“Thor: Love and Thunder” is notable for two returns. Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster, the scientist lady love of the Norse god superhero in the Marvel franchise, is back from the first two movies. Her return is welcome. She missed the last outing, “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017); but that wasn’t an issue, since there was so much else going on amid the outlandishness of that particular extravaganza.
The outlandishness was owing to the director, Taika Waititi. That’s the other return, and it’s less welcome. Waititi directed, cowrote, and provides the voice for a major character in “Love and Thunder.” It’s his second bit of major voice work in three weeks (he’s fourth billed in “Lightyear”). A little Waititi can go a long way, and the arch self-awareness that gave “Ragnarok” its kickiness feels increasingly tired here: more schtick than kick.
“Love and Thunder” gets off to a disconcerting start. A grim figure carries a dying child through a ravaged landscape. He looks like a cross between Voldemort and the emperor in “Star Wars.” Meet Gorr the God Butcher, wielder of the Necrosword. “This is my vow: All gods will die!” Gorr declares. These words do not bode well for relations with our movie’s title character. In a year notable for gleefully unrecognizable stars — e.g. Colin Farrell, in “The Batman”; Jamie Lee Curtis, in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” — Christian Bale as Gorr takes the prize, though there’s nothing gleeful about either character or performance.
Gleefulness does arrive immediately thereafter. Waititi’s big on glee. Thor has joined forces with the Guardians of the Galaxy (a legacy of “Avengers: Endgame,” 2019). The Guardians are around for only a few minutes — presumably, Chris Pratt had “Jurassic” obligations to attend to — before Thor and his geologically epidermal pal, Korg (annoyingly voiced by Waititi), return to New Asgard. The place has become a major tourist destination, cruise ships welcome, with Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) keeping an eye on things. The sequence is all very Waititi-ish — meaning clever and slightly curdled — right down to Valkyrie wearing a “Phantom of the Opera” sweat shirt and starring in an Old Spice ad.
All is well, if a bit over the top, until Gorr attacks, abducting all of New Agard’s children. He takes them to another planet as hostages to advance his god-elimination project. No, it doesn’t make much sense. Worse, the abduction is kind of reprehensible, or the sight of dozens of terrified children is. It’s on a par with the presence earlier of that dying child in Gorr’s arms (she’s his daughter). It’s hard to say which poses more of a problem while watching “Love and Thunder”: tonal issues like these or how the action sequences tend to be confused as well as confusing. Waititi is a talented guy, but a filmmaking natural he is not.
New Asgard has another unexpected visitor: Jane. She’s now a female version of Thor, wearing the same outfit, equipped with superpowers, wielding his hammer, etc. This is somewhat . . . unusual, though no one in New Asgard seems especially fazed — other than Thor, who still carries a serious torch for her. What’s even more unusual is that Jane is suffering from stage 4 cancer — speaking of tonal issues. You’d think that would leave her looking like Gorr, only unhealthier. Nope, she looks like Natalie Portman having a good time.
Since Gorr is out to eliminate all gods, what better place to seek assistance than where the divine go to align? That would be the Golden Temple, in Omnipotence City. There the two Thors proceed, accompanied by Valkyrie, Korg, and a pair of mega-size goats (don’t ask). Imagine Vegas as reimagined by Baz Luhrmann. The city’s presided over by Zeus (Russell Crowe, in a stupefyingly oh-what-the-hell performance). This Zeus talks with a stage-Italian accent: “So-a, Thor-a, what’s-a with-a the hammer?” It’s like Crowe’s auditioning for a sequel to “House of Gucci” (2021). Or, with the cheesy opulence of the sets, a Mel Brooks parody of Marvel movies. Clearly, Waititi is having a lot of fun with this. It’s just that the viewer isn’t.
Someone else is having a lot of fun, and that fun is the best thing “Love and Thunder” has going for it. It’s also the best thing the previous three movies had going for them. That would be Chris Hemsworth as Thor. If Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man set the Marvel gold standard, Hemsworth is a close second. His bluff, naive, blowhard innocence is pitch perfect, at once deadpan and winking. Hemsworth’s Thor is the complete package: great hair, great beard, great voice, great muscles, even, as one would expect, great, uh, posterior. That particular greatness is revealed, and revealed is the word, because in “Love and Thunder” Thor briefly goes full dorsal — but only dorsal. We don’t get to see what Korg calls his friend’s “shy courgette.” Apparently, some marvels are too marvelous even for Marvel movies.
THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER
Directed by Taika Waititi. Written by Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson; based on characters created by Stan Lee and Jason Aaron. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Russell Crowe. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 119 minutes. PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, some suggestive material, partial nudity).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.