In 2017 Taika Waititi directed Thor: Ragnarok, which still strikes me as the best MCU movie, and a few years before that the superb and franchise-igniting vampire romp What We Do in the Shadows: both comedy gold, and way better than his misjudged and overrated middlebrow Panzer-crash Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit. Now Waititi has directed, and co-written with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, an entertaining followup to his MCU masterpiece. Like the first film, it’s a tongue-in-cheek cosmic spectacular in the tradition of Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon, with some nice gags, big cameos (though I missed some of the major characters from Thor: Ragnarok) and Chris Hemsworth returning to deliver his easygoing turn as the great flaxen-haired Norse god. And of all the Hollywood movie stars currently taking the MCU shilling, Hemsworth is the most utterly unembarrassed, most visibly enjoying himself, most utterly relaxed in his own skin and in front of his own greenscreen.
In this instalment Thor has to confront evil Gorr the God Butcher, played by Christian Bale, who with his terrifying necro-sword is slaying divinities all over the shop out of a sense of bitterness that the gods once allowed his infant daughter to die. Thor finds himself initially fighting alongside the Guardians of the Galaxy, who are his tonal equivalents in Marvel’s now well-established humorous mode, but recruits his own crew to battle Gorr when this supervillain abducts all the children in New Asgard. His new team includes Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Korg (played by Waititi himself), as well as his longtime amour and now ex (their breakup sketched in during a comedy romcom-style flashback). This is Dr Jane Foster, played by Natalie Portman, suffering from a serious illness which has been put into remission by the mighty cosmic powers of Thor’s once shattered hammer Mjölnir.
The essential daftness of all that is happening is nicely embodied by Hemsworth, though the film now has a more solemn emphasis with Dr Foster’s cancer and the references to her chemotherapy. The film is probably on its strongest ground with the most purely absurd touches, such as the squabbling rivalry between the hammer Mjölnir and his new weapon, the axe Stormbreaker – which is always crowding into the frame suspiciously when Thor starts swoonily hanging out with Mjölnir, unable to accept that Mjölnir is with Dr Foster now. Thor himself has conquered his weight issues, and is now a fine figure of alpha-maledom who literally makes young goddesses faint in one scene after he is disrobed and his manhood (or rather godhood) is revealed to them.
The movie is effectively ruled by one cameo, the figure of Zeus, which it would be unsporting to reveal here: our A-list guest star unveils one of his strangest accents yet, but also gets serious laughs, as the upstart Thor deprives him of his lightning bolt. And yet it has to be said that, however adroitly Waititi plays it, Marvel’s comedy mode has become a bit of a reflex, a specific mode which could almost be enabled in the settings menu of Marvel software: a highly contained form of restricted self-satire or auto-undercutting that is always offset by the huge CGI intergalactic action scenes. This is becoming a bit of a cul de sac – but that isn’t to say it isn’t still funny, and Thor still delivers a mighty hammer-blow, or rather axe-blow, of fun.
• Thor: Love and Thunder is released on 6 July in Australia, 7 July in the UK, and 8 July in the US.