Rarely does it qualify as breaking news that someone has joined the cast of a Marvel movie. After a whopping 29 interconnected installments, it feels like every major movie star alive has logged some time in this extended universe of titans with funny names: Tilda Swinton, Tony Leung, Robert Redford, and on and on. Yet eyebrows did go up when it was announced that the villain of Thor: Love and Thunder, which hits theaters worldwide this weekend, would be played by one of Hollywood’s most serious and revered Method actors, a U.K.-born Oscar winner with seemingly no remaining interest in devoting his famously intense work ethic to the big-budget equivalent of smashing action figures together. How, so many had to wonder, had they landed Christian Bale to portray a comic-book bad guy named Gorr, The God Butcher?
Bale is, of course, no stranger to supersuits, having thrice donned one as the most iconic character in all of comicdom without an “S” on his chest. But after The Dark Knight Rises brought Christopher Nolan’s trilogy to a sweeping close in 2012, the actor made like Bruce Wayne and retired from superheroing. More than that, he seemed to move permanently away from multi-picture trips to the IP sandbox. In the 10 years since Rises, Bale has consciously avoided franchise gigs—a career pivot that, tenure in the cape and cowl aside, is really more of a return to status quo. A quick scan of his IMDb page reveals only a handful of contributions to the Hollywood sequel machine: those Batman films, a villainous turn in the Y2K Shaft revival, and a one-off appearance as robot-killing messiah John Connor in Terminator Salvation, a quasi-blockbuster probably best remembered today for the Bale’s leaked outburst on the set.
Bale didn’t—I’m sorry in advance—bail on Hollywood after Batman. Instead, he carved out a new niche for himself within it by gravitating toward the kind of projects—highbrow dramas and comedies—that the industry now sidelines in favor of all-ages spectacle. It was in the 2010s that the studio system (and, some might say, audiences) largely gave up on movies for grownups. But you’d never guess that if you just looked at Bale’s choice of roles during that period, which suggest some kind of parallel universe of Hollywood movies with adult appeal, old-fashioned star vehicles, and minimal effects budgets.
There was a time-warp quality to the body of work Bale built between a DC tentpole and this new Marvel one, as if he somehow arranged for himself the career of a mainstream movie star from 50 years ago. Rather than superheroes, Bale played the prototypically masculine archetypes of less fashionable genres, with a characteristic conviction of emotion. For director Scott Cooper, he threw his full weight into both the anguished ex-convict hero of Rust Belt crime drama Out of the Furnace and an Army captain undergoing a slow-motion change of heart in the revisionist Western Hostiles. Both films have considerable flaws, but also scenes of disarming tenderness courtesy of Bale—tearful reunions with, respectively, an old flame on a bridge and a fellow officer in a hospital.
David O. Russell’s American Hustle likewise communes with a bygone Hollywood tradition of swindler comedies, evoking the star-powered hijinks of something like The Sting and the sprawling pleasures of a Martin Scorsese procedural. And in Ford v Ferrari, Bale slipped into the driver’s seat of a vehicle fit for Steve McQueen, just with the extra Cockney antagonism only the Welsh star could provide. (It’s one of his most purely enjoyable performances, all rebel obstinacy and “Blimey!” admonishments out of racecar windows.) These are the kind of big-studio productions that inspire one to note, with joy, that sometimes they do make ’em like they used to.
In the rare instance when Bale did tether himself to a big-budget extravaganza, it too looked faintly out of vogue. Unless you count his voice work in the Andy Serkis take on The Jungle Book, his lone special-effects spectacle over the last decade was Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings—a modern version of the kind of Biblical epic that used to dominate the box office before Stan Lee creations became the new gods of American multiplexes. (Bale’s character, Moses, is kind of a superhero, come to think of it.) The lone true flop on the actor’s CV during this period, meanwhile, was The Promise, an expensive, archaic historical epic about the Armenian genocide.
While his fellow marquee headliners put on muscle and makeup to join the ranks of the Avengers or the Justice League, Bale treated full-body transformation as an essential component of his craft—a concerning hallmark of his career since the days when he lost a dangerous amount of girth for The Machinist, only to pack on the pounds again across a few shorts weeks to play Batman right afterwards. It’s no great surprise that Bale scored Oscar nominations for his most obviously physical journeys, the bloating deglamorization of American Hustle and Vice. (The Academy loves to reward beautiful people for uglying themselves.) But he’s undeniably acting under the makeup and corporeal modification of those roles. He never lets the extra pounds carry the weight of his performances.
Rather than sign on for multiple appearances as a single character, Bale tethered himself to directors he trusted and collaborated with before—a pattern that, once identified, lends some new significance to that Terminator rant and his promise to never work with the subject of his ire again. Over the 2010s, Bale signed on for two films apiece by Cooper, Russell, and Adam McKay, while reconnecting with his 3:10 to Yuma helmer James Mangold in Ford v Ferrari. That was the true throughline of his decade out of the franchise trenches: the fruitful, enduring relationships he built with filmmakers.
This habit helps account for the actor’s brief but iconic residency in Nolan’s Gotham. It also extends, of course, to his work with that looming legend of the American cinema, Terrence Malick, who cast Bale in The New World the prior decade and then reunited with him for his modern-world tone poems Knight of Cups and Song to Song (though his scenes were cut in the latter).
Is that creative partnership the ultimate expression of Bale’s attempt to reshape the new Hollywood into New Hollywood, one performance at a time? Or is it just the perfect marriage between a performer drawn to mysterious ciphers and a filmmaker prone to turn his actors into them? At the very least, Bale’s time on the hushed fields of Malick Land—and, to a lesser extent, the chaotic we’ll-find-the-movie-in-post sets of David O. Russell—implies a comfort with borderless, improvisational productions. In other words: the opposite of a blockbuster on a tight budget and timetable.
There’s no way to know what lured Bale out of his hiatus from the connected franchise and superhero businesses—like many actors before him, he’s placed some blame on his children. But maybe he was actually drawn to the role of Gorr, his first opportunity to break truly bad since the turn of the century (not including Dick Cheney). Maybe doing a Thor movie seemed like a fun break from the grueling acting challenges he often embarks upon, even though Bale is the kind of Method stalwart who might go to some dark places when trying to play a bitter, bereaved lost soul out to murder every god in the universe. Or maybe the money was just worth it.
Whatever the reason Bale agreed to enter the endlessly expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, the buried lede here is that he’s pretty great in Love and Thunder. What makes this latest supervillain scary is the wellspring of feeling—of trauma hardened into hatred—that the star brings to him. As in Vice, Bale refuses to let himself be swallowed by makeup. He believes in the emotional reality of Gorr, a once-devout follower who channels his grief over the loss of his daughter into a campaign of mass deicide. And he finds something human in an outsized bad-guy part that probably did not, strictly speaking, require his full effort. Whether Bale will retreat from franchise blockbusters again after this remains to be seen. What’s not in doubt is the fact that they can only benefit from his commitment, whether God Butchers and their ilk are deserving of it.
A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor based in Chicago. His work has appeared in such publications as The A.V. Club, Vulture, and Rolling Stone. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.