Thor: Love and Thunder has the distinct misfortune of following up Thor: Ragnarok, one of Marvel Studios’ crown jewels. Up front: No, it’s not as good as its predecessor. With his initial outing, director Taika Waititi redefined the entire aesthetic of the Thor sub-franchise. This time around, he’s saddled with the dilemma of finding new meaning in his novelties. The result is decidedly more uneven – sometimes fun in the moment, but a film that shrinks on you the more you think about it.

It feels mostly in line with the majority of Marvel’s Phase 4 cinematic output: great casts, great ideas and great moments saddled with hurried execution and the sense that maybe the Disney+ side of things is where the franchise is channeling its best energies. There are a lot of great moments in Love and Thunder, but the spaces between them feel empty and undeveloped, leaving it a somewhat fun but uncharacteristically hollow experience.

Following up on Avengers: Endgame (which is already three years old, if you can believe it), Thor’s newest outing follows the former king of Asgard as he tries to figure out who he is if not the leader of his people. It’s a title Thor vacated to Valkryie (Tessa Thompson) after the big blow-out battle with Thanos when he decided to go adventuring with the Guardians of the Galaxy, saving random alien races and exploring what it means to be a hero. There’s a hole in his heart where purpose used to be, but at least he can smash space bandits to make himself feel better.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Thor’s old flame, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), has been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. Not good. In search of solutions, Jane travels to New Asgard (now a tourist trap) and ends up chosen by the shards of Mjölnir to wield the power of Thor. She adopts the title of the Mighty Thor and decides to protect the world from evil. Problem is, every time she becomes Thor, it drains her mortal energy, preventing her body from fighting the cancer. Being Thor is literally killing her.

Two paragraphs into this synopsis and we’re just now getting to the villain of the piece, Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), a simple alien man whose family died due to the selfishness of their chosen deity. Gorr is granted the Necrosword, an ancient weapon capable of killing gods, and decides he’s going to get revenge for the death of his daughter by, well, butchering all of them. Bale is awesome in the role, and in his best moments, he’s a mixture of playful and nasty in ways previous Marvel villains haven’t quite been allowed to be.

Gorr’s slaughter brings Thor back to Earth, where he and Jane meet and set out to stop him, joined by Valkryie, Korg (Taika Waititi), and two scene-stealing space goats. Thing is, the entire first act of the film feels about as rushed as my description of it. It has the feeling of scenes existing to set up characters for the rest of the film. Gorr’s origin is great; then it’s off to see Jane again; then we’re with Thor and the Guardians, etc. etc. There’s just something off about it. It feels functional rather than organic, a stark contrast from Waititi’s other work.

Thankfully, the movie takes off a bit more in the second act, although even then it feels hampered by a fundamental impatience.

For the most part, the film is carried by the chemistry between Portman and Hemsworth (read Aly’s essay about the first Thor for some thoughts on what that movie did right with them), coupled with Bale’s eclectic performance. The biggest problem is that it feels like there’s too little of both. Waititi’s story is in a real rush to get from point A to point B to point C and it rarely stops to smell the roses and just enjoy the great characters with whom it’s playing. We buy the romance of Thor and Jane and the dark, ghoulish terror of Gorr because the actors sell it, but it would’ve been nice to live with all of them just a little bit more before the big action finale. Bale in particular gets short shrift.

That was something that made Ragnarok special: it felt like something new for the character and his supporting cast, and characters both new and old had real chemistry and moments to shine. As funny as Korg is, he’s better in small doses. Valkryie gets a bit too little to do for how great she is, and the movie is sorely missing someone for Thor to play off of like Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) or Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Love and Thunder does feature a fun supporting cameo from a big celebrity, a la Jeff Goldblum’s turn as the Grandmaster in Ragnarok, but it isn’t as satisfying.

Equally unsatisfying is the script’s inability to settle on a specific set of themes. There are several stories happening simultaneously, and rather than build to a clean crescendo, the movie decides at the last minute to introduce a brand-new status quo into Thor’s life that feels neither natural nor earned. In theory, the finale is a solid idea, but there’s simply no clear path to it and no comprehensible direction to take in a future Thor movie. Worse, the use of this particular idea contrasts poorly with the story told in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness in a way that feels very particularly gendered – and particularly punitive towards a woman’s pain in that film.

Love and Thunder also is another massive strike against Disney’s new fetish for the Volume, a gigantic curved LED screen used to create photorealistic backdrops without the need for extensive set-building or real-world locations. It was a fairly big deal when announced online that Love and Thunder would be one of the first Marvel films to use the new CGI-backdrop technology pioneered by LucasFilm for The Mandalorian, but frankly, it continues to prove that the utility is visually limited in larger-scale productions. It looked lousy in most of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and it continues to look flat here. Marvel Studios has always used green-screen technology liberally, but in their better movies, they disguise it or tell stories so engaging it just doesn’t matter. It’s noticeable throughout Love and Thunder in a bad way. Also noticeable is the score, a distinct downgrade from Mark Mothersbaugh on Ragnarok to Michael Giacchino pumping something out on this one.

It’s hard not to compare Love and Thunder to Ragnarok. Maybe it’s unfair because they’re aiming for different goals, but frankly, this one just isn’t as fun, fleet or fabulous, and what it has to offer instead isn’t up to par. Marvel has still put out some decent films in the years since Avengers: Endgame (and some really exciting Disney+ shows), but the stretch of time during Phase 3 where each new movie felt like a new vision seems long gone. Thor: Love and Thunder has a lot of great ideas, some surprisingly brave, but never figures out how to tell the story around them. It’s a shame.