WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for various Marvel films and TV series.
After a slow but steady decade-long build toward a massive superheroic crescendo with 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has continued to occupy the pinnacle of modern popular culture. Seven films and seven streaming series after Endgame, Thor: Love And Thunder, the fourth solo entry headlined by Chris Hemsworth’s Norse God of Thunder, made a thunderous boom at the box office even though the movie’s reviews were as inconsistent as lightning strikes.
The broad scope of that response—some heralding director Taika Waititi’s deliriously unleashed creativity, others calling it a Ragnarok redux—suggests an uncertain future for this shared cinematic universe, both on screen and behind the scenes. What exactly does Love And Thunder tell us about what’s to come in the MCU? And perhaps most importantly, is Marvel Studios giving fans what they want?
Marvel is still building its universe one hero at a time
Early on, the MCU cleverly introduced top-tier characters Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk both individually and with strong indications that each was part of a greater tapestry, a shared universe of sometimes at-odds heroes that was as fresh and dynamic to the world of film in the early 2010s as it was to comics books when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and their collaborators launched them in the early 1960s.
By the time they united in Avengers—opening the door to new heroes not yet ready to headline solo films, like Black Widow and Hawkeye—there was already a clear sense that an even greater overarching storyline was building towards Thanos and the Infinity Stones. After 10 years, the Infinity War/Endgame payoff uniting all the central heroes from 22 films in one epic adventure was so powerful and rewarding that fans may have lost sight of just how long it took to get there.
Love And Thunder exemplifies MCU Phase Four’s commitment to building momentum by showcasing the adventures of individual heroes over the team-centric mentality that drove the second and third Captain America movies, the Tom Holland Spider-Man movies, and of course Avengers. With no formal Avengers team operating now in the MCU, Phase Four showcases a fresh slate of appealing newbies, including Shang-Chi, Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel, and even “teams” like the Eternals that operate fully independently.
Even the Guardians make little more than a cameo in Love And Thunder, appearing more to wrap continuity details than anything else. As a whole, Marvel seems to be resisting over-populating its solo-minded films with obligatory team-ups that, while sparkly and fun, could undermine or water down the power of each central super’s own heroic journeys.
Next season’s capes show promise
Though big-name supers encounter each other sparingly, brand-new superheroes from comics canon are being rolled out at a rapid clip as adjuncts to the films’ and series’ central protagonists, usually characters long associated with the headliner. We’ve been introduced to newbies including Yelena Belova’s Black Widow, Monica Rambeau’s Photon, Kate Bishop’s Hawkeye, prospective Black Knight Dane Whitman, Doctor Strange’s future mystic paramour Clea, Moon Knight’s love the Scarlet Scarab and several characters that have ties, in some form, to the comics’ Young Avengers.
As onetime sidekicks like Sam Wilson and, soon, James “Rhodey” Rhodes are elevated to headliners, the MCU is suddenly filling up with a deep bench of rookies ready for first-string status. Love And Thunder’s end credits sequences suggest that, as in the comics, Jane Foster will live again as a Valkyrie, while Olympian Hercules—a longstanding Avenger in the comics—will tussle with Thor somewhere down the line.
It’s all about auteurs over house style
Well before Love And Thunder, Marvel began to embrace a more auteur-driven approach, a departure from the loose house style that characterized some of the studio’s earlier entries. Films like Guardians, Ragnarok and Black Panther demonstrated that the MCU greatly benefitted from employing filmmakers like James Gunn, Waititi and Ryan Coogler to bring a truly unique vision and style to the superhero stories they were telling.
The current phase perpetuates that successful trend, with veteran Sam Raimi freshening up Doctor Strange’s horror-tinged corner, rising newcomer Cate Shortland supplying Black Widow with familial warmth alongside bone-crunching action, Destin Daniel Cretton bringing an authentic cultural perspective to Shang-Chi And The Legends Of The Ten Rings, and Waititi once again reimagining Thor’s realm with irreverence and outrageousness.
Indeed, Marvel seems all-in on auteur theory (though outlier Eternals failed to successfully marry Chloe Zhao’s visual lyricism with MCU spectacle); this sensibility has carried through with its forays into television, where the writer-producer rules, in concert with strong directorial collaborators: WandaVision, Loki, Hawkeye and Ms. Marvel in particular are terrific examples of strong, left-of-center perspectives.
Better bad guys are paying off
Superheroes are often only as interesting as their supervillains; Love And Thunder demonstrates the lessons learned over time in the MCU: after early films sometimes featured more two-dimensional Big Bads (the Red Skull, Whiplash and Malekith among them), more nuanced, charismatic and complex antagonists like Loki, Eric Killmonger, Hela and Thanos demonstrated the value of a well-developed adversary.
