By Ann Hornaday
From the moment he made his debut as Thor in 2011, Chris Hemsworth has been irresistible in the role.
As yet another addition to the always-assembling Avengers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Norse god could easily have become something of an afterthought, a ridiculous figure of overcompensation with his giant hammer, flowing Viking locks and bulging biceps.
Instead, over the course of his ensuing stand-alone sequels and Avengers ensembles, Hemsworth has distinguished himself as one of the funniest, most self-aware players in a group known for a cheerful brand of winking irreverence, a welcome antidote after years of DC Comics downers and dour solemnity.
All by way of saying that the title character of “Thor: Love and Thunder” arrives on-screen with scads of goodwill, as does director Taika Waititi, whose 2017 “Thor: Ragnarok” was a goofily amusing kick in the pants.
By now, it must be said, the quips are beginning to wear a little thin, the vinyl-era needle drops a little less cool, the quotation marks a little more obvious among the ironic references and self-mocking bonhomie.
Still, “Thor: Love and Thunder” is out for a good time, even if the journey doesn’t feel quite so novel or giddily buoyant.
This instalment of the saga begins with a sobering sequence of a father and his daughter trudging their way across a cracked, windswept dry-scape, where the little girl succumbs to the elements.
Her father, played with emaciated intensity by Christian Bale, has appealed to his god for deliverance, only to discover that his god is supremely indifferent to his loss.
Ravaged, enraged and out for revenge, he murders his idol, takes his sword and emerges a new man: Gorr the God Butcher. Fun stuff!
Temperamentally, Gorr - played by Bale with spectral menace, as if he’s channelling his inner Voldemort - is light-years away from sweet, sensitive Thor, who as “Love and Thunder” opens is still pining for his lost love, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).
He’s drawn back into battle for a freelance assignment with the “Guardians of the Galaxy”, but he misses Jane, not to mention Mjolnir, his beloved hammer, now shattered to pieces under a vitrine in the village-slash-tourist attraction of New Asgard.
Bringing all these literal and metaphorical shards together is just one task of “Thor: Love and Thunder”, which unspools as a folk tale related by Thor’s silicone-based right-hand man - er, Kronan - Korg (voiced by Waititi).
The other task of the movie is to make it all entertaining, which Waititi does efficiently, and occasionally hilariously, including in an early recap of Thor’s many incarnations (“He went from dad-bod to god-bod”).
Some of the funniest moments in “Thor: Love and Thunder” feature not Hemsworth but a sporting crew of famous actors who show up in cameo roles - including a band of players performing a movie-within-a-play-within-a-movie that just might be worth the price of admission.
Another amusing appearance comes later, when Thor, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Korg and, improbably, Jane - who has appeared on the scene with a life-or-death agenda of her own - crash a convocation of the gods of the universe in Omnipotence City, a Vegas-esque riot of gold filigree and overweening ego.
It’s during this sequence that the audience is treated to Hemsworth’s eye-popping physical transformation; banishing Fat Thor to the mists of Asgardian memory, he reportedly bulked up by hundreds of pounds to become more ripped than ever. (He starts out “Love and Thunder” dressed in a T-shirt and sleeveless vest, looking like the midway’s sexiest carny.)
Luckily, he’s as endearingly dim as before, sorting through his unresolved feelings for Jane with lunkheaded sincerity. He’s carrying another torch, too: one of the film’s running gags features Thor’s rocky relationship with his new magical weapon of choice, Stormbreaker, while Jane blithely reassembles and adopts Mjolnir, along with the Mighty Thor title that goes with it.
Like most MCU instalments, “Thor: Love and Thunder” is all about the deliverables, from the screaming space goats Thor inherits as a gift to the Guns N’ Roses cuts that dominate the soundtrack (leading up to a satisfying, if too-pat payoff).
Waititi has infused the film with the same cheesy, cheap-looking aesthetic that gave his previous films such low-key charm. If the banter, battle scenes and supernatural rainbow bridges feel a bit rote, they’re also frictionless and delivered at a relatively crisp running time of under two hours.
“Thor: Love and Thunder” may not define a high point in the MCU’s ongoing mission of world domination, but it’s not a low point either. It gets the job done, with a smile, a tear and the promise - or is it a threat? - that this story is far from over.