The latest movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: Love and Thunder, has now been unleashed on the world where it is most certainly going to make a boatload of cash. However, putting the inevitable financial returns aside, the film itself is a deeply flawed experience whose attempts at humor don’t always land. That is, except for one side character who steals the show in the most glorious fashion possible. While it is centered on the continued adventures of Chris Hemsworth as the Norse god Thor, there is a different deity that captures our attention who seems to have drunkenly wandered in from a different, far better film. Yes, I am talking about the all-too-brief appearance of Russell Crowe’s Zeus.
Making use of odd inflection and delivery that appears to be the veteran actor’s best attempt at a Greek accent, though it’s truly anyone’s guess, it is the type of performance that sticks out in the best way possible. He first appears when Thor and the gang must travel to the famed Omnipotence City, a floating celestial fortress from the comics where they run into a whole host of gods. However, they have no time to waste with all these lesser gods as they are looking to go talk to the big man in charge: Zeus himself. They are hoping to get his support as Christian Bale’s menacing and underutilized Gorr the God Butcher is staying true to his name by butchering gods. Unfortunately, they soon discover help is nowhere to be found.
This is because Crowe plays Zeus as a shallow showman, strutting around with a smarmy yet sinister sense of how to use spectacle to command an audience. He is goofy and gregarious, more focused on an upcoming orgy than anything else. He looks the part as well, flaunting his flowing locks and scraggly beard while wearing a gaudy golden breastplate etched with symbols. He is a being not constrained by subtlety, something Crowe embraces with an energetic disposition that is fitting and fearsome for a god with such power. His weapon of choice, of course, is a lightning bolt that Thor will later set his sights on when he realizes its owner is not actually going to help him. All of these details help breathe life into the character, though it is Crowe’s chaotic performance that really makes it such a great one. Whereas many of the other characters feel like they’re sleepwalking through the fraught film, he blows the doors off of the role and bellows his way through each boisterous scene with ease.
While many of the jokes throughout the film are often based upon characters riffing on the same premise over and over, Crowe seems to know more of the proper tone to strike. He carries himself with a haughty, yet hilarious, self-importance, his arrogance emerging through every single aspect of his performance. He doesn’t do so in a way that is winking at the audience or relying upon self-referential humor as much of the film does. Instead, he is just purely comical in how he embodies the obliviousness that comes with being worshiped while doing nothing to earn it. It is silly, though not superficially so. Sure, when he accidentally blows off all of Thor’s clothes for a gag, his surprise is perfectly attuned to the moment. Most importantly, it shows he doesn’t even know his strengths or have complete control of his own power because he has never needed to. There is no need to restrain yourself when you’re a god, leading to situations that are funny, though they betray something far more frightening.
While it is not entirely excavated in the film, the central theme it is grasping at is that the gods are not to be trusted and don’t actually care about anyone other than themselves. This is the realization that drives Gorr to revenge as he has witnessed firsthand how their callous cruelty can devastate the lives of those desperately seeking their help that will never come. Zeus is this given shape and form once more, though this time it is our heroes who see it for themselves. He becomes a precise portrait of pretentiousness that encapsulates the uncaring nature of the gods. While Crowe is undeniably absurd when we are first introduced to him, he shifts into being more frightening at a moment’s notice. When he approaches a chained Thor to whisper in his ear, the facade he puts on for the crowd drops, and we see the true monster he is under it all emerge. Crowe, for all the bizarre details he brought to his character, brings the necessary amount of gravitas to make it work. The juxtaposition between the persona he played up for the crowd to then this more quiet and unsettling one cuts deep. The way he performs on stage versus who he is when the masks slip ever so slightly speaks volumes.
It is therefore a shame that, much like with Bale, we don’t see more of Crowe getting to let loose. In the film, he is one of the few that really finds a groove in his humor and runs with it in interesting new directions. Going into the film, it was unclear how much of a part he would actually get and there was some trepidation about how it would fit into the film. Not only does he fit in perfectly, but he is one of the highlights of what can be an uneven experience. It is not every day you can see a character go from doing a quick turn with a heaping of sass to then being far more psychologically unhinged, though Crowe provides that in spades. For that brief period, in the middle of Thor: Love and Thunder, he commanded the screen with such verve and vigor that one could almost forget the belabored journey it took to get there as well as what follows. What is interesting is that, without giving anything away about where this all ends up going, the king of gods and men may continue to have a substantial impact on future stories. If this means that Crowe can once again grace our screens with his enigmatic and eccentric portrayal, then he absolutely should. The gods would demand nothing less.
Thor: Love and Thunder is now in theaters!