As has been the case for several films now, Marvel Studios finds themselves at a crossroads in a post-Avengers: Endgame era of their cinematic universe.

Many of their most popular characters are gone from the franchise and the massive decade-long arc came to a head several years ago now, leaving fans clamoring for the breadcrumbs of what’s to come in every single new movie, post-credit sequence or hidden Easter egg.

It’s as if in the indecisiveness of figuring out what’s next and who Marvel is going to be, everyone forgot about the simple fun of heroes beating up bad guys.

Taika Waititi’s second foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe challenges this unease by ignoring it altogether, opting for a relatively straightforward comedy with some deep seeded emotional stakes that doesn’t care about what’s happening in the larger picture. It’s honestly refreshing, harkening back to the early days of the MCU where films were less serial and episodic and more bottled into one storyline that ends when the credits roll.

Thor: Love and Thunder is technically the fourth film to feature the Norse god turned superhero and Chris Hemsworth’s lighthearted performances in recent Marvel films as the titular Thor culminate in a genuinely nuanced turn for a largely comedic actor with the physique of an action star.

Waititi’s film finds Thor at a similar crossroads to Marvel, somewhat bloated and unsure where to go next. When a wayward devotee to a different god loses faith completely, Thor must stop this alien Gorr before he slaughters every god across the galaxy.

Hemsworth is giving perhaps his most well-rounded turn now eight Marvel films deep as Thor, relishing in every opportunity to ham it up comedically but also finding the range to be more convincing emotionally. It’s especially difficult to pull off when working opposite computer generated images and Hemsworth is equally adept at subtle facial comedy playing off an ex-girlfriend, new girlfriend gag with Thor’s axe as he is at deeper moments opposite Natalie Portman.

Christian Bale – best known to superhero film fans for his work as Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – takes a walk deep into the shadows for his haunting turn as Gorr the God-Butcher. With a look reminiscent of Voldemort from the Harry Potter films and a horror-influenced demeanor, Bale is largely unrecognizable for much of Thunder and drives his performance through genuine emotion and character work often lacking in MCU films.

In reality, it’s pretty clear that Bale hasn’t seen many – if any – Marvel movies and is approaching Gorr more dramatically than most villains in the series, which helps make Gorr one of the best antagonists in the entire franchise.

It also helps that Waititi’s strongest moments directorially are in the visuals surrounding Gorr’s character, stripping color and boosting the contrast to the brink to bring the shadow world the character creates to its maximum haunting potential.

Although the CGI doesn’t always land crisply throughout the film, the hyper-stylized black and white contrast in these sequences add a lot to both the character development and horror-tinged elements of Thunder.

Portman returns to the Thor films after a nearly-decade long hiatus and is funnier than one might expect in a naivety sort of way as love interest Jane Foster and it’s her ability to bring emotional gravitas in needed moments that helps round out Thor’s character arc relatively smoothly.

Thunder firmly sits as a middle of the road entry in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, not offering enough in either long-term world building nor fully engaging storyline to crack the top tier of MCU movies. But it’s hard to question the film either as it’s clearly superior to many of the early sequels like the second and third Iron Man films and especially Thor: The Dark World.

Waititi and Hemsworth’s complete transformation of the Thor character from where it was in 2013 as a stiff Shakespearean caricature to arguably the most entertaining Marvel superhero outside of Spider-Man needs to be recognized.

Thunder does exactly what it needs to, help bridge the gap for Thor after the losses in “Avengers: Endgame” and craft a clear path moving forward. 

A quirky comedy with a decent amount of heart and some entertaining action sequences along the way, Thor: Love and Thunder is probably a Marvel film ardent fans of the franchise will grow to appreciate more after its theatrical run.

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