Is Thor the funniest Avenger? Since the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with 2008’s Iron Man, the franchise has featured a series of wisecracking superheroes in movies that emphasize quips over an overly brooding tone. Some MCU installments — in particular, the Ant-Man movies — are more ostensibly comedies than, say, Avengers: Infinity War, in which the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. But while watching Thor: Love and Thunder, which opens Friday, I paused to consider that the buff dude from Asgard is the Marvel character who probably makes me laugh the most. That he’s also a god only makes him funnier.
The Thor movies have often leaned into the idea that there’s something inherently ridiculous about the guy. The original film arrived in the summer of 2011, director Kenneth Branagh understanding that the story of a god being banished to Earth, where he meets a beautiful, nerdy astrophysicist, would work best as a fish-out-of-water romantic comedy — albeit one with the occasional action sequence thrown in. Not since Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home had a studio tentpole been this big-grin goofy, and I’m not just talking about the unintentional hilarity of Thor’s bleach-blonde eyebrows. Much of Thor was built around the fact that the mighty Asgardian didn’t understand our weird customs, the culture clash leading to lots of silly but weirdly endearing jokes. Add in the fact that Chris Hemsworth is a big, strapping bro and Natalie Portman is a tiny, adorable gal, and you had a movie that was determined not to take itself too seriously. In Thor, gathering Infinity Stones meant a lot less than falling in love.
Hemsworth’s eyebrows have improved over the course of the MCU, but the character’s sweet, dopey essence remains, and although Thor: Love and Thunder is more than a little uneven, I find this series’ light, unfussed tone to still be pretty damn winning. Never glib but nonetheless amused with the whole notion of superhero movies devoted to a guy nicknamed the God of Thunder, Thor and its sequels have often served as a self-critique of themselves. Occasionally meta but rarely obnoxiously so, Thor: Love and Thunder succeeds at reminding you why you love Thor’s world without getting too precious about it. The movie is dorky, but it’s got a big heart — a description that applies to Thor as well.
This is the second Thor film to be directed by Taika Waititi, whose Thor: Ragnarok treated comic-book movies with the same reverence that he previously brought to vampire lore in his 2014 mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, which is to say none at all. Thor: Ragnarok was a tricky achievement, appealing to fanboys while also being irreverent. But even more importantly, the playful tone seemed to energize Hemsworth, who had previously worked with Waititi on the Team Thor shorts, which imagined what would happen if the formidable Asgardian had to have a human roommate.
Not only did the shorts play up Hemsworth’s understated flair for comedy — his ability to puncture Thor’s bravado with wry wit — but they also suggested a novel new way of thinking of the character. Without succumbing to self-parody, Team Thor argued it was okay to laugh at Thor, whose self-regard for his own godly greatness was consistently undercut by his pettiness and ego. Thor: Ragnarok successfully built on Hemsworth’s growing comedic chops, and although some significant events occur in that movie — for one thing, Thor’s beloved Asgard is destroyed — you walked away from the experience giddy. Not only was Thor funny, but he was also hip, an impressive feat considering he’s a superhero who wears a helmet with horns on it.
Thor: Love and Thunder wants to bring the yuks as well, starting with a framing device involving Thor’s pile-of-rocks buddy Korg (Waititi), who’s telling a group of children a campfire story, which is the film we’re about to see. But because Korg isn’t the brightest, he gets details of Thor’s tale wrong — for one thing, Thor’s true love is named Jane Foster, not Jodie Foster — which might be Waititi’s way of subtly implying that the legends and myths we attach to gods are profoundly inaccurate and preposterous. Some of Thor: Love and Thunder’s humor is schticky — the film’s not nearly as sharp as the previous chapter — but it retains the belief that superhero stories maybe aren’t the most important thing in the world. It takes guts to embed such a message inside a Marvel movie, and yet Waititi has done that very thing for a second straight Thor film — even while he makes room for some lump-in-the-throat moments. Turns out, finding Thor funny doesn’t preclude you from caring about Thor.
Christian Bale is one of Thor: Love and Thunder’s new faces, playing the horrifying Gorr the God Butcher, who has vowed to eradicate the universe’s gods, wielding a magical sword that makes him as powerful as Thor. After Gorr abducts all of New Asgard’s children, Thor must find them, joined by Jane, who has access to his old hammer, which gives her the same strength and abilities that Thor has. If that isn’t enough to make Thor feel insecure, he also still has feelings for Jane, even though she’s the one who broke up with him. The new film forces Asgard’s greatest champion to act like seeing Jane again isn’t breaking his heart — it’s another way Waititi humanizes a seemingly invulnerable character, and Hemsworth delights in showcasing the cracks in Thor’s veneer. The guy can travel across the galaxy, performing incredible feats of heroism, but he can’t get Jane to love him, no matter how mighty he is.
It’s a familiar move for impossibly beautiful actors to portray dumbbells, essentially playing into the audience’s assumption that they’re gorgeous but vapid. As a dramatic actor, Hemsworth has a very mixed track record, but when he started satirizing his image in comedies, it seemed to loosen him up. The 2015 remake of Vacation wasn’t great, but he was, stealing the movie with his cameo as an airhead news anchor who comes on to Rusty’s (Ed Helms) wife Debbie (Christina Applegate), even though he’s little more than a grinning idiot. (The scene where Hemsworth struts around only in boxers that accentuate his comically exaggerated genitals was a highlight.)
Hemsworth played a similarly hilarious dolt in the following year’s Ghostbusters remake, and the fact that Team Thor arrived around the same time didn’t seem like coincidence: Hemsworth was figuring out how to carry himself on screen, juxtaposing his stunning physique with an impish mischievousness, and it helped imbue Thor with down-to-earth likability. The bit in Avengers: Endgame where Thor becomes tubby because he’s depressed felt pretty hackneyed — Waititi had nothing to do with that — but the visual gag spoke to a larger narrative strategy of finding the humor in Thor’s surprising emotional vulnerability.
In other words, sure, Thor may be the God of Thunder, but he’s got feelings, too. I mean, this is a guy who lost his father, his mother, his oft-scheming brother and his home planet: You can’t say he hasn’t endured enough tragedies. But by making Thor funnier, Hemsworth also somehow made him more sensitive, which turns out to be crucial in Thor: Love and Thunder. Without revealing anything, let’s just say that Thor, Jane, Korg and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) have to find New Asgard’s kidnapped children, Thor’s mission complicated by being near Jane again, the human who got away. Their awkwardness around each other can sometimes be a little juvenile, but by this point Hemsworth has made Thor such a lovable dork — a god who’s at peace with the fact that he’s not-so-special, as flawed and complicated as anyone else — that his every interaction with Jane ends up being pretty cute.
Thor: Love and Thunder has its darker elements, not to mention some really bittersweet scenes. But it’s guided by a cheerful energy and a deep fondness for Thor. A lot of the credit goes to how Waititi has rethought the character, but even more goes to Hemsworth, who’s growing more and more confident as a performer. (As proof, look no further than his recent Netflix thriller Spiderhead, which finds him playing a sinister medical-tech-bro with a malicious sense of humor, the best balance of comedy and drama he’s displayed to date.)
Sooner or later, Chris Hemsworth will stop being the God of Thunder. Thor helped make him a superstar, but how Hemsworth refined and enhanced this Avenger may help inform his career going forward once his time in the MCU ends. For all of us who get a kick out of Thor, maybe it was never really Thor that we were responding to. Maybe who we were really digging is the better, funnier, more interesting actor Hemsworth has become.