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Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Love and Thunder.Jasin Boland/Handout

Thor: Love and Thunder

Directed by Taika Waititi

Written by Taika Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman and Christian Bale

Classification PG; 119 minutes

Opens in theatres July 7

If the synth-pop of the 1980s was director Taika Waititi’s aural vision board to conjuring up the rainbow-brite world of 2017′s zippy Thor: Ragnarok, then Axl Rose’s raw heavy-metal thrashes drive the director’s new superhero sequel, Thor: Love and Thunder. Which makes sense: What was initially a colourful wink-wink diversion is now a full-throated wail so self-important that no snippets of irony can alleviate its exhausting rock ‘n’ roll egotism.

A decade and a half into the unstoppable Marvel Cinematic Universe era, there are now too many obligations and too few surprises. As in: Love and Thunder’s only surprise is how distressingly obligatory it is. Believe me, MCU acolytes, if you can: I very much wanted to enjoy this Thor outing, to get briefly lost in some frivolous solo Avenger antics powered by star Chris Hemsworth’s twin strengths (brawny charisma and muscular comedy) and Waititi’s oft-tremendous flair for the deadpan.

The New Zealand filmmaker has cultivated quite a cottage industry of detractors since graduating from the indie realm of What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople to the semisatirical political baiting of Jojo Rabbit. But I admire his shtick as much as others have come to detest it – so much so that I’m positive he still has at least another half-dozen great films in him, perhaps including his long-delayed soccer comedy, Next Goal Wins. Still, Love and Thunder ain’t the trick, my quippy Kiwi friend. Ragnarok may have anointed Waititi as the MCU’s eccentric cinematic saviour, but the sequel only reveals the crushing reality of toiling in the superhero factory: bigger, bloat-ier and bwah-wah-wah-wah-ier, in that Guns N’ Roses way.

The story? Oh, right, the story! Following the MCU template as if scripture, Love and Thunder focuses on our favourite God of Thunder as he faces a series of high-but-actually-low-stake obstacles. There is the big new bad guy who must be stopped at all costs (Christian Bale’s Gorr the God Butcher; cool name, honestly). There is a tepid romance that must be pursued (Thor is reunited with Natalie Portman’s scientist/love interest Jane Foster, who is back in action after sitting out Ragnarok). And then there are the standard criss-crossing adventures from other MCU regulars that are peppered in to whet appetites for still-to-come films (the Guardians of the Galaxy, including Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, get just enough screen time to qualify above the definition of cameo).

Everything in Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s script goes according to expectations, even if the pair pivot this go-round on the tiniest of feminist twists: Jane, who once felt overshadowed by her boyfriend’s otherworldliness, has now been gifted with superpowers matching her beloved Avenger’s. It’s two Thors for the price of one! Even if the ultimate payoff, in terms of thrilling action set pieces or legitimate emotional catharsis, is pretty cheap. Equally thrifty, in a bargain-bin basement way? The script’s deployment of two separate voice-over recap moments from rock-alien Korg (Waititi himself), here to remind audiences of what happened in the first three Thor movies, none of which were particularly complicated or even worth recapping.

It is not only the narrative and characters of Love and Thunder that are limp, though – Waititi’s visual style feels absolutely drained, flattened and motion-smoothed to lifeless nothingness. It is as if the director became so flummoxed or exhausted, or both, by the MCU’s creative constraints that he gave up on the power of the camera entirely – a flick of frustration that might be hidden in plain sight during the film’s third-act scene in which our heroes chase Gorr to the Shadowlands, a reality where all colour is drained (and all lines of dialogue are magically rendered eye-rolling). Whatever happened between Ragnarok’s highs and today’s lows, only Waititi knows – but the evidence that some inner-artist calamity occurred is right up there onscreen.

Still, Love and Thunder isn’t an Eternals-level disaster. Korg is still amusing in small, Groot-y doses. Hemsworth, ferociously buff here, can pump the weakest gags with a muscular sense of faux-dolt humour. Bale, emaciated to a degree that is as impressive as it is terrifying, gives a fiercely committed performance clearly intended for another, more ambitious movie. And there is one scene featuring a knowingly hammy Russell Crowe as a space-orgy-obsessed Zeus that finds great comedy in the use of the word “babycakes.”

Unsurprisingly, given the MCU’s tendency to mistake girrrrrl-power for actual character complexity, Portman gets the dull end of the hammer, with Jane’s arc serving mostly as a reminder as to why the actor kept her distance from the MCU in the first place. Similarly, we can all feel bad for what Tessa Thompson, returning as Thor’s fellow alien warrior Valkyrie, must contend with. But at least Thompson is in on the non-joke, her mouth never cracking the slightest smile even when forced to utter quarter-wit one-liners.

Ultimately, Thor: Love and Thunder will leave you feeling sad, empty, deadened. Which is what frequently happens in the MCU these days – it is an enterprise built with an Axl Rose-sized appetite for destruction, but no stomach for genuine risk or imagination.

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