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‘Thor: Love and Thunder’—and Phase 4 of the MCU—Is Lost

The moments of irreverence that made ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ so charming are ill-suited for a sequel whose general aimlessness feels like less of a creative choice than a sign of creative stasis

Marvel/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

Following the destruction of Asgard in Thor: Ragnarok, the Asgardians founded a new home for themselves on Earth under the rule of Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). In honor of their former realm, they renamed the Norwegian village they settled in New Asgard. (The Asgardians could’ve workshopped a more interesting name, but I digress.) By the start of Thor: Love and Thunder, New Asgard has been transformed into a tourist trap complete with Viking boat rides, theatrical reenactments of Asgardian history, and enough tacky merchandise to fill an empty suitcase. Everything that made Asgard novel and exciting now has been commodified to wring every last dollar out of a willing public. It might give the vibe of a Norse Disney World, but New Asgard could just as well represent the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

As the fourth Thor stand-alone film and 29th big-screen entry in the MCU—the Marvel tally is even larger if you include the growing slate of Disney+ series—Love and Thunder hardly breaks new ground. Of course, familiarity is baked into the MCU’s DNA, and the movie obliges by relying on the same playful humor that director Taika Waititi brought to the franchise in Ragnarok. (This time around, Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster is along for the ride, and quickly transforms into the Mighty Thor.) But the moments of irreverence that made Ragnarok so charming are ill-suited for a sequel whose general aimlessness feels like less of a creative choice than a sign of creative stasis. For a film that centers on Thor (Chris Hemsworth) searching for a new purpose in life, Love and Thunder struggles to find one itself—instead of being irreverent, everything seems irrelevant.

It’s not necessarily concerning that Love and Thunder couldn’t reach the heights of its predecessor; Ragnarok remains one of the finest additions to the MCU, and would’ve been hard to top under any circumstances. But Love and Thunder’s purposelessness is particularly glaring in the wider context of the MCU since Avengers: Endgame. From the worst-reviewed film in the MCU and an ill-timed prequel to clunkily-paced series that probably should have been movies, Marvel’s recent uptick in quantity hasn’t always been met with the franchise’s baseline level of quality. Six films and seven shows into Phase 4, it’s clear the MCU is mired in a slump without much glue holding its sprawling, supposedly interconnected projects together.

While the early stages of the MCU weren’t exactly faultless—we must never forget about Ed Norton’s Hulk, no matter how much Marvel wants us to—the setups for crossover events proved to be surprisingly smooth. With Marvel fans willing to keep up with superheroes during their various stand-alone films, the MCU adhered to a blueprint similar to serialized television in which an Avengers movie was akin to an action-packed season finale. But after bringing all its heroes together in Endgame while bidding farewell to franchise mainstays like Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), it appeared the MCU had reached its own version of a series finale.

Granted, there was no world in which the MCU was going to hit pause after releasing the second-highest-grossing movie of all time, but Phase 4 has yet to cohere around a unifying force such as Thanos and the Infinity Stones. The closest thing to a thread tying the new projects together is the multiverse: a narrative device borrowed from the comics that’s allowed Marvel to experiment with new and returning heroes in unusual circumstances. (The more cynical read is that Disney is essentially market-testing how audiences would react to John Krasinski playing Mister Fantastic without making a firm commitment to it.)

But the multiverse is unwieldy by design, and the apparent big bad of Phase 4 has thus far been relegated to a single appearance on the season finale of Loki. (Call me old-fashioned, but I miss the days when supervillains in a blockbuster franchise were actually introduced in movies.) It’s also telling that two of the most well-received Phase 4 movies looked into the past instead of figuring out the MCU’s future. Black Widow was a swan song for Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) so overdue that her MCU death preceded it, while Spider-Man: No Way Home brought back the Peter Parkers of old (Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire) to reminisce about great power and great responsibility.

Despite these circumstances, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige assured fans last month that the Phase 4 “roadmap” will become more clear over time. (Maybe Feige and the rest of the Marvel brain trust reached some type of breakthrough during their corporate retreat.) But it’s hard to feel too assured about Marvel’s continuity when the films and shows from Phase 4 rarely inform one another and, at times, seem outright contradictory. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness happens to be one of the best MCU films when appreciated on its own kooky terms, but at the same time, it’s unsurprising that director Sam Raimi only watched “key moments of some episodes” of WandaVision prior to making it.

Narrative and thematic inconsistency within a superhero franchise isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker: the DC Extended Universe has largely thrived since the Zack Snyder era by letting directors cook without worrying about the bigger picture. (Hell, even Snyder went out on a high note with his genuinely impressive four-hour cut of Justice League.) But since the MCU has made continuity a calling card for more than a decade, it’s a lot more noticeable when the cracks begin to show. There’s also the added tension between filmmakers trying to put their unique stamp on a project and having to color within the lines of the MCU. The reviews may have been unforgiving, but Eternals is one of the most fascinating movies from the MCU because it underlined how much—or how little—an auteur like Chloé Zhao could bring her own sensibilities to the proceedings.

While Zhao and the MCU didn’t quite jell, Waititi had already proved he could thrive within the Marvel sandbox after Ragnarok injected new life into the God of Thunder by leaning on Hemsworth’s comedic instincts. But without any meaningful payoff in Thor’s latest adventure—unless you want to count a ludicrous post-credits scene featuring a Ted Lasso star as Hercules—Love and Thunder reeks of a sense of obligation: a franchise spinning its wheels because the powers that be demanded another offering to the Content Gods. The MCU is nowhere close to clarifying where Phase 4 is headed once Love and Thunder’s credits roll. The insistence that every project must rely on the same bag of tricks—i.e., quips that undercut the rare glimpses of actual poignancy and action scenes so perfunctory fans will lose their minds when someone fights in a bus—has revealed the shortcomings of Marvel’s by-the-numbers approach to blockbuster filmmaking without the novelty of interconnectedness.

When Thor seeks the help of other gods against the villainous Gorr (Christian Bale), whose single-minded quest is to rid the universe of all deities, he’s shocked to discover so many of them aren’t interested in lifting a finger. (The only business Russell Crowe’s hammy Zeus cares about is when the gods are planning their next orgy.) The gods’ apathy mirrors that of the film they find themselves in—one that meanders from scene to scene in search of an underlying purpose. Perhaps it’s only fitting that, off the heels of Love and Thunder, the mighty MCU has never felt so mortal.