There’s a fleet and funny comic-book movie nestled inside Thor: The Dark World. You catch glimpses of it here and there, such as a shot in which the Asgardian hero (Chris Hemsworth) enters a London flat and hangs his hammer on a coat rack as if it were an umbrella, or a witty sequence in which Thor’s villainous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who wreaked all kinds of evil in The Avengers, relishes the fact his older sibling is now asking for his help (how convenient). That scene gets the biggest laugh in the entire film.
But moments like those are rare. The bulk of this bloated, plodding sequel, written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the latter two wrote Pain and Gain and Captain America: The First Avenger; how’s that for diversity?) is just another riff about an ancient being, this one named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, unrecognizable under makeup), who wants to destroy the universe — all known universes, actually — as payback as for an ancient slight against his people. Wasn’t this stuff already old hat during the Masters of the Universe days? Even Thanos had more reasonable motivations than the end of everything.
The inherent problem in setting the stakes so high is that there is absolutely zero chance the bad guy will triumph. There’s no suspense, no thrills, no gravity. Sure, Malekith may kill a few supporting characters along the way. But Marvel Studios is minting so much money off this fresh batch of superhero pictures, they’re not spending too much time coming up with stories that are actually worth telling or even villains with logical motivations. Malekith glowers and poses and make gravelly voiced threats and shoots red CGI tendrils from his hands that bend time or something.
Thor, both on the screen and on the page, has never been much for plausible physics, but Thor: The Dark World turns the series into a mish-mash of Star Wars and Star Trek and Lord of the Rings and Flash Gordon. Is this science fiction? Mythology? Physics? Mostly, it’s just nonsense, even by comic-book standards. The only times we’re reminded Thor and his brethren are supreme beings (not gods, as the movie makes clear) are the scenes in which Odin (Anthony Hopkins, rocking that cool gold eye-patch) makes long-winded speeches while standing before his throne or striking a heroic pose. Hopkins does that a lot throughout the movie, and he comes off a bit apologetic in those scenes: “Sorry, everyone. I’m doing the best I can with this material. But you should see how much it pays!”
The first Thor movie, directed in 2011 by Kenneth Branagh, managed to tie the otherwordly realm of Asgard to our planet: Thor’s romance with the scientist Jane (Natalie Portman), was hokey but believable, because the movie found the perfect balance between the mythological and reality. You bought them as the most mismatched couple in the history of movies. The new picture, the feature debut of Alan Taylor (who directed some of your favorite episodes of Game of Thrones and Mad Men and The Sopranos), comes to life only when Taylor is allowed to veer off the main plot for little throwaway bits, like a scene in which Thor is forced to take the London subway (“Which way to Greenwich?”) But the grandness of intergalactic war doesn’t seem to interest Taylor much. The film’s big action setpieces are serviceable but generic and impersonal. You’ve seen this stuff before, and often. How many times must we be forced to watch a large city demolished by a giant spaceship?
Hemsworth continues to pull off the impossible, investing a larger-than-life character with humanity and warmth. His Thor is an immensely likable and relatable hero, which wasn’t always true in the comics, but he’s stranded in a story that makes next to zero use of his innate likability. Portman and her kooky scientist friends (Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) come off as clowns — cheap bits of comic relief to keep this oversized picture from drowning in its own somberness. In the first film, these brainiac stooges came off as quirky and funny. Thor: The Dark World turns them into buffoons — geniuses who behave like children (Skarsgard spends a lot of the movie walking around in his underwear, because it helps him think). Aren’t these hapless nerds cute? Aren’t they hilarious?
No. Thor: The Dark World amounts to so little, even Marvel diehards could skip it altogether if it weren’t for the last scene — the only truly surprising moment in the entire movie, an ending that makes you wish it had come at the start of the film. At a time when Marvel Studios should be building on their success and embarking on more ambitious narratives, Thor: The Dark World takes three steps back. This comic-book picture could have starred practically any superhero. The fact that the most interesting character in the entire film (Loki) plays a supporting role is proof of the trouble afoot. Thor: The Dark World tries hard to give you something different from the first film. But all the movie accomplishes is to remind you how well the previous picture worked. This is a lot of state-of-the-art sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Christopher Eccleston, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, Ray Stevenson, Rene Russo.
Director: Alan Taylor.
Screenwriters: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely.
Producer: Kevin Feige.
A Marvel Studios release. Running time: 111 minutes. Intense sci-action and violence, adult themes. Opens Friday Nov. 8 at area theaters.