Saturday, July 16, 2022

Making love out of nothing at all


Directed by Taika Waititi
Written by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson and Taika Waititi

Spoilers: moderate

Maybe it's just contrarianism, but I refuse to agree that the MCU's Thor subfranchise wasn't "working" until Taika Waititi got ahold of it in its third installment, Thor: RagnarokThe Dark World didn't quite work, but "one movie out of the three not quite working" was par for the course for all the MCU's main heroes, Iron Man and Captain America likewise getting (at least) one apiece themselvesand by the same token I'm not especially keen to accept the consensus that Waititi actually radically reoriented the franchise and its hero away from where they started, so if Ragnarok is indeed a lighter, frothier take on the God of Thunder than Kenneth Branagh's, it's not, like, unrecognizable.  He was a slightly-dim goofball there, too, and if in the intervening years Chris Hemsworth's talent for pompous, good-natured buffoonery was sharpened, that doesn't mean it wasn't already present, it just means Branagh is a filmmaker capable of juggling multiple tones in one movie and Waititi, well, at least used to be.

I probably overrated Ragnarok back in 2017, just happy to have a(nother) fun Thor movie, but now I doubt I could be absolutely sure of that.  Waititi's Thor-that-worked afforded him the artistic opportunity (or maybe just the career obligation) to be the first director invited back to the subfranchise, and now he has made Thor: Love and Thunder, and Thor: Love and Thunder might well make Thor: Ragnarok worse.  It doesn't feel like a movie made by the person who made Ragnarok, it feels like a movie made by a person trying to copy it.  Or maybe not even people: I don't want to indulge the "MCU movies are made via algorithm" cliche too much, but feeding the basic plot elements into a machine would explain the inhuman uncanniness of the "random humor" on display, as well as the freakish inability to latch onto virtually any emotional resonance or thoughtfulness in a story that's about, albeit in no particular order, "murderous anger at your god for failing you" and "slow painful death by cancer."  Come to think of it, you'd probably assume that these two threads would be woven together somehow.  Or at least more robustly than a vague piece of braiding right at the end.

The former thread, anyway, is represented by Gorr (Christian Bale), whom we meet starved and withered in the middle of an endless expanse of desert on a dying planet alongside his daughter (India Hemsworth), and we have no reason to question Gorr's assertion that they are, in fact, the final inhabitants of this blighted place.  Soon there is only one: Gorr's daughter dies, and he would likely shortly join her.  But he spies a miragelike oasis in the distance, finding there water and food and, as fate would have it, one of his gods (Jonathan Brugh), who's celebrating a victory over a mystic assassin armed with the dread Necroblade, and who, upon noticing the scurrying, genuflecting humanoid before him, mocks him for believing in him or that in death he should expect any reward besides oblivion.  Unhappy Gorr picks up the Necroblade and slays the being he'd worshipped, becoming the God Butcher, dedicated to the destruction of all deities throughout the cosmos.

Meanwhile, the latter thread is represented by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), whom we meet undergoing chemotherapy.  In a fit of inspiration, she seeks out the broken pieces of Thor's hammer, Mjolnir, as a possible cure.  It is, at least, a palliative.  She's able to wield it thanks to an instruction from Thor that the hammer keep Jane safeapparently both Mjolnir and Thor's new weapon Stormbreaker are sentient now, and I don't remember when that happened, but I assume it must've happened somewhere because they surely do not set it up here, certainly not to the extent that they "set up" that Jane is Thor's ex-girlfriend, which I believe they explain five or six timesand Jane is transformed into a Goddess of Thunder.  It's only a palliative, however, and underneath her buff new exterior, Jane is still dying.  Mjolnir might even be accelerating her disease, a fact that is revealed in some hurried, spitballed exposition an hour and a half later than when it would've been dramatically useful, and presumably it's something that a scientist would've been interested in finding out for herself even earlier.  (Sadly, Jane's Ph.D. is applicable in this film only to the extent that she wrote a book about wormholes once, and she can later use it for a de rigeur "don't call me Lady Thor" joke in rejoinder to a comment wedged into the mouth of an elemental villain from Planet Crap who's decided to be unaccountably sexist for a few seconds, and, unfortunately, the joke isn't even "call me Doctor Thor.")

Enter Thor Odinson, who's said his goodbyes to the Guardians of the Galaxy, in Love and Thunder's first indication that it's going to work precisely from the Ragnarok checklist (in this instance, "junking the sequel hook that another movie made on this film's behalf," Ragnarok slicing off The Dark World's Loki set-up before ten minutes had passed, and Love and Thunder running away as quickly as possible from Avengers: Endgame's suggestion that the "Asgardians of the Galaxy" would be cute), though this might also be the last time that this film feels like it's actually using Ragnarok's template to do its own material.  The upshot, anyway, is that Gorr the God Butcher comes to butcher the Asgardian gods, but settles for kidnapping the Asgardian children, intending to use them as bait for a trap to acquire Stormbreaker, which for some reason was not acquireable when Thor and Stormbreaker were right there in front of him.  Subsequently, Thor and Jane, along with Asgard's ruler, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and Thor's sidekick, Korg (Waititi), pursue.  In the meantime, Thor and Jane realize that they lost something precious all those years ago.

