Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Love and Thunder.

While it isn’t as tightly calibrated as its predecessor, Thor: Love and Thunder overcomes some clunky elements to provide a good time, for the most part.

Taika Waititi returns to direct after his masterful Thor: Ragnarök to deliver a chapter that remains zany while aspiring toward a little more gravitas. As far as the zany goes, it is right on target. As for the deeper stuff … it’s definitely hit and miss.

The action picks up after Avengers: Endgame, with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) traipsing about the universe with the Guardians of the Galaxy and dealing with both the loss of family members and a lack of love in his life. The universe is threatened again, of course—this time by Gorr the God Butcher, played by Batman himself, Christian Bale, in a typically solid turn. Bale handles his relatively small part of the proceedings with gusto.

Not so effective is Natalie Portman, returning as Jane Foster. In a storyline faithful to the comics, Jane has developed Stage 4 cancer while being away from Thor. (They broke up years earlier.) After an encounter with Thor’s hammer, Jane becomes The Mighty Thor, replete with some seriously big arms. (Seriously … she’s jacked!)

Unfortunately, the Foster character is given a shaky storyline that feels like a soap opera at times, tonally smashing into other parts of the movie. What seems like a desperate need to push her toward a tidy conclusion makes things feel both rushed and shallow. Portman is a terrific actress, but even she can’t work with material this flimsy. Her storyline required a little more time to breathe; perhaps some elements could have carried over to the next sequel. Maybe they don’t have Portman signed for another movie?

Love and Thunder makes up for its shortfalls with decent action and lots of laughs. Both Hemsworth and Portman are a lot of fun when they get away from the sappy stuff and into Thor mode. Waititi employs some great humor with two gigantic screaming goats who shriek as they pilot Thor’s chariot through the skies, a gag that never gets tired. Russell Crowe gets a chance to show his comedic side as Zeus, who, of course, has a thick Greek accent and likes to get a little showy with his thunderbolt. It’s the best thing Crowe has done in years.

While the movie fails a tad with the serious Foster stuff, it does a little better with the serious side of Gorr, giving the audience plenty of reasons to not totally hate an entity with such nasty intentions. Scenes of him trying to be entertaining to a bunch of kids he’s kidnapped somehow manage to be funny, despite the circumstances. But make no mistake: He can be quite scary.

Tessa Thompson returns as King Valkyrie, and, well, she’s just about the greatest entity in movies today, wherever she lands. (Valkyrie needs her own movie!) It’s fun to see the likes of Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper (or at least his voice) and Karen Gillan for a short burst; this serves as a nice primer for next year’s third Guardians film. Other big names make surprise uncredited appearances, some funnier than others. Waititi himself returns as the voice of Korg, essentially this franchise’s C-3PO—albeit much funnier, and a rock instead of robot.

Alas, some of Ragnarök’s best elements do not return, including Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Bale does a nice job of taking over the villain mantle from Cate Blanchett’s Hela, but Foster isn’t nearly as good of a Thor sidekick as the Hulk.

As for the whole Marvel universe thing: Thor: Love and Thunder seems to be more of a placeholder rather than a film moving the whole Phase 4 thing forward. I’m sure there’s some sort of Marvel master plan at work, but the last couple of movies seem a little aimless.

Thor: Love and Thunder gets the mildest of recommendations, mainly for the screaming goats. The screaming goats are instant celebrities. They need their own streaming series.

Thor: Love and Thunder is playing at theaters across the valley.

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