All brawn and little brain, but still…all brawn, glorious BRAWN!
Kenneth Branagh, who directed the first Thor movie, stepped down from the director’s chair and left it to Alan Taylor, who has quite the resume — including credits directing episodes of Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and The Sopranos. Thor: The Dark World is therefore very well directed; the action scenes are easy to follow and filled to the brim with marvelous visuals. There’s nothing technically problematic about Thor: The Dark World, either. All the pieces fall into place to create a very fun superhero tale. But what’s missing is that extra uniqueness that made Thor a surprising success. Chris Hemsworth as Thor was definitely part of that box office attraction, but, in my opinion, Branagh’s handling of Shakespearean themes (familial betrayals and royal tensions) helped Thor really separate itself from the rest of the superhero fare. Thor: The Dark World lacks that maturity. Instead, this film relies on explosive adventure and playful Whedon-esque humor to carry the full load. It succeeds at the blockbuster surface level, but it fails to carry over its predecessor’s dramatic character arcs (except for Loki – -as always… damn, Tom Hiddleston is good.)
When we last left Thor, he was bringing Loki and the Tesseract back to Asgard after working with the Avengers to thwart Loki’s attempt to bring destruction to New York City and then eventually rule the Earth. Now, in the early moments of Thor: The Dark World, we rejoin Thor as he ventures from world to world, trying to bring peace to the nine realms. Loki is behind bars (or, technically, an invisible force-field wall thing), and a new threat arrives in the form of an ancient-ish (presumably extinct) group of Dark Elves, led by Malekith, who seek revenge against Asgard for their near-extinction and, ultimately, to destroy the universe. I think. The screenplay constantly mentions that these Elves would “bring darkness” and “destroy” without actually describing what the details of their plan really are, or how destroying the universe would benefit the remaining Dark Elves. Revenge is a dish best served super cold, I suppose. I probably need to watch the movie again to figure out the logistics of their threat… but ANYWAY!… There’s also a red substance of pure evil, called the Aether, that Malekith intends to use to enable his fuzzy plan. There’s a bit more backstory to all this, and my explanation may anger some die-hard fans who are wise in the ways of the Marvel Universe, but the point I’m trying to make is that this story is a basic ‘good guy tries to stop the bad guy before it’s too late’ plot line. Everything else is subsidiary.
Which brings us to the problematic character of scientist Jane Foster, played with an awkward disconnect by Natalie Portman. Her character playfully fit into the first Thor, constantly questioning the legitimacy of what was happening around her, and having somewhat strong reactions to the action taking place. Here, though, she’s almost too comfortable, and therefore (ironically) seems out of place. She missed Thor while he was away — yes, we get that much. But her character never has any noticeable reactions to the bizarre occurrences and emotional plot turns that occur. We also get that after the events of The Avengers, aliens and other worlds don’t surprise the common earthling any more. But, love and death and destruction and the wonders of discovery should STILL elicit a stronger response than a snarky comment and/or a forced smile, especially when the character is so closely involved in the unfolding events of the story. Leave that snarky stuff to the comic relief– Ms. Kat Dennings — who is back as Jane Foster’s sarcastic friend and intern.
As for the Asgardians, Chris Hemsworth charms and shows off once again. The man can really do no wrong when inhabiting the role of Thor. He has the perfect mannerisms and build for the role, and is also capable of letting loose or showing restraint, depending on the scene. He’s an actor who demands your attention when he’s onscreen without overreaching. With a flick of his hammer, a cracked smile, or just his convincing noble swagger, Thor is a fine lead character yet again. Loki, however, is a talented force to be reckoned with. Played by Tom Hiddleston, Loki is still the most fascinating character depicted in the Marvel movies over the last decade (with the possible exception of Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk). We love to hate him, and love to feel sorry for him. We even cheer for him now and again. It’s a shame that his character’s path isn’t as strong here as it was in the the original Thor, because Hiddleston manages to make a lot out of very little. The most emotionally impactful scenes always involve Loki.
Then there’s Anthony Hopkins returning as Thor’s father, the all powerful ruler, Odin, Rene Russo as Thor’s mother, the Queen Frigga, former Doctor Christopher Eccleston as Malekith, and Idris Elba as the stoic Heimdall. They each do fine work to make Thor: The Dark World a wild and fun ride. The film is also visually stunning. I wouldn’t recommend seeing it in 3D, however, because the effect forces you to focus on a single portion of the screen, which is unfortunate when there are so many intricately designed environments to behold. These excellent effects, along with the aforementioned performances, are reason enough for Thor: The Dark World to fit nicely into the series of Avenger spin-offs. As long as Marvel keeps making films that are as entertaining as this one (whether they break new ground or not), they’ll still be one-upping most of the action-adventure competition.
Thor: The Dark World opens in Bay Area theaters today, November 8, 2013.