It’s becoming more likely that Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be remembered as the “gap phase.” As in as a constantly changing post-Endgame landscape, Phase 4 is the period of time where the MCU has had to find itself before re-setting on a course with a determined destination. It’s also the Phase that has been severely impacted by the pandemic, delaying projects and changing the original order of release. In addition, Marvel figurehead Kevin Feige has alluded that Phase 5 will not only begin soon but will finally set the larger conflict in motion. So, anyone that expected Thor: Love and Thunder to shake up the MCU and provide answers to what the greater universal narrative is headed towards was bound to be disappointed. No, Love and Thunder (much like Multiverse of Madness) is very much a self-contained adventure about the title hero. Both movies wrap up loose ends in the hero’s past, bring back key love interests, and intend to set the hero on a new path with a new outlook on life. Except, one is definitely more successful in that narrative conceit than the other.

The new film sees Thor (Chris Hemsworth) try to awkwardly fit on the Guardians of the Galaxy as the group crusades across space. Thor is in a transitional phase in his life – he’s more “enlightened” as he continues to recover from the many tragedies in his life, opting for a peaceful and zen re-brand of the God of Thunder. However, his faux-intellectual ramblings do little to inspire his frustrated cohorts. But a distress message from an old friend calls Thor to action, forcing him to leave his new comrades. Of course, you don’t have to ask the Guardians twice. They’re more than happy to leave his ass behind as they fly off into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Meanwhile, Thor must act fast to counter the cosmic-wide onslaught of Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale). He is an enraged psycho who blames the Gods’ inaction and callousness for the death of his daughter, as well as his lack of reward for the intense trials he’s endured. Gorr is an interesting character that represents much of what works about Love and Thunder and also a lot about what doesn’t (more on that later).

While Thor prepares for battle, his old flame, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), is staring death in the face. We learn that the returning scientist is battling Stage 4 Cancer, a fact she struggles to come to terms with. While partially reflecting on her past relationship with Thor, she develops a seed of an idea that, while ballsy, will give her a new lease on life. As the trailers have already prematurely revealed – Foster obtains the broken Mjolnir, using the hammer’s powers to transform into The Mighty Thor. After a costly attack on New Asgard by Gorr, Jane joins the fight with Thor and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to stop Gorr’s plan to eliminate all Gods permanently.

It was never guaranteed we’d get a 4th Thor movie, but we have it largely due to the rapturous response to Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Our new film is very much made in the same cloth as its predecessor, as Taika Waititi returns to the director’s chair. There are even instances where the movie repeats jokes from Ragnarok, namely a couple of timely cameos. But overall, Love and Thunder aim to duplicate Ragnarok’s sense of humor and visual appeal and is mostly successful. The issue arises with how truncated some of the storytelling is. Take Gorr, for example, we’re given the backstory for why he’s so steadfast in his convictions, but the movie’s 2-hour runtime shortchanges Gorr’s viewpoints. We’re meant to believe he’s a devoted worshipper of the Gods, but his ENTIRE WORLDVIEW changes on a dime in a matter of seconds. And that won’t be the last time that happens!

It makes his beliefs seem more malleable compared to standout MCU villains like Thanos, Killmonger, and Ego. What keeps it from falling apart is a terrific performance from Bale, who makes Gorr captivating whenever he’s on-screen. You get the sense that the MCU structure is not fully accommodating for the performance Bale desires to give here; if left to his own devices, he’d go full Ingmar Bergman with the depth and surrealism he’s trying to bring to the role. But the movie can only get weird with the character to a certain point without derailing the formula that keeps these movies on the train tracks. To be clear, the issues and limitations regarding Gorr aren’t a Love and Thunder problem but an MCU problem in general. It’s not as if Ragnarok’s Hela was the most fleshed-out and liberated villain either, even as Cate Blanchett did her best with the material.

Much like its predecessor, Love and Thunder centers itself on Thor’s personal journey and his evolution as the man behind the heroics. This is a film about Thor coming to grips with how finite love can be, even if you consider it your great love. Jane’s sense of urgency juxtaposes his naivete; being given an expiration date on her life is what inspired her to seek out Mjolnir. However, when Jane explains this, the movie loses something by not visually displaying this via flashback. Nonetheless, Jane lives out a power fantasy that anyone would enjoy if they feared their life could end any day now. This kid-like exuberance is even peppered with a running gag about how Jane can’t find the right catchphrase whenever she makes a dramatic entrance. To be fair, her catchphrases are aggressively trash, and the characters are right to call this out. Now, if only someone called out the writers for not thinking of better lines.

As the movie zips along at a blistering pace, we get standout moments from Valkyrie and Russell Crowe as Zeus, having the time of his life. However, Valkyrie doesn’t quite get enough to do, and at a certain point, the movie just says, “Alright, you’re done you can sit the rest of this out.” In turn, she doesn’t always feel like King Valkyrie, but Tessa Thompson will often squeeze the most out of whatever she’s given (unless that movie is called Men in Black: International).

The colorful palette we were introduced to in Ragnarok is back here, and it’s Waititi’s visual flair that elevates the movie. From breakneck action sequences that see Thor demolish a group of space ruffians to a Nosferatu/Seventh Seal inspired duel on a miniature planet, Love and Thunder never lacks for visual candy. The film brings a much-needed inventiveness to the MCU, which can often fall into the trappings of constantly shooting these things on Atlanta sound stages. Although, there is one cheesy set piece that doesn’t entirely work, involving a group of Asgardian children that might as well have been subject to a “We’re the Kids in America!” needle drop. That scene aside, the movie is successful in presenting the heroism of the adults as a quality for kids to strive for.

But at its heart, this aptly titled movie goes on to show that the literal power of a God can’t replace the love from another person. This is where the movie exceeds Multiverse of Madness, as the latter struggled to cobble together a coherent character arc for Dr. Strange amid a mountain of Cinematic Universe housecleaning. In Jane and Thor, we see two people at very different stages of their lives, and ultimately what Thor desires isn’t necessarily what he needs – which is often the case in love. There’s a consistent theme in the movie about Valhalla and what it takes to get there, mostly played for laughs. But it conflates with the theme of death and if there’s any reward we can expect for our good deeds or the intense calamities we are forced to go through. The movie’s answer is to not put those efforts in vain, that we need the strength of even more love and compassion even when the cards we’re dealt don’t seem fair. Thor, Jane, and Gorr all start off with different viewpoints on how they should respond to grief and loss, but only one wins out in the end. It’s the one that puts ego aside and promotes sacrifice for those around you.

When the dust clears, Thor: Love and Thunder are a double, not a home run. It represents the studio’s crowd-pleasing strengths while affirming many of its peccadillos. People have been asking for shorter blockbusters, but ironically the movie could use more screentime to add depth to its assortment of characters. But despite those issues, Taika Waititi once against strikes the right balance between fast-paced action and quippy irreverence. In the end, it further cements Thor as a hero of multitudes, beyond his Shakespearean-inspired origins and into the realm of an everyman with a wide emotional spectrum. This isn’t the action hero of your dad’s era – his brawn is accompanied by the humanity inside, which makes Thor, for once, a worthy mascot of Marvel’s brand as the company that puts the emphasis on the person behind the mask/cape. And as long as that’s the priority and there are more places to take the character, this OG Avenger hasn’t quite outworn his welcome.