by Steve Habrat
Just six short months after dominating the summer with Iron Man 3 and three short months after announcing details for their Avengers follow-up, Marvel is back with a sequel to Kenneth Branagh’s intergalactic epic Thor. Branagh’s iridescent 2011 effort really took me by surprise, mostly because I was convinced that the Norse god wouldn’t translate well to film. It didn’t help that the trailer failed to really sell the swords and hammer mayhem. Despite my apprehension, Thor turned out to be one hell of a thrill ride even though it was distractingly acting as a partial tease for The Avengers. With the first Avengers film out of their system, Marvel can now focus on giving their Avengers cast movies that are free of that crossover blockbuster’s chains. Here we have Thor: The Dark World, a sequel that doesn’t feel like it’s rushing to develop this character just so we know who the heck the beefcake with the hammer is in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. With Thor: The Dark World, we are given more time on Thor’s home planet, Asgard, and we are treated to more strange creatures looking to rip the universe to shreds. While the second half is undeniably entertaining with its billowing high-stakes showdowns, the opening stretch seems like a lazy reworking of what we saw in the previous Thor film. To make things worse, star Natalie Portman seems like she was forced at gunpoint to reprise her role as Jane Foster. Is this the same woman who won on Oscar for Black Swan?
Thor: The Dark World begins by explaining that many years ago, Thor’s grandfather had a battle with the Dark Elf leader Malekith (played by Christopher Eccleston), who was planning on using a matter called Aether to destroy the Nine Realms. The Asgardians won the battle and managed to secure the Aether from Malekith, but the Asgardians were unable to destroy the weapon, so they buried where no one would find it. Angry over his defeat, Malekity fled into space with a group of followers to regroup. In present day, Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) and his Asgardian followers attempt to bring order to worn torn planets across the universe while Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) faces his sentencing for what he did to New York City. On Earth, astrophysicist Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman) has been waiting two years for Thor to return to her. Just as she is attempting to move on with her life, intern Darcy Lewis (played by Kat Dennings) tracks her down to show her an abandoned building that appears to have multiple portals into other worlds. After Jane stumbles through one of these portals, she discovers the hidden Aether, which latches itself onto her and begins flowing through her veins. The disrupting of the Aether awakens Malekith, who has been drifting in space with his soldiers waiting for the smallest sign of the Aether’s whereabouts. Fearing for Jane’s life, Thor returns to Earth to take her back to Asgard where he can protect her, but Malekith is isn’t far behind and he is hellbent on bringing darkness to the galaxy.
Director Alan Taylor opens Thor: The Dark World with a pair of rousing space battles that allow the viewer a glimpse into the expansive Marvel universe beyond the stars. There are all sorts of grotesque creatures that will make your eyes pop, but it’s the story foundation that is built under this action that seems all too familiar. In place of the glowing blue Tesseract is the Aether, a flowing red matter that swims through the air and resembles Kool-Aid. Rather than an unlimited energy source, the Aether plunges everything into darkness and it is naturally sought after by the baddies so that they can destroy the whole universe. Then there is Darcy, Jane, and Stellan Skarsgard’s Dr. Erik Selvig, who all dart around with flickering devices that detect portals and other alien anomalies while everyone else thinks they’ve got screws loose. The only thing missing are the SHEILD agents prowling around! This middling commencement is spruced up with some geeky humor and a cutesy cameo from Bridesmaids star Chris O’Dowd. Thankfully, when war comes to Asgard, the battle gets a bit more personal for Thor and Loki, both who loose someone very close to them. This is precisely where the glimmers of familiarity start to get buried beneath some sprawling clashes that are capable of bringing down the theater walls. They’re also fairly impressive in 3D, a format that Marvel has been shockingly lazy about considering all the money they are dumping into each one of these films.
As far as the action scenes are concerned, they single handedly make up for the film’s shortcomings. It never gets old watching Thor leap into the air with his hammer raised, bringing it down on the ground to knock about ten bad guys charging him off their feet. There is a hilarious confrontation between Thor and a snarling rock monster that gets tamed with one swing of Thor’s mighty mallet. The opening battle between masked Dark Elves and Viking-like Asgardians is a buzzy cocktail of Star Wars-esque laser battles and Lord of the Rings swordplay. The standout action set piece is easily the battle on Asgard, in which Malekith’s forces rocket at the gold city in sleek jets that cut right into the gold heart of the towering palace that Thor and his family call home. It helps that these scenes have dropped Branagh’s spit-polished approach, allowing them to feel rough around the edges and, dare I say, legitimately dangerous. Then there is the big finish, which features Thor and Malekith duking it out as they tumble through multiple portals that send them careening through the universe. The constantly shifting backdrops are a blast and Taylor weaves the action through them seamlessly, but what grows frustrating is the fact that Jane and her buddies can dart through all the destruction unscathed. They are several of Malekith’s soldiers hot on their heels, but they just never seem to be able to catch up or hit them with a laser blast. Oh, come on!
Then we have our performers, who for the most part slip comfortably back into the skins of their characters—well, expect for Portman. Hemsworth is still lovable as the gruff God of Thunder, who relishes a good fight but sulks over Jane during the post-battle celebration. I especially enjoyed his increasingly complex relationship with Hiddleston’s Loki, who is as devious as ever. When the lightheartedness is dropped and the two confront each other over the events in New York, the drama cuts like a knife and leaves a sting that is difficult to shake. Eccleston’s Malekith booms with plenty of promises of death and destruction, and it helps that the look of his character just screams evil. Malekith has been downplayed in the trailers, which is nice because it shrouds his character in malevolent mystery. Then we have Portman, who acts as through the material here is beneath her. She fluffs off guys who wish to pursue a relationship with her and she pouts over Thor’s absence like a spoiled child. There is none of the starry-eyed swooning going on here, only huffy obligation and line delivery that seems like she is reading from a script buried in her lap. Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin, Thor’s one-eyed papa who promises to defeat Malekith and his advancing forces. Rene Russo proves to be one tough mama as Frigga, Thor’s mother who gets a chance to engage Malekith in a sword fight. There is also the always-welcome Idris Elba as Heimdall, the gatekeeper of the Bifrost who brings down one of Malekith’s ships with his bare hands. Talk about a major badass!
One of the biggest disappointments of Thor: The Dark World is the fact that the film never adopts the darker tone that was hinted at in the trailer. There are some heavier moments and a few death scenes that will hush the children pacing the aisles with excitement, but it almost always seems obligated to deliver a joke. Mind you, the humor works, but I think it would be nice to see Marvel allow these films to venture into some bleaker territory. This exact problem plagued Iron Man 3, which initially hinted that Phase 2 of the cinematic Marvel universe was going to opt for the shadowy path where our heroes were going to be dealt personal blows from the villians. On the flip side, it is understandable considering that Disney now has a presence and they are desperate to draw in young kids who may be turned off by the darker material. Overall, while the first act is a bit clunky, Thor: The Dark World is bursting with rollicking cosmic thrills in the second and third acts. It may not be Marvel’s finest achievement, but it makes for some solid entertainment that ends with a cliffhanger guaranteed to leave you wanting more. More importantly, it feels like a bonafide standalone story in the series, something that was plaguing the pre-Avengers efforts. As always, make sure to stick around through the credits for some more surprises.