Christian Bale’s Gorr the God Butcher delivers on both genuine menace, empathetic motivation and resonant pathos, and sits respectably along the recent MCU rogues’ gallery, including Xu Wenwu, the U.S. Agent, Agatha Harkness, and Helmut Zemo, not to mention the multiverse-sliding Green Goblin. Onetime antihero Loki is practically a good guy now, while Wanda Maximoff’s profound grief led her to be corrupted by the Darkhold, both proving fascinating in their turns. Increasingly, the villains are every bit as compelling as the heroes, and capable of illuminating what makes the good guys good (and sometimes not so good).
Clues are hidden in plain sight
Though it took over a decade to get to Endgame, just four years later fans are already growing restless for another all-out hero clearinghouse. Audiences are not only primed for a sense of the bigger picture after all of the MCU content to date, but are impatiently expecting a greater sense of long-form clarity, even as Marvel Studios continues to hold its cards close to the vest. Love And Thunder, beginning and ending with its Thor-centric storyline, doesn’t conspicuously advance the over-arching narrative—or does it?
Through Loki, No Way Home, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness and What If…?, it’s clear that the multiverse is especially relevant to the MCU’s future; the studio’s first 2023 title, Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania, promises further exploration of that idea, likely unveiling one of the variants of Loki villain He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors) as the time-traveling, multiverse-spanning, identity-fluid villain Kang the Conqueror, one of the Avengers’ most enduring and formidable enemies in the comics—not to mention one who has familial ties to the Fantastic Four, possibly paving the way for that team’s proper introduction into the MCU.
Love And Thunder may also provide a key piece of the ever-growing puzzle with its introduction of Eternity, that abstract, anthropomorphic cosmic entity with the power to dramatically alter reality—and whose very essence derives directly from the multiverse itself. Like the Cosmic Cube, the Aether, or the Eye of Agamotto, Eternity—whose powers were once insidiously harnessed by Kang in the comics—may have a more significant role to play down the line than initial face value suggests.
Love And Thunder also introduces Hercules, who holds a familial grudge against Thor—exactly the kind of vulnerability that might make him an easy target for the manipulative agent provocateur Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus): he’d make good, godly muscle for her growing collection of misguided, mirror-darkly dupes, including U.S. Agent John Rogers and Black Widow Yelena Belova, that may yet assemble as an MCU version of the Dark Avengers.
And in stage-setting Jane Foster’s potential return as a winged Valkyrie, Love And Thunder also opens the door for Jane to find new romance with Sam Wilson’s scientifically flighted Captain America, as she did in the comics when they were among the core members of a next-gen Avengers team. (That also presumes that her rekindled romance with Thor was fully concluded after she died—the kind of consideration that superheroes don’t seem to have to make.)
So despite its seemingly self-contained narrative scope, Love And Thunder may in fact be a significant contributor to the ongoing mosaic of the MCU, even if fans don’t immediately recognize it, in the way the first Guardians film unexpectedly set up elements that would be vital to essence of Endgame.
Gratification remains delayed, for now anyway
Just when and where that big finish might arrive remains shrouded in mystery: when it comes to cosmic-scale, multiverse-threatening menaces, the nigh-omnipotent Beyonder of ’80s “Secret Wars” fame and the world-devouring Galactus are among the bigger as-yet-unholstered guns in the Marvel arsenal, but thus far nothing concrete has suggested that either are part of the ultimate plan.
After Endgame, fans can be forgiven for being a little overeager for Marvel to step on the gas to get to the next big crescendo. But it’s worth asking the question: by focusing on auteur-enabled, tightly focused solo hero spotlights like Thor: Love And Thunder, is Marvel Studios giving MCU fans what they want? Obviously, even fans themselves cannot agree. Some can’t get enough of Waititi’s irreverence and uniqueness, even when it comes at the expense of canonical ideas. Others have become acclimated to stories that actively drive towards an endgame—even if not necessarily to Endgame—and balk at the prospect of meandering through the MCU’s mountains of mythology.
A satisfying answer may still be a while in coming, but the current path follows a winning formula going back to the earliest days of Lee, Kirby, Ditko and company’s formative, never-before-tried shared comic book universe, bolstered by the unique spins and flourishes subsequent visionary creators added over the years. Indeed, that game plan was repeatedly spectacularly on screen in Phases One through Three of the MCU as refinements were layered in: the more fully realized every individual superhero is, the more unique style and flavor they bring, and the more defined their particular corner of the universe becomes, the more the MCU benefits as a whole.
Whether they defend the cosmos or the back alleys of New York, when every hero is either a heavyweight champion who’s beaten long odds or a scrappy underdog looking for their breakout moment, those eventual, inevitable battles have the greatest potential to be genuinely Marvelous. It will be interesting to see how eager fans will be to take the ride—sometimes predestined by the source material, other times entirely unexpected, but hopefully always exciting—to arrive at that yet-to-be-revealed destination.