(CNN) The impressive mix of tones and styles that director Taika Waititi pulled off in "Thor: Ragnarok" largely fizzles in "Thor: Love and Thunder," which isn't as funny as it wants to be, as stirring as it needs to be or romantic as it ought to be. Although well paced at just under two hours, instead of the hoped-for fireworks this comes a little too close to feeling like a post-Fourth of July dud.
Marvel's enviable track record of creative as well as commercial darlings dating back to "Iron Man" has begun looking less invincible, with the mythic "Eternals" and some of its lesser Disney+ efforts (see "Knight, Moon") exhibiting signs of vulnerability.
While reuniting Waititi and star Chris Hemsworth sounded like a can't-miss proposition and should provoke considerable enthusiasm, the latest exercise feels too enamored with the actor's comedic chops and related tomfoolery, while lacking the striking sort of villain that helped elevate "Ragnarok" when things got serious.
Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale share initials, but her Hela stands head and shoulders above his Gorr the God Butcher, a character whose tragic backstory takes a grim turn when he acquires the Necrosword, vowing to use the mystical artifact to kill all gods, including Thor and his Asgardian pals.
As for Thor, his carefree existence becomes much more complicated as he leaves the Guardians of the Galaxy behind right before the love of his long life, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), unexpectedly flies back into it -- literally, it turns out, since Jane has acquired Thor-like powers by means of a bond with his old hammer Mjolnir, while harboring a secret that explains her sudden interest in magic.
Indicative of an eclectic resume that ranges from quirky TV comedies to a planned "Star Wars" movie, Waititi finds humor in the strangest places, like Thor's odd relationship with his axe, Stormbreaker, which seems anthropomorphically jealous of him interacting with other weapons.
The movie also again trots out an impressive assortment of cameos -- among them Russell Crowe as a very eccentric Zeus -- feeding into the sense of playfulness that Waititi (who shares script credit with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson) has sought to foster, down to a sort-of recap of Thor's story thus far as well as well-chosen Guns N' Roses songs after Led Zeppelin's contribution to "Ragnarok."
Yet despite genuinely striking visual flourishes and Hemsworth's gameness in portraying Thor as a swaggering oaf -- including a naked bit already overexposed in the marketing that should still elicit big laughs -- too often the gags in "Love and Thunder" fall flat. There's also something almost lazy about the way kids get incorporated into the plot.
Overall, the most encouraging moment might actually come during a mid-closing-credit sequence, which hints at a more promising plot for a fifth movie to come, with the standard pledge that "Thor will return."
When it comes to Marvel fare hope tends to spring eternal. Yet given the lag time between these massive undertakings it's disappointing having to pin one's hopes on the next phase. Still, "Thor: Love and Thunder" essentially sets up that scenario, with a movie that's muscular and handsome but at its best sporadically likeable, and even harder to love.
"Thor: Love and Thunder" premieres July 8 in US theaters. It's rated PG-13.