(L-R): Natalie Portman as Mighty Thor and Chris Hemsworth as...

(L-R): Natalie Portman as Mighty Thor and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Marvel Studios' "Thor: Love and Thunder." Credit: Marvel Studios/Jasin Boland

PLOT A Norse god must stop an evil being from killing every deity in the pantheon.

CAST Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale

RATED PG-13 (action, some scary scenes)

LENGTH 2:05

WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE A return to uneven form for this Marvel franchise.

Even if you aren’t a Marvel die-hard, you may have bought a ticket for “Thor: Ragnarok,” the franchise's third title. Directed by Taika Waititi, the wonderfully off-kilter New Zealander, the movie cleverly recast a previously sullen Thor — the hammer-wielding Norse god played by a perfectly sculpted Chris Hemsworth — as a sincere do-gooder blundering through what felt like a superhero spoof. The result was an appealingly gonzo comedy that reinvigorated the series and established Waititi as a filmmaker with a Midas touch.

Having since notched a screenplay Oscar for 2019’s “Jojo Rabbit,” Waititi is back as the director and co-writer of “Thor: Love and Thunder.” For fans, it's a milestone of sorts: The chronically underrated Thor is now the first Marvel Cinematic Universe figure to anchor four films, more even than the iconic Iron Man. There’s also much excitement over the return of Jericho's Natalie Portman as Thor’s ex-girlfriend, Dr. Jane Foster, and the casting of Christian Bale — Batman himself! — as the heavy.

So much for inside Marvel baseball; now, how’s the movie?

In a word: disappointing. Where “Ragnarok” poked irreverent fun at its genre, “Love and Thunder” feels geared toward the faithful, packed with the kind of cutesy asides and knowing winks that tend to exasperate outsiders. Thor is in on every joke, too, which means this comedy is missing a much-needed straight man. The non-sequiturs feel uninspired and so does the soundtrack, a dad-rock playlist of Guns N’ Roses. Though not without its moments, “Love and Thunder” feels almost as uneven as the franchise’s earlier, little-loved installments.

That’s too bad, because the story turns on a riveting villain, Gorr the God Butcher, whose back story plumbs the philosophical depths: When Gorr’s prayers for the life of his child go unanswered, he grabs a powerful sword and begins murdering deities. Yikes! Bale, who plays Gorr as an emaciated wraith with blackened teeth, looks a little too much like Marilyn Manson but radiates a powerful, penetrating malevolence. In fact, Bale is so good he virtually obliterates the rest of the movie. After a flesh-crawling Gorr scene, everything else starts to feel pretty hokey.

That goes for Russell Crowe’s semi-amusing Zeus, who has the barrel chest of a Bacchus but the accent of a Zorba, and also for Portman’s Foster, who with little explanation transforms into another Thor, complete with hammer and cape. (Fans may dig this new development; others will find it contrived.) Most disappointing is the film’s treatment of Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), the groundbreaking lesbian warrior from “Ragnarok." An instant fan favorite, she is here inexplicably reduced to a minor character. Waititi also sidelines himself as Korg, the rock-bodied CGI guy, who narrates the film but otherwise barely registers

If the movie’s box-office numbers hold up, Thor could keep going in this fashion for some time. Hovering in a purgatory between grandiosity and buffoonery, however, seems like a sorry fate for this god.

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