Well, Jane realizes that.  Thor explicitly spent the last eight years pining for her, and it maybe says something about Love and Thunder that its stated reason for existing is the thing it winds up being least good at of all, trying very hard but somehow not coming up with anything much better than "it wasn't you, it was me" to justify a narrative turn from twenty movies ago that occurred solely because Portman got bored with these films and, despite being in this one, doesn't really appear to have changed her mind.  Part of it is that she has less chemistry with Hemsworth than in either of her previous Thor movies, and even I'll concede that's already one of the first Thor's weaker links.  Part of it is that Hemsworth is encouraged to play even further down to his stereotype, to the point that he loses track of what his stereotype actually is, so that at least in Thor's scenes with Jane (though it is all over the place) he somehow manages to turn Thor into a 6'3" high school nerd in a cape with a magic axe, all anxious stammering dweebery, and the screenplay locks him into such gracelessness that he's cut off entirely from the broad but enjoyable "dumb blond jock who thinks he's a god with a bit of bathos to him" that had defined Thor since he first arrived on Earth.  And at least a small part of it, I think, is that Portman just isn't built for Marvel moviesI mean, she's "built for a Marvel movie" in this one, but while I'm aware she has done comedies before (that I haven't seen), I'm not sure I've ever seen her give a good performance that wasn't brittle and maybe slightly mad.  The "dying of cancer" part should give her persona something to attach itself to, but that's not the kind of movie this is.

What it is is a Marvel Movie, with all that entails, but somehow moreso, an exercise in Whedoning that's been pushed to the extreme limits of that mode and all but breaking it.  It's not even "quips undercutting the drama"; there basically is no drama, only quips, more quips, and bad faux-improv, all expressions of an aimless, meandering sense of humor cultivated by Waititi and his co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson in emulation of Ragnarok's larky comedy (Ragnarok did not, however, bear a Waititi screenplay credit, for whatever that's worth).  And so the first hour of the film and possibly more is just rampant with some of the most dreadful comic business ever seen in this overarching franchise, and whatever winds up being successful despite itself is either driven into the ground or swamped by the unfunniness around it; Waititi earns special ire by being the director inserting himself into his own movie to do shtick, but every character is a comic relief character and largely the same comic relief character, and a lot of it isn't even jokes, but ironic observations and just stuff.  ("This is a portable speaker" is, supposedly, a "joke.")

I don't know what's happened to Waititi over the past half decade but he has gotten much worse at his thing: an increasingly significant fraction of his comedy now arises from the apparently sincere belief that being obnoxious is funny (e.g., the screaming goats Thor earns as a reward and/or punishment for helping some less-than-impressed aliens).  I was even still on board after "stage 4 cancer" is introduced with abrasive glibness, because that at least seemed nervy, but in retrospect I can't even call that "a choice."  It's just the default, and the constancy and the repetition of it grows incredibly wearisomethe callbacks to Ragnarok specifically are awful.  It's like a satire of a Marvel movie, or even a satire of a whole vein of modern filmmaking, that hectors you into calling something "weird" or "crazy" even though very little of it feels weird or crazy.  It's trivializing as a matter of course, but there's also so much of it that it honestly interferes with the movie structurally.  Obliging their director to bring this MCU movie in under two hours (something I've spent years begging them to do, so I guess this is somehow my fault), Waititi and his collaborators have been upfront about how much was cut, and evidently what Waititi was most unwilling to part with was his long first "act"if "acts" are even a useful analytic tool herecomposed of a long string of shambling interactions that somewhat resemble comedy, in that the principals are making silly faces.  It feels like the film is putting off its plot for as long as it possibly can: there's such a deflated lack of urgency that at one point you might be forgiven for thinking, "Maybe if you'd just left to go save your endangered friend immediately, instead of having a drawn-out exchange with Peter Quill (a tired-looking Chris Pratt), she'd still have had her left arm when you found her."

The adventure does kickstart itself eventually, if not before a surprisingly boring side-quest to "Omnipotent City," which is another collection of jokes and quasi-jokes that at least finds Russell Crowe playing Zeus with some energy.  It's not a funny or interesting energyCrowe is a cartoon Greek accent mincing around in a skirt and that's calculated to be "amusing"but I did appreciate the extremely faint suggestion that our Zeus has Europas and Ganymedes.  The chicks are the only ones present around Zeus in any shot closer than medium, of course: even a movie from the early 2000s could have been more daring about this, if just for a gagit might've been an insensitive gag, but it would be something.  Likewise, packing the rafters with gods in "Omnipotent City" and then giving only Zeus lines is an efficient way to flatten a whole middle act's quest through the varied aesthetics and personalities of different pantheons, and doing that would've taken time away from the whimsies with Matt Damons and goats.

