The Ragnarok director returns with more space-Viking shenanigans, and a new villain in Christian Bale.

Is the multiverse eating itself? When Thor: Love and Thunder lands in theaters July 8, it will be the fourth Marvel movie in less than a year after Eternals, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and the latest iterations of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. (Which doesn't even account for some half-dozen TV offshoots.) If Thunder, with its cheerful melee of starry cameos, in-jokes, and Cliffs-Notes mythology, feels a lot like franchise fatigue, it also has frequent moments of gonzo charm, thanks largely to the Technicolor lunacy of writer-director Taika Waititi and a cast that seems inordinately game to follow his lead.

Christian Bale, his hairless body wraith-pale and lips blackened like a day-walking Nosferatu, has been handed the villain's mantle this time, a denizen of some parched, barren planet spiraling into into Mad Max-ian end times. When he turns to the heavens for help in the opening scene, his desperate pleas for his dying child are treated with casually cruel dismissal by a Dionysus too busy peeling grapes and burnishing his crown to care. And so, disillusioned and depraved by grief, Bale's Gorr becomes the God Butcher, armed with a death-eating blade called the Necrosword.

Thor Love and Thunder
Natalie Portman's Jane Foster returns as Mighty Thor opposite Chris Hemsworth's Thor in 'Thor: Love and Thunder.' (Lots of Thor!)
| Credit: Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios

And God Butchers are exactly the kind of business Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his cohort were born to thwart — if only the former king of Asgard, now essentially unemployed, can pull himself out of an immortal-life crisis adrift in beer and bad ponchos. Getting back to his former glory involves a general glow-up (farewell, poncho!), a brief, noisy reunion with the Guardians of the Galaxy — Chris Pratt's Star-Lord, Dave Bautista's Drax the Destroyer, assorted Groots and racoons — and a return to Asgard, where Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie now benevolently holds the throne.

A world away, Thor's estranged love Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), undergoing her own crisis, is compelled to Asgard somehow by her ex's now-freelance hammer, and her arrival provokes Thor's still-tender feelings for both the girl and the weapon that forsook him. His Viking ego must absorb the blow that Jane's possession of the hammer invests her with powers comparable to his, which the actress dutifully takes on in a much-vaunted transformation that mostly manifests in tawny hair extensions and a pair of terrifying biceps. (If you've seen the trailer, you have some idea of the leather-and-lightning rivalry to come; Portman wears it well as a costume, though she still seems more at home as an earthly scientist.)

With those story pieces more or less in place, Waititi, who co-penned the skittering script with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, is free to turn up his style dials to 11. Four Thors and 11 years ago, Kenneth Branagh gave the first entry an air of grand Shakespearean drama, steeped in sober gray-scale and intra-familial clashes. The aptly titled Thor: The Dark World (which director Alan Taylor later partly disowned) followed in 2013, to clearly diminishing returns, before Waititi took on 2017's Thor: Ragnorak, a movie so audaciously cheeky and weird it came off like less like a reboot than a full personality transplant.

Love and Thunder is pretty much all that again, poured into a centrifuge. If the MCU at this point has become a mood ring for its various directors — Chloe Zhao's spacious, slow-churn Eternals; Sam Raimi's squishy, trippy Doctor Strange — New Zealand native Waititi is the impish Kiwi outsider, his psychedelic visuals and offbeat humor so infused with chaos and camp, it often feels as if the film has passed through a fine mist of ayahuasca. In the best moments, that yields inspired scenes like Russell Crowe as a portly, imperious Zeus addressing a summit of the Gods. (Have you really lived until you've heard Crowe roll the word "Babycake" across his tongue like butterscotch?) A-list drop-ins (Matt Damon, Melissa McCarthy) come and go so quickly, they may not have earned a full day rate, and several stalwarts of the series, including Idris Elba and Stellan Skarsgard, seem to appear simply to be marked off a contractual checklist.

Hemsworth remains almost absurdly well-suited to the title role, a golden-god himbo with crack comic timing and a seemingly bottomless well of Aussie goodwill. Bale is appropriately ghoulish and sepulchral, though the difficulty-setting on this part seems low for an actor of his caliber; mostly, he just has to snarl from dark corners and not lose too much squid-ink spittle when he talks. The movie suffers from none of the self-seriousness or draggy exposition of other Marvel outings, even when its patchwork plot feels stuck together with rainbows and chewing gum. (And so much Guns N' Roses — Axl Rose is essentially the spirit animal of this soundtrack.)

Even in Valhalla or Paradise City, though, there is still love and loss; Thor dutifully delivers both, and catharsis in a climax that inevitably doubles as a setup for the next installment. More and more, this cinematic universe feels simultaneously too big to fail and too wide to support the weight of its own endless machinations. None of it necessarily makes any more sense in Waititi's hands, but at least somebody's having fun. Grade: B

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