the only one who seems to be trying, and whenever he’s onscreen the film is momentarily elevated. Gorr’s grief for his dead daughter is quite touching, and to my surprise, after slogging through the rest of it for two hours, I liked the concluding scenes, in which Jane’s and Gorr’s fates are tragically intertwined. But it’s not enough to make a difference, just enough to remind you that Waititi could have managed better.
For a long time I’ve struggled over what to make of Waititi as a filmmaker. I was a fan early on; I really enjoyed his indie debut Eagle vs Shark (2007). Ragnarok is a great popular film by any standard; and I consider the original What We Do in the Shadows (co-directed with Jemaine Clement) to be one of the best comedies of the last decade. But at the same time I find some of Waititi’s most acclaimed films overrated. Hunt for the Wilderpeople and JoJo Rabbit are so heavy-handed and syrupy they feel like watching feature-length TV commercials.
Love and Thunder is a pretty damning check in the loss column, and it’s knocked Waititi down a few points in my book. (It doesn’t help that he also happens to be one of the celebrities who was content to make known his support for misogynist creep Johnny Depp.)
Knowing me, Marvel Studios will probably continue taking my money for some time. My favorite thing about seeing Love and Thunder in the cinema was actually the Wakanda Forever trailer, which I thought was fabulous (and that’s saying something because I usually hate trailers). I’m cautiously optimistic about that one.
But then when I was looking at a list of Phase Four titles while fact-checking this piece, I realized I’d completely forgotten about the existence of Moon Knight and She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. I thought about it for a minute… and decided I don’t care.
So I’m not exactly losing sleep over this whole thing anymore either.
Image credits: Marvel Studios