It's also where the film's unusual, arguably innovative production techniques most egregiously fail to make the case they're ready for primetime: Love and Thunder was shot with recourse to StageCraft, a more formalized version of things that I know at least Christopher Nolan and Joseph Kosinski have done, and on paper it sounds like it should be helpful, with pre-rendered CGI serving as actual backdrops on giant LED screens around the actors that light them with the appropriate ambience and, perhaps, serve as useful tools for them to pretend they're in space or whatever.  In practice, or at least here, it comes off chintzy.  My working theory is that the Marvel movieswhich already have a deserved reputation for putting VFX houses against punishing deadlines at the end of a long and intervention-prone post-production cycle, then blaming them when the CGI is inevitably badreally can't survive that process being moved into mid-production, and accordingly they would strongly prefer we not actually see what's on those screens.  Or maybe Waititi and cinematographer Barry Idoine* are another couple of mooks in love with the possibilities of shallow focus, so that in all cases the backgrounds are slurries of vague metallic color with the actors appearing to float above them, less connected to their surroundings than characters in a Hitchcock rear-projection shot or, startlingly, The Phantom Menace.  The photography is at least poppy and bright, though this also means the bright LEDs smudge background color all over the actors' faces in ways that don't necessarily match the environments, and a lot of overlit shots of two people wearing shiny plasticky Thor costumes, which is at least one too many for the visual not to feel gaudy in a bad way.

Still: things pick up considerably about halfway through, and it's no mistake that most everything after this has something to do with Bale's Gorr, as Bale is the one actor in the whole film granted permission to do something other than jokey bullshit (he can't even have scenes with other actors without jokey bullshit, however, even Brugh trying to do comedy as Gorr's callous deity, and if this works it's because the contrast with Bale's severity is productively obscene).  It's also no mistake that this is where it became fully incumbent on Waititi to finally get his plot on its rails.  The shift occurs in one of those not-as-rare-as-people-make-out-but-still-pretty-unique instances of a Marvel movie doing something legitimately visually cool, where our heroes track Gorr to his place of power, a dark dimension, and color almost totally seeps out of the film in favor of high-contrast black-and-white, except for in flashes of lightning, and in the creepy golden-yellow of Gorr's eyes.  All told it's a pretty fantastic little action sequence, riffing very obviously on Sin City but that's not a movie that gets a lot of riffs; and in any event Sin City was not set on a moody asteroid in a mystical shadow realm.

It has a little horror inflection, even, and to a small but critical degree that's true basically whenever Gorr's onscreen: he's already a gross visualization, a pale, spindly, ghostly creature with black drool stains on his chin; and Bale pushes that further into monsterdom with the film's one good performance, keeping his psychic and physical agony in counterpoise with the playful joy he's taking in his vengeance on the concept of godhood.  I don't know if it actually works on any deeper level than just "flavorful": this is basically just a guy who acts like he eats bugs for fun, as opposed to a genuinely good villain.  He kills gods principally because Thor is a god and this Thor movie needs an antagonist, but there's not really anything more thereI mean, we could start with "can you define 'god'?", because the MCU's Thor is an extradimensional alien who hasn't been worshipped in a millenniumand the entire set-up, though confusing a pagan theodicy with a Christian one, has essentially negative interest in being any kind of actual statement about religion.  (Indeed, infinitely less than the maligned Eternals, which at least had some gravity.)  Bale and his designers manage a little something, with the image of an ascetic turned into a ghoul, but that's the absolute limit.

The film simply isn't designed to support thatsomehow, it's slightly better-designed to support "being angry at God is self-destructive" than it's designed to support a romantic cancer drama revolving around characters we already knowbut at least after this point, Love and Thunder is okayish, in that it's pursuing a cosmic chase plot that eventually ends in Prismo's time room, and it's largely watchable in that the obnoxiousness dial has finally been turned down.  (Though it ends with the promise of horrible sassy child comedy next time.)  It's far from the worst recent Marvel, but I can see why it's getting such a muted reception.  It's all the franchise's worst tendencies on steroids, and having Real Filmmaker™ Taika Waititi direct it and putting a couple of the most obvious Guns 'n' Roses songs on the soundtrack to sell the idea of "rock-and-roll fantasy" like it was hair metal Flash Gordon doesn't mean it actually has personality.  That a movie about a beloved dying of cancer can use "November Rain" as the backing for a perfunctory action sequence surely suggests something about the level of thought and commitment that went into it.

Score: 5/10

*Tragically, not Barry Iodine.

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