There’s a significant moment in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder – the 29th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – where it taps into something profound. Exhausted, tired, and dying from starvation, Gorr (Christian Bale) prays to the Gods for a miracle – to save his daughter from a cruel death. The faithful servant with unwavering belief has been patient, loyal, and devoted, dedicating his entire life to the reward and promise of salvation. His pleas for mercy did not stop an inevitability. But the notable existential question that Love and Thunder presents is, what happens when religious devotion does not match the ideals of what you’ve been taught to believe?

The refreshing yet menacing impetus behind Bale’s compelling performance as Gorr questions the foundations we put so much of our faith in. They say never meet your heroes (or Gods in this instance), based on an underlying fear of disappointment and failed expectations. But when prayers are met with a deafening silence while the Gods indulge in their power fantasies and their luxurious abundance of wealth, what is the nature of power when worship and devotion are taken for granted?

The franchise is no stranger to this territory; hypocrisies and power structures have been an interwoven agenda throughout its standalone films. 2011’s Thor presented the illusion of ascendancy with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), a character who craved (and schemed for) power while reconciling with the revelation of being Odin’s adopted son. Malakeith’s (Christopher Eccleston) pathological exploits in The Dark World highlight the relentless nature of power through generations of war. Taika’s amplified, technicolour re-invention in Thor: Ragnarok exposed Odin’s reign as a destructive lie based on hidden family bloodlines in the form of Hela (Cate Blanchett). The fact the stories have remained personal strikes the necessary chord in comparison to the typical end–of–world threat. And it provides ample material for Gorr to continue the tradition and take his vengeance against the gods.

There’s a push and pull affair with the latest Marvel adventure, celebrating Taika’s wild, chaotic ball of comedic energy and cosmic fever-dreams with a genre-bending escapade of tone and visual style. It’s worthy of the film’s title – ‘Love and Thunder’ – a dichotomy of emotions, fuelled by the power of a classic rock anthem that dials everything up to eleven. And in this cinematic game of two halves, it accepts the crazed silliness before achieving something akin to spiritual endearment. There’s fun and enjoyment to be had, but only when it’s afforded the breathing space to pause and let those significant moments sink in.

The film reintroduces Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in a post-Avengers Endgame haze. Having ditched the ‘dad bod’ for ‘God bod’, the changed Avenger now seeks a rejuvenated purpose in life. Helping to maintain intergalactic peace with the Guardians of the Galaxy, he receives a distress call from an old friend with a warning about Gorr and his vengeful intentions. And it’s not long before our hero is called into action.

Love and Thunder works best when it’s anchored and reunited with its familiar relationships. King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) struggles with the bureaucracy of leadership as the King of New Asgard, longing for the exploits of battle. Korg (Taika Waititi) still finds his humour in the silliest of places as Thor’s best friend. But most interestingly, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) – who can now wield the power of Thor – brings kick-ass empowerment to the character, along with added romantic complications for Thor as his ex.

With the keys to the creative sandbox, Taika juggles a lot in this cinematic playground, switching tonal gears between colourful action sequences, awkward rom-com vibes and a dialed-up fear factor from Gorr and his shadow monsters. It’s worth mentioning how much Hemsworth enjoys the comedic challenge of pushing Thor into new ground, effortlessly charming his way through dumb bravado and vulnerability as a hand-in-hand conflict with Thor’s personality. And Taika obliges with relentless momentum, bouncing around from main characters to cameos (including a scene-stealing Russell Crowe as Zeus) to screaming goats, with break-neck, disposable speed. With so much going on, the first hour struggles to find its rhythm.

It’s an Achilles heel for the director, who attempts to follow the same successful blueprint as Ragnarok but delivers a looser and unfocused application this time around. The film takes some bold, creative risks with its ambitious cacophony of storytelling, but the tendency to rush onto the next scene means these moments are never on screen long enough to make a desired and long-lasting impact. Jane’s re-introduction into the franchise is a notable example.

Portman’s return as Jane is euphoric, a welcomed sight to see knowing that the chemistry with Hemsworth never lost its magic. Borrowing elements from Jason Aaron’s Thor comics, Jane is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Living off borrowed time, she travels to New Asgard for a cure. Her transformation into the Mighty Thor brings a new lease on life through the power of Mjolnir, who deems her worthy of possessing the power of Thor. Yet, there are times when one can’t help but feel that Love and Thunder should be making more of its concept. The opportunities for weight and emotional resonance are glossed over, as if the director lacked the patience to let some of Jane’s anguish, pain, and subsequent transformation settle within the film’s heightened comedic shell.

It’s indicative of how the film ultimately operates. Love and Thunder never finds itself in a position to adequately profit from its creative decisions. In throwing in these wild swings, Taika’s latest venture is messy and clunky, a film at war with itself as it tries to mesh a hefty, operatic story with his trademark rapid-fire humour. The script, co-written by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, contains moments of sincere substance about identity, purpose, love, and living life to the fullest. But its frequent habit of chasing that next comedic punchline annoyingly interrupts the genuine, emotional catharsis it seeks throughout.

There is a marked improvement in the second half of the movie, and Taika’s over-indulgence begins to pay off. Bale – who lived long enough to see himself become the villain – raises the inevitable stakes, and Thor begins to transform from over-confident to more genuine and balanced. These plotlines help it avoid becoming a mere empty spectacle of a movie.

But… Thor: Love and Thunder falls short of expectations. It’s a wild, entertaining mixed bag of a ride that gets lost in the punchline. Taika’s cosmic epic brings plenty of love, but lacks patience with its story to feel the depth of its impact.

Score: 3/5