CW: Discussion of the COVID-19 Pandemic
A few years ago, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was going somewhere. There was clear direction where every disparate strand, to a fault, was part of a linear tapestry. This led to a state where you had to watch them, you had to watch them all. It is all marketing, and it worked. It is worthy of critique, for sure, and forced homogeneity. But, if you are going to force all of your films to exist in an ever moving, unified universe, they should be in it for a reason. After Endgame, we lost that reason, and since then the films have been scrabbling around in search of purpose. Where once the MCU created too much momentum, now it feels like an albatross around the neck of wider films.
There is a wider, cultural experience that these have all intersected with, though. This couldn’t have been predicted, but now that we live deep into a pandemic, and have gone through a lot of collective grief, we have all certainly lived through something. I feel the need to stress we are still going through something, but the initial impact stands out as a definitional moment in our recent history. This, somewhat, recontextualises Endgame specifically. A film about collective loss, about loss of time, that feels oddly resonant. It is trite to equate periods of lockdown to The Snap, but art can speak metaphorically beyond its intent, and the way this event impacts the MCU does lightly echo things we’ve felt. We have lost time. We have lost people. And so much of it could have been prevented. There is a sense of cosmic unfairness felt in our universe and in the MCU. This, therefore, has put these Marvel films, serendipitously, in a unique position where they are able to speak to our moment.
Giant events cause aftermath. One of my favourite filmmakers is Hong Sang-soo, his cinema is the cinema of aftermath. His stories exist frames after where narratives usually exist. Inciting incidents are not in the first act, they happen before the films: the films are about fallout. These films work because we know that is how life works. Life is not a constant build to thing after thing; after huge moments, it is only natural to reflect and to take pause. It is only natural to explore the collateral impacts. Due to this, the time after Endgame is such an important time. This lack of direction (we’ve reach the end goal, where now?) could become its own direction. And, speaking purely for myself, I need that right now. I have a need for art that is about trying to make sense of the world and about trying to deal with the aftermath of things. I have been deeply affected by the pandemic, on a personal, national and global scale. We’ve all gone through something, it is nice to see art that reckons with that.
The MCU has got close to this, even in ‘the before times’. Far From Home, for its first act, felt like a necessary palette cleanser. A low stakes, let’s try and get back to normality and work out what normality is, that’s the story that needed to be told. And then it is about another super villain, and then the next movies are about multiverses. Marvel, listen, if you want your universe wide event to actually feel like it mattered, you can’t follow it up by introducing a multiverse. Suddenly, it feels less impactful. And I want it to be impactful. I have, we have, lived through moments that matter and we are reeling from them. Let the impact linger. Let it be meaningful.
Though I enjoyed Shang-Chi, a brand new character with its own distinct lore is not what the MCU needs right now, and Eternals (which was just awful) deciding to just drop in a few millennia’s worth of new lore is not what the MCU needs right now. The impact of a moment is often measured by the silence after it. The sound of the MCU needs to be the sound of silence. It needs to matter.
Thor: Love and Thunder, is almost the film the MCU needs right now. For that reason, I really appreciate it. A story about a person who was defined by purpose suddenly not having purpose, always chasing ‘the next Thor adventure’ (with a hollow irony), that’s not just funny, that hits home. How do we find identity in the time after? We are all reckoning with this at the moment. I like that Love and Thunder, in a way, is reckoning with this too. Therefore, the early moments of Love and Thunder, the ones that actually spend time in the current world of the MCU, the time after, are really brilliant (or at least really interesting). Seeing the pulled together Asgard community, the way it intersects with Earth society and the specificities that have been born out of unprecedented moments, this is so interesting. The MCU is a unique thing, and a very unique event happened in it. The films now need to define this even with its impact. Seeing Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie doing Old Spice ads; seeing aliens taking meeting minutes (in alien ways); seeing tourist tours and actually having scenes that exist in neighbourhoods that feel like they are in actual communities, that’s the kind of thing these films have been lacking. It may call itself a cinematic universe, but it has only ever felt like a vessel for narratives and for the existence of a select gang of superheroes. It has never felt like a place that exists. Love and Thunder gives it some time to exist.
This is augmented by the film taking on some more down-to-earth issues. Terminal illness, love (both romantic and beyond) and identity are core to this film. They should be more core, the film is at its best when it focuses on these things. Alas, it is mostly not at its best, though I still really like it. For every time it gains sparks of brilliance out of existing in opposition to what the MCU has been, for taking the time to engage in aftermath (which, I cannot highlight enough, feels so therapeutic), there is the need to be involved in cosmic adventure and the next big thing. Now, I love the Gorr the Godbutcher arc. Thanks to my friend Reinier, I recently read that run of comics and it is a story really worth telling. It isn’t in line with the Waititi take on Thor, though; it also just isn’t the story for now. Thor trying to work out who he is after loss is not a useful catalyst for a story about killing all the gods. We are trying to reckon with one massive event, we need to let it linger. It’s hard to care about this new one, and it doesn’t fit into the film this should be. It also facilitates the film’s worst scene: where Russel Crowe does some accent work that cannot be described as inoffensive. I hoped we’d moved beyond the punchline being an exaggerated version of a national accent from somebody not of that nation. Apparently we have not.
