By Lynn Venhaus
The beguiling “Thor: Love and Thunder” is a sweet love story wrapped in a darker cosmic adventure and draped in Norse god mythology.

This flashy blend of heroics, heart and humor is sometimes too goofy to be taken seriously, but overall is an inspired take from director Taika Waititi, and that is reason enough to spring extra for the IMAX viewing.

But first and foremost, the enormously appealing Chris Hemsworth is back as the crown prince of Asgard being playful, very physical – and emotional. In the Summer of the Chris’, he might be having the best one (His comrades Chris Evans and Chris Pratt, although, are not being left in the dust).

Hemsworth has now played Thor in four stand-alone installments and in four Avengers films, and has made the role his signature. When we last saw the superhero in “Avengers: Endgame” in 2019, he was having an existential crisis, and Hemworth’s comedic skills were used well.

In this chapter, Thor, interrupted in his retirement, enlists the help of King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Korg (Taika Waititi) and ex-girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) to combat the galactic killer Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), who intends to make the gods extinct. To Thor’s surprise, Jane wields his magical hammer, Mjolnir, as the Mighty Thor, and they must join forces to stop Gorr’s vengeance and save the multi-universe.

Picking up where “Avengers: Endgame” left off three years ago, Thor gets back in shape, going from “Dad bod to god bod” — and is shown meddling in the Guardians of the Galaxy’s quests, and hanging out in Asgard as this retired guy content to let the world pass him by. Naturally, duty calls, and so does his ex, astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster, now battling cancer and wielding the enchanted hammer.

Hemsworth and Natalie Portman have a delightful chemistry together, and their scenes of tussling and reconnecting are sincere and sentimental. They make you believe in them – and care.

And as The Mighty Thor, Portman shows off her physicality. She’s able to meet the demands of the role with ebullience and grace.

Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) as Mighty Thor

Thor, the god of thunder, was turned into comic book gold by writer Stan Lee, scripter Larry Lieber and artist Jack Kirby in 1962, making his debut in Marvel’s “The Silver Age of Comic Books,” and #82 “Journey into Mystery.”

Now, 60 years later, the brawny do-gooder is an indispensable part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe treatments. The Kenneth Branagh-directed one started his story in 2011, followed by “The Dark World” sequel in 2013, then Waititi took over in “Thor: Ragnarok” in 2017 and now “Love and Thunder.”

Hemsworth plays up Thor’s strong, beefy, and boastful qualities, and always seems to let the audience in on the joke.

Multi-hyphenate Waititi, who won an Oscar for best original screenplay for “JoJo Rabbit” in 2020, is known as a writer for his cheeky and brazen humor, and injects a liveliness into his second Thor film, for which he wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson.

As a director, the New Zealander takes on quirky projects – see “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” for a surprisingly fun adventure – and as an actor, he’s stood out in a wide range of wacky characters. He might be best known for creating “What We Do in the Shadows,” now a wildly successful television series adaptation.

Waititi moves through a jumble of genres with ease. This installment of “Thor” actually straddles darkness and light rather deftly, but it is certainly a jolt to plunge into the creepy ink-black world of Gorr’s cruelty as he terrorizes kidnapped children.

So, while “Love and Thunder” is geared to be a family film, it has elements of horror, and can scare the young ones. They really push that PG-13 rating.

A gaunt and nearly unrecognizable Christian Bale is quite good as the sinister villain, bringing an interesting edge to the role. It’s a welcome return, for the Oscar-winning actor had planned not to do any more superhero movies after he finished playing the Caped Crusader in “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012, relented, and he makes his mark giving Gorr more dimension as a grief-stricken father.

The quality of the performances, with both Bale, Portman and even Russell Crowe being silly as Zeus, is indicative of their willingness to take risks and not rest on their golden Academy Awards statuettes.

The cast is up to the challenges, both in harrowing danger and in the “Team Thor” camaraderie – especially with Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie presiding over Asgard as the ruler, and Waititi voicing the giant hunk of stones Korg.

The zippy action-packed visual effects extravaganza is set to a very loud pulse-pounding classic rock score. After two hours and five minutes, it intriguingly leaves us wanting more with two surprising scenes during the end credits.

“Love and Thunder” whets our appetites for the future projects – what a fun reveal some recognizable people are – but satisfies as a rip-roaring, energetic, and entertaining stand-alone with a compelling story and fine performances.

But — those screaming goats are a bit much.

