“Thor: Love and Thunder” doesn’t always earn its emotions, but it sure looks good doing it

2.5 stars. 1 hour 59 minutes. Rated PG-13

Do we really need more thunder in our lives right now?

That’s a valid question for “Thor: Love and Thunder,” the fourth and latest Marvel Cinematic Universe entry about our Asgardian god-hero. The stakes in MCU movies are always universe-sized, but in his latest, overstuffed adventure, Thor’s soul is what’s really on the line.

We’ve already seen Chris Hemsworth’s charming and testosterone-fueled take on the character in a dozen or so movies since its 2011 debut, but when it’s good, there’s always room for more. That’s especially true as the MCU continues to move toward a more equitable yet narratively justified universe with films like “Shang-Chi,” “Black Widow,” “The Eternals,” and its Disney+ streaming series, such as “Ms. Marvel.”

“Love and Thunder” is about Thor, yes, but it’s also about the brilliant, cancer-stricken Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the swaggering Asgardian king Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a bunch of kidnapped Asgardian kids, led by the deadpan Astrid/Axl (son of the late “Thor” series character Heimdall, and played by Kieron L. Dyer) and the creepy, bleached villain Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale).

Thor remains interesting not just because he’s got a weightlifter’s bod and a man-boy’s brain, or because he’s (still) sweetly amusing in his insecure masculinity. Rather, he’s always struggling with his service to humanity versus his own aggrandizement. When Foster dated Thor (seen here in flashbacks, as well as new scenes meant to take place in the past) they eventually grew apart. Why? Is there really pathos to this character?

Sort of, at least in the hands of director and co-writer Taika Waititi, whose punchy humor and outrageous setpieces made 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok” a ridiculously entertaining, hyper-stylized, “Guardians of the Galaxy”-flavored outing. While he could have easily cut some of its circular banter, Waititi also presented a relatable and humbled hero. He showed what kind of surprising things were possible in the MCU — rock monsters with a heart, Loki and the Hulk getting along, even Jeff Goldblum. He nailed it.

That’s not frequently the case here. A brooding, bone-dry introduction gives us Bale’s alternately stoic and cartoonish Gorr, who is driven to violent desperation when his young daughter dies — despite his appeals to the gods. He’s called to a weapon named the Necrosword, which can slay gods, and he eventually starts doing so while basing himself in the Shadow Realm, a black-and-white, impressionistic setting we haven’t really seen before in the MCU’s 30 or so movies (this is the 29th since 2008).

Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy, the latter of which are utterly backgrounded in the montage-heavy first act, have been having “classic Thor adventures” as they respond to galactic distress calls. But Thor and his rock-buddy Korg (voiced by Waititi) are wanting for other adventures. They split off to help out the New Asgardians back on Earth, as well discover Foster’s newly powerful Mighty Thor character, which is created when she was called to Thor’s former godly hammer, Mjölnir (which somehow, while she’s using it, cures her cancer).

If that sounds like a lot, it is, and it only gets messier from there. We get to see the seat of the gods and meet Zeus, as well as Hemsworth’s bare butt, and hear various characters’ inner lives as they struggle to balance competing duties. It’s all pretty rote at this point for the MCU, but Waititi’s mischievousness helps brighten the corners (apologies to Pavement).

Waititi and Co.’s visual aesthetic feels a bit overwhelmed by the MCU house style, despite references and visual jokes sprinkled through. Thematically woven Guns N’ Roses songs and cool fonts aren’t quite enough to impart a ’70s, Flash Gordon-style feeling, as desperately as the film seems to want to.

Still, Waititi’s willingness to make the movie’s hero vehicle a tourist boat led by giant, screaming goats, for example, shows his commitment to keeping things light. My son and I guffawed every time they appeared on screen, as did the rest of the preview audience. Moments like that puncture but also support the drama, and they remind us that this is all based on wildly weird comics. There aren’t enough of those moments.

The usual spoilers are there, and I’ll avoid them, but it’s fair to say that “Love and Thunder” is an underwhelming follow-up that would likely work best as a Saturday-afternoon streaming experience. It’s saturated and loud and beautiful to behold, but its ungainly plot and willingness to slip into every tonal alley leaves it searching for a point.

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