The first "Thor" movie was something of a risk for Marvel. Wisecracking Robert Downey Jr. in a (relatively) grounded real world setting was one thing, but a Viking god from space, played by a complete unknown and directed by a man best known for Shakespeare adaptations was quite another. But the 2011 film, while flawed in many ways, proved surprisingly entertaining and teed up both its title character and his villainous brother Loki for a return appearance in the team-up movie "The Avengers," which turned out to be an absolute megahit. As such, the studio must be feeling on surer ground with "Thor: The Dark World." It'll undoubtedly be a big hit, but it's a shame that the movie isn't much of an improvement on its predecessor. While it rights some of the first film's problems, it has more than a few of its own, leading to an effort that, while entertaining, is probably the most deeply flawed Marvel movie since "Iron Man 2."
After a very "Lord of the Rings"-esque prologue introducing villain Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and his Dark Elves, ancient creatures who are bent on returning the universe to darkness using something called the Aether during the Convergence, a once-every-ten-millennia alignment of the nine realms, the action picks up almost immediately after "The Avengers." Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to Asgard in chains, and he's left to languish for the rest of his life in a dungeon.
Meanwhile, Thor gets on with his duties keeping the peace among the kingdoms, while in London, his lost love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), heartbroken after he broke his promise to return to her, continues her research into the barriers between worlds. But when she stumbles across the Aether, Malekith is awoken, and sets out to finish what he started. His first stop? Asgard, where Thor has taken Jane to investigate the Aether that's now bonded to her.
As words like Convergence, Aether and Dark Elves might suggest, "Thor: The Dark World" delves deeper into hard fantasy than its predecessor, and for the most part, has found a director well-suited to that in Alan Taylor. Though best known on the big screen for mid-'90s indie "Palookaville," Taylor has made his name more recently as one of the go-to directors for "Game of Thrones," and he better sells the more out-there aspects of the story than Kenneth Branagh did. Asgard is a bit more earthy and lived-in this time around, feeling like a real environment rather than the artificial, Kirby-esque, green-screen-happy settings of the first film.
More importantly, Taylor has a decent handle on tone: the unexpected humor of the first film is back in force, and there are enough quips (bearing the unmistakable hand of script doctor Joss Whedon), gags and fun cameos that we won't give away here—the mid-credits teaser in particular is likely to have fans doing backflips—to give the film that now-trademark Marvel lightness of touch. His eye for action is solid (if unexceptional) too, with an inventive final set-piece seemingly inspired by "Portal" being the high-point.
And yet Taylor and the rest of the gang are cramped by a script that's severely lacking in a number of areas. The film's biggest issue is that, as a villain, Malekith is something close to a disaster. It's not that Eccleston is terrible in the part—although he seems to be about as invested and present here as he was playing the heavy in "Gone In 60 Seconds" and "G.I. Joe," i.e. not very—it's that the character is woefully under-developed.
Outside of a handful of scenes with henchman Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who exists mostly to be turned into a Predator-like creature that'll make a cool toy, Malekith barely interacts with anyone else in the film (if he and Thor exchange more than a single conversation, we've forgotten it already), which means he mostly remains a barely motivated cypher. And not an especially scary cypher, either. Despite some decent design work on the dark elves, there's not much of a threat here, and this year's umpteenth blockbuster reference to 9/11 doesn't automatically bestow gravitas in the way that filmmakers keep hoping.
With a relatively brisk (in modern blockbuster terms) sub-two-hour running time, we suppose the thin quality of Malekith was a sacrifice to allow more time with Loki. Tom Hiddleston again proves to be good in the part, allowing a little-boy-lost vulnerability into the genocidal trickster while still having fun with him, but the conflict he creates mostly hits the same beats as they did in the first film and in "The Avengers," and you could pretty much lift him out of the plot without impacting the rest of the film too much. One senses he's mostly here to set up a third film.
Elsewhere, you can feel the script strain to include everyone else from the first film. Some roles are expanded properly—Rene Russo actually gets something to do this time, while Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård (whose character has arguably evolved more across these movies than anyone else's) remain winning comic relief/exposition dumpers. But most others drop in and out of the film awkwardly. One of the Warriors Three gets put on the bench early on simply because there's no room for him, the hints at a love triangle with Thor, Jane and Jaime Alexander's Sif continue to be nothing more than that, Idris Elba's Helmdall gets a big action moment and then vanishes, and Portman is asleep for the whole second act, and reverts to a damsel-in-distress in the third.
The result is a film that is enjoyable in spots, but haphazard and ultimately unsatisfying. As with "Iron Man 3," these films are increasingly feeling like episodes of TV shows or, perhaps more appropriately, issues of comic books. For all the good gags and eye candy, this ultimately boils down to yet another quest to find a magical MacGuffin that will stop a portal in the sky from opening (seriously, has that become one of the Seven Basic Plots at this point?). And while the hardcore geek crowd may eat that up, the rest of us need these films to distinguish themselves a little more if we're going to have one every six months. [C]