Raise your tankards of mead: Director Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” is a superhero romantic comedy with plenty of rippling biceps, an unshakable love for 1980s action movies and heavy metal, and most importantly, a big goofy heart.
For more than a decade, Chris Hemsworth’s thunder god has been one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s busiest dudes, starring in three previous solo films and all the “Avengers” movies. But in addition to hitting the weights, the muscular Hemsworth put in quality time on his character work from him in recent years, giving Thor enough existential crises to make him one of the MCU’s funniest, most relatable personalities. And he’s at his peak here in “Love and Thunder” (★★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday), an endearing and smart adventure bringing back Natalie Portman as Thor’s former love and introducing Christian Bale as a top-notch new villain.
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For more casual fans, the fourth “Thor” catches audiences up with his hero’s backstory – courtesy of quirky narrator (and Thor’s alien rock buddy) Korg (Waititi) – before sending him on a most excellent journey of self-discovery. Following the events of “Avengers: Endgame,” Thor’s lost his “dad bod” hanging with the Guardians of the Galaxy (led by Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord) and his beer gut has been replaced by a need to figure out who he is again . This mind-set coincides with a rash of deities being murdered around the universe by a mysterious figure known as Gorr the God Butcher (Bale).
Thor and Korg wind up back on Earth when Gorr targets their adopted home of New Asgard, a fishing village turned into a major tourist destination. Thor fights Gorr and his invading horde of shadow monsters alongside old pal Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), the ruling king of this colorful locale, but the place happens to have a new hero: Jane Foster (Portman), Thor’s astrophysicist ex who’s now a brawny powerhouse wielding his magical hammer Mjolnir.
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A bunch of feelings get stirred up for both Thor and Jane (and Thor’s new weapon Stormbreaker is a little sensitive about Mjolnir’s return). When Gorr kidnaps all the kids of New Asgard, the estranged couple heads off on a cosmic quest involving screaming goats (which are never not hilarious), A-list cameos and even space dolphins.
After the first two lackluster “Thor” outings in 2011 and 2013, Waititi’s 2017 threequel “Thor: Ragnarok” brought broad comedy into the MCU, though “Love and Thunder” better utilizes the filmmaker’s signature sense of humor. Plus, the movie is always visually wowing, from the gold-drenched opulence of Omnipotence City – where Thor finds his idol Zeus (an over-the-top Russell Crowe) – to Gorr’s realm where Waititi turns the film into a black-and- white noir fantasy.
He also allows Hemsworth and Portman to discover a fun chemistry not seen previously: For the first time, you understand why Thor and Jane fell in and out of love. Portman finally gets a lot to do in a “Thor” movie, as a buff woman who’s good at saving the day but not hatching catchphrases and also as a person with very human struggles amid an epic trip.
Portman isn’t the only actress sporting impressive guns: Thompson’s Valkyrie continues to be an enjoyable supporting player, riding into battle in a “Phantom of the Opera” sweatshirt. And Bale is outstanding as Gorr, joining Thanos and Killmonger among the best of MCU’s rogues gallery. There is a deep sense of pain and trauma with this former zealot yet Bale lends a playfully horrifying, maniacal quality to him a la Pennywise.
There is more than enough magic, music and muscle to go around – everybody’s so ripped, “Love and Thunder” often seems like a Frank Frazetta painting come to life. Waititi is equally adept at crafting the MCU’s answer to “Flash Gordon” with “Ragnarok” or delivering defining, dazzling work such as “Jojo Rabbit.” And here he gives us a surprisingly personal superhero jam with extraordinary depth, infusing the delightfully fizzy narrative with queer characters, religious themes and a compelling conversation about the differences between mythic gods and all-powerful good guys.