Movie review

Only a few superhero franchises have made it to a fourth movie, and you can usually sum up how bad they are in less than a sentence each: George Clooney’s bat-nipples in “Batman and Robin” (1997), Nuclear Man fighting Superman on the moon in “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (1987).

It brings me no pleasure to report “Thor: Love and Thunder” is worse. I wished I was actually watching “Batman and Robin” or “Superman IV,” because for all their camp, those movies felt less pointless and more human than “Thor 4,” a cheap corporate commercial for upcoming Marvel content.

“Thor 4” feels like a Disney experiment in just how bad Marvel movies can get before someone points out the emperor has no clothes. It feels like a Marvel movie that secretly thinks you’re stupid for liking Marvel movies. 

Thor was a weird candidate for a blockbuster movie in the first place, and certainly as the first Marvel character to get his own fourth movie: He’s not a superhero; he’s a god who’s famous for his element (thunder), not his personality — he’s Superman without Clark Kent. While the first two movies stumbled around this with little aesthetic, in the third — “Thor: Ragnarok” — director Taika Waititi injected bolts of space opera and a suggestion of sword-and-planet sci-fi, and turned the awkward shuffle into a jokey dance. In a better franchise — a better world, maybe — Waititi, and Disney, would be satisfied.

“Thor 4” drags the joke out way too far. 

“Thor 4” finds Thor at what seems like an epilogue of a devastatingly tragic story. He’s lost his father, mother, adopted brother, homeland, most of his people and his kingship. Iron Man is dead, Black Widow is dead, Captain America is old, the Hulk is no longer angry, but like the Marvel franchise, Thor never dies.

So it’s yet another villain (Christian Bale), yet another crisis, yet more soupy computer-generated minions with shadowy tentacles and spider legs, yet another barely 3D planet with the cast (badly) green screened in. “Thor 4’s” effects would be embarrassing on TV 10 years ago, and they’re in every shot. The pacing is so speedy and sloppy, the movie feels like it was edited by an algorithm. Chris Hemsworth, who played the Norse god of thunder straight-faced for several movies before cracking a smile in “Ragnarok,” has now left behind any semblance of restraint or understanding of comedic timing.

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“Love and Thunder” is deeply cynical. It doesn’t pretend to enjoy doing this yet again. When Bale is corrupted by an evil god-killing sword in an alien Garden of Eden, it’s ho-hum (although Bale is OK). When Natalie Portman picks up Thor’s broken hammer Mjolnir and it transfers the god’s power to her, there’s no sense of wonder (and Portman’s not even pretending to enjoy this). Worse, Waititi’s babbling satirical screenplay makes it feel like he’s mocking you for believing another Thor movie could be good.

“Thor 4” is the worst Marvel movie because it’s not a movie — it’s content.

“Love and Thunder” wraps itself up in progressive trappings, hoping that if you’re distracted by ribbons of representation — a woman getting Thor’s powers or multiple queer people existing — you won’t notice that it treats that woman as a plot device and those queer people as punchlines or, at best, window dressing.

A bright spot: Russell Crowe is hilarious as Zeus. But when I’m watching Crowe as Zeus, I can’t help but feel as if I am Prometheus and I’ve discovered fire movies but instead I’m watching the eagles feast on my guts before my guts grow back and we do all of this again for a fifth Thor, or a ninth Spider-Man or a 14th X-Men movie.

“Thor 4” is a bad farce of itself. It has no stakes, and no deaths are permanent. It doesn’t even pretend for a moment that anyone — even if they get a lightning bolt through the heart, or everything but their face gets destroyed, or even if they literally die — is actually going to exit this franchise. That would mean no spinoff series. That would mean less content.

And the worst part of it all is that unlike “Batman and Robin” and “Superman IV,” “Love and Thunder” will not be the end. When the words “THOR WILL RETURN” flash across the scene at the end of this installment, it feels like an ancient curse. You’re left to sit and contemplate how long before we stop pouring our cash on the altar of the corporate studio gods.

“Thor: Love and Thunder” ★ (out of four)

With Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson. Directed by Taika Waititi. 119 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, some suggestive material and partial nudity. Opens July 8 in multiple theaters.

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