In many ways, Thor: Love and Thunder is the MCU’s most simply enjoyable movie in years. It’s (relatively) self-contained, light on the heavy stuff, and as small-scale as the gods can get. Not since Ant-Man and the Wasp has Marvel done so much right by aspiring to so little. There’s another edge to that sword, though—Love and Thunder is the laziest movie yet from Taika Waititi, the once-promising director who now colors outside conservatively drawn lines.

The story, scripted by Waititi and rising writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, revolves around two truths: gods love to love, and they love to not die. The latter becomes an issue with the arrival of Gorr, a man who swears to butcher all of godkind for letting his daughter die. Meanwhile, Jane Foster—renowned astrophysicist, Thor’s ex-flame, and current cancer patient—staves off her disease by visiting Thor’s old hammer Mjolnir, which deems her worthy and makes her the new Thor (old Thor notwithstanding). After an awkward reunion, the heroes must shelve their thorny feelings and partner up to de-Gorr.

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Before most of that happens, the movie puts its worst foot forward with an unfunny, visually bland, and cameo-laden intro. It’s a parade of Marvel Studios’ worst tendencies: VFX tech on the cutting edge of looking flat, shameless exposition trying to excuse itself with jokes, terrible sound mixing, the presence of Chris Pratt. The saving grace of the opening, besides some fun practical puppets, is the performance direction. As Thor: Ragnarok proved, Waititi and Chris Hemsworth are a match made in the heavens. Hemsworth gloats, flexes, and wildly gesticulates through the opening scenes, promising a good time wherever he goes. The nakedly comedic bent fits Thor well.

That tone isn’t quite conducive to drama, though. Love and Thunder is so constantly silly that its serious beats feel like interruptions. Attempts to meld comedy and drama are especially maladroit—less a marriage of tone than an uneasy handshake between genres who used to date. The film is best as a farce, and that’s when Waititi’s gift with his actors shines. Amusing interactions abound: Foster and Valkyrie share an “only girls in the room” energy, the two Thors are endearingly unsure of each other, Russell Crowe steals a scene as a swaggering Zeus with a ridiculous Greek accent. Waititi doesn’t even try to wring good performances out of a recurring group of Asgardian children, but their stilted, earnest line deliveries hearken back to a time when superhero movies weren’t Disney adult opium.

The movie’s greatest moments are candy for inner children. The amount of color is delightful, as are the clever ways it’s used—Waititi gets fountains of blood past the MPA by turning the sprays gold, and a black-and-white scene where the heroes’ weapons radiate color is plain ol’ fun to look at. On the flip side, these ideas stand out because the rest are so dry. Action scenes reek of previs blocking-by-committee, and the tactility of actors in physical places is drowned in a glut of CGI. It’s colorful CGI, sure, but it has all the weight of a PS2 cutscene. Thank gods Waititi has a sense of visual comedy. A running gag in which Thor’s axe creeps into frame whenever Thor waxes nostalgic for Mjolnir is straight out of Waititi’s early work.

As is often the case with the MCU, the verbal jokes fail to land half the time, but they still fare better than platitudes like “choose love,” which Love and Thunder is full of. Mandated moments of heartstring-plucking are emotionally unearned and performed by rote. In the absence of convincing drama, the film’s cumulative effect is forgettable: jovial in the moment, gone in the next. If it weren’t for Christian Bale giving his all, the movie would lack heft entirely. It definitely lacks, despite Marvel’s lip service, a real sense of queerness. Disney is still commending itself for briefly mentioning a gay relationship or—ye gods—showing gay men smile at each other.

Love and Thunder emanates a certain charm in its slightness—it’s diverting to watch Taika waste millions of dollars on a silly little farce. At some point, though, it starts to feel like a waste of our time too.

★★★   (3/5)