“Thor: Love and Thunder” is a 2022 action, adventure, fantasy film directed by Taika Waititi and stars Chris Hemsworth, Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson and Russell Crowe. It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, some suggestive material, and partial nudity, and runs 2 hours, 5 minutes. Opens in theaters on July 8. Lynn’s Grade: B+

By Lynn Venhaus
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” should be titled “The Madness of the Multiverse” instead, for expect a mélange of the mystical, the mind-bending, the mysterious – and the messy — in the long-awaited Marvel Cinematic Universe sequel.

Dense Marvel superhero lore is its imprint, for where the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been and where it wants to go is factored into each of their movies, tying things together (but these days, keeping up is getting to be a bigger chore in a very crowded field).

This latest entry picks up where the superior smash-hit “Spider-Man: No Way Home” left off, and it helps if you saw it – and the innovative 2021 limited series “WandaVision” on Disney+ .Dr. Stephen Strange cast a forbidden spell that opens the doorway to the multiverse, including alternate versions of himself, and pushes the boundaries in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”  

“Doctor Strange 2” is very inside for Marvel fanatics, who delight with every surprise and cameo, but for the casual viewers, it’s a struggle to sustain interest when things aren’t exploding or moving fast through different realities (or fantasies, take your pick).

The commanding Benedict Cumberbatch reprises his role as smart, sophisticated, sardonic surgeon Stephen Strange, whose origin story in 2016 was one of the best surprises of that year.

The medical marvel turned weird wizard has gone on to appear in the final two “Avengers” films – was among those lost in the ‘blip’ – and then played a major role in the third Tom Holland-led Spidey, where he messed with reality (“I did what I had to do”) and caused cataclysmic events.

This next MCU chapter connects other comic-book characters, those we’ve seen before and new to the screen, as well as presenting alternate versions of themselves, as the multiverse gets more of a workout. Cumberbatch gets to have three looks, including a grotesque zombie-like creature, but usually struts or flies around in his double-duty red cape looking powerful.

Elisabeth Olsen as Wanda

This sequel cuts to the chase right away, but then eventually breaks down in logic because the trippy visuals overtake the storytelling. This results in just another computer-generated spectacle overstuffed with electrical currents, disgusting monsters with gigantic tentacles, flying chunks of concrete and portals leading to other universes and dimensions.

Directed by the inventive Sam Raimi, a horror film auteur mostly known for the creepy and campy “Evil Dead” movies, he puts the dark in‘the dark hold,” heaps more fire and brimstone on, and adds more blood and gore to his Marvel canvas.

This is his first superhero movie since the Spider-Man trilogy he did with Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker in 2002, 2004 and 2007, and his first movie since the disappointing “Oz the Great and Powerful” in 2013.

The cast is fine — stalwart Benedict Wong returns as “Sorcerer Supreme” Wong, Rachel McAdams plays the good doctor’s ex-girlfriend Christine with a new role in one of the parallel universes, and newcomer Xochitl Gomez is the plucky America Chavez who can traverse between the universes. They also walk in and out of dreams.

The Illuminati is mentioned – which used to mean a secret society supposedly masterminding current events and conspiring to control world affairs, but now has other superheroes in the mix (?).

Besides battling big ugly demons, Strange’s main nemesis is The Scarlet Witch, aka Wanda Maximoff, who yearns to be a mother to two little boys in an alternate reality, but can’t because the good doctor won’t let her upset the universe further. Chaos ensues, but what is the end game exactly? Wanda has been good before, but now she is bad. Elisabeth Olsen is compelling showing both sides of the conflicted character.

The very name “science fiction” implies that it will bend time and space and logic as we know it, but it must make some sort of sense for people to be able to follow it.

Michael Waldron’s script is cumbersome in translating the comic book characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko for the big green screen treatment. And while the visuals get high marks, the emotional connections needed to elevate the film aren’t there. And what is the “Book of Vishanti” anyway?

Waldron, who created “Loki,” tries to juggle too many characters, realities, magic mumbo-jumbo and constant leaping through time and space to have any kind of linear cohesiveness. While it’s fun to journey to a few different worlds in this genre, this is an overload that ardent fans will embrace — but others not so much.

I can’t tell where this genre adventure is going, but I’m caring less and less. Initially intrigued by the Doctor Strange character six years ago, have we come to the end of the road, or can he stand out enough moving forward?

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is a 2022 action-adventure superhero sequel directed by Sam Raimi and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elisabeth Olsen, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams and Xochitl Gomez. Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language, it runs 2 hours, 6 minutes. Opens in theatres May 6. Lynn’s Grade: C.