At this point, I want to get out of the way what doesn’t work. Partly because there’s a lot of it but mostly because I want to really get to what shines. Again, the film should focuses on lingering, on existing in the present as defined by the past. But, this can never happen. The curse of the MCU strikes again. For this film to be relevant, to take advantage of the moment we are living through and to see how the storyline of the MCU can link to it, in a way that is actually meaningful, is not possible due to how these are produced. These movies are sketched out decades in advance, with a predefined trajectory that makes them functionally inert. Which sucks. And you know what else sucks? The aesthetic of this film. The use of digitised backgrounds is limiting and ugly. Love and Thunder is full of great visual ideas and none of them are well executed. There’s no real sense for composition or visual grandeur (which links back to the film not being able to take a moment and to take it in) and the action scenes are just an overload of stuff. The soundtrack and credits sequence have an aesthetic to them; the film just looks bland. As much as I didn’t care for The Suicide Squad, at least its style was cohesive. Love and Thunder is some cool typography and some aesthetically aligned music just shoved under the most functional visual filmmaking.
Narratively, the film also sags. We are shoving together different comic book arcs into one narrative, and a narrative that springs out of a place very different to either of those arcs. It doesn’t fit and, to be honest, the film feels like it is being made up on the spot. The directionless feeling of the current MCU output returns and the result is no narrative investment. Stuff just happens and this shambolic plotting is only forgivable because the non-sensical moments are stewarded in by some witty lines. It’s never a hilarious film, but it is persistently funny and the style of humour feels cohesive. It is not just more Marvel quippiness, it has its own irreverent style that makes this (and Ragnarok before it) stand out as high-watermarks of Marvel dialogue writing.
To return to the positives, the best parts are the moments this film intersects with lived experience. But, another reason I like it is because it puts its emotional and thematic weight behind things that actually matter. Though, I do need to point out that there is a slight colonialist bent to the film (an arc that ties in far too cleanly with saviour narratives and uses some iconography (especially some that can be linked to indigenous communities) quite carelessly in a wider framework, inadivsiably so). Outside of this, I found some real resonance. And, I’m not surprised the film isn’t hitting home with all. This film feels very attuned to the stage of my life at the moment (a 30 year old cis-male on the verge of getting married, and thinking about the probable events that will follow that). Love and Thunder’s sincere focus not only on Thunder, but on Love, is commendable. The film really wants to say this stuff, this superhero stuff and comic booky stuff, it doesn’t really matter. It is our connections that matter, it is actual emotion that matters. It’s great because it sounds cringey. It’s even better because I would have found this cringey in the past.
Love and Thunder really is a right film at the right time for me. It actually made me reflect in interesting ways. Though the current younger generation have an admirable commitment to sincerity, growing up in the 90s, and early 2000s, was defined by irony and detachment. There was a need to be above things. One thing I loved as a teen: Guns n’ Roses. But, like every insufferable teen, I was very specific about what Guns n’ Roses I loved. I loved the raw stuff, you know: Appetite for Destruction. It was hardcore, it was crude and it was a really nasty little album. You know, the good stuff? And, to be frank, what is Sweet Child o’ Mine doing on that album? I disliked the song by association; its (as I saw it) forced sweetness did not fit in an album where the tone was beyond bitter. Don’t get me started on later songs like November Rain. Why have Guns n’ Roses become the ballad band when it used to be just short and heavy songs about sex and drug use? That’s cool right. Who wants to listen to songs about lost love and emotion? Well, 30 year old me, it turns out.
At this point, I haven’t listened to Guns n’ Roses in a while, and the songs coming back felt like old friends. And when November Rain hit, I felt really emotional. You know what, these songs rule. They are anthemic and emotional; to me, they don’t feel forced and cringey, that edgy stuff on Appetite about all the drugs (and the rampant misogyny), that’s the cringe. A younger me would scornfully laugh at a film that leads up to a proclamation that it is love that matters, it is our relationships that are the things worth saving. Now, I just know that it is true, and the MCU is the right place to put this. An expression of intimate and human emotion feels really powerful in this cinematic universe, because it is not the key it has ever really been in. Sadness has come from sacrifice and heroic acts. The small sadnesses that define life don’t feature, the narrative must go on.
Love and Thunder works because it is sincere. Because it believes that you need the Thunder, the spectacle, but Love is just as important. It sounds trite when describing it, but it only sounds trite because its true. The way the film handles illness and affection is actually very moving, is incredibly sincere and legitimate. This is the stuff that matters. Nothing lasts forever, not even cold November rain. It can be corny and still be true; it can be true because it is corny. Maybe I’ve softened but really I think I have a better perspective of what matters. This goes back to the pandemic as well. Love, connection, normality: these things matter. These things are worth exploring. When this movie allows the franchise to take a step back and, even while having a joke, reflect on what actually matters in life, it is really rather brilliant. In this film, Thor has grown. Thor is in a time after, and it works for me because I can feel my own growth through it. I feel myself reacting sincerely and giving into legitimacy rather than hiding behind irony and artifice. This is why the adventure yarn gets in the way, it is supposed to be a foil that highlights emotion but it just smothers it. Actual emotion needs time, the bits that resonate in Love and Thunder work because the film slows down.
To return to my initial point, these films could be the films we need right now. But, the system behind them will never let them be. The need to keep being bigger, and better, and more digitised, and more hyperbolised makes them anathema to emotion. Love and Thunder tries, and sometimes it really succeeds. Sometimes this film is therapy, a reflection of our existence with a sprinkle of well written humour. But, the thunder has to keep coming, because the people want spectacle. Apparently. But, Marvel, this is only going to work if you let the spectacle matter, if you let it have an impact.