Review: THOR – THE DARK WORLD

It takes a little too long to get going, but once it does, the latest addition to the Marvel Universe is an incredible amount of fun…provided you don’t need complete understanding of the plot.

“You’ll what? Kill me? I expect there will be a line.”

–Loki

Less science fiction than full-blown fantasy (and about time!), Thor: The Dark World, which improves on 2011’s installment, has a lot of things going for it — primarily the richness of the world, the sparkling dialogue, and our affection for its characters. The original film brought an almost Shakespearean heft to a film series that, to that point, was best known for a wisecracking Robert Downey, Jr — bringing the kingdom intrigue of the Asgardan First Family to the screen with all the thematic weight of Henry V. While the battles weren’t the most memorable, the character work certainly was.

So much so, that Tom Hiddleston as the mischievous shape-shifter Loki quickly became the MVP of the Marvel roster. Hiddleston’s effortless charm (and legit dramatic chops) got him positive notice in Thor, but it was his turn as the primary villain of The Avengers that made him a fan favorite. As he proved when he cheekily berated the legions at San Diego Comic-Con earlier this year, bad guys really do have all the fun.

Therefore it’s unsurprising that Loki practically snatches the film away from the title character and walks away with it. It’s not that Chris Hemsworth is bad — not by any means, he’s still pretty much perfect — it’s that now that Thor has chosen the upright, noble path, he’s just not as interesting a character. He’s basically Superman with a giant hammer, still kicking lots of butt but spending a fair amount of time mooning over his mortal love, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). It’s not that bad of a writing decision — the character must evolve, after all — but it all but points a neon sign at a hamming-it-up Loki saying “YEAH, WE KNOW THIS IS WHO YOU REALLY CAME TO SEE.”

In the aftermath of “The Battle of New York,” the entire Universe is — once again — at stake. The Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) seeks to bring all the nine realms to darkness by using a mysterious force known as the Aether, and when Jane unwittingly comes across it (the worlds are all aligning, you see–but don’t think about it too hard) and is brought by Thor to Asgard, Malekith goes on the offensive, leaving Thor with no choice but to trust the least trustworthy person in the Universe: his adopted brother.

The film’s first hour is unfortunately muddled. The pseudo-science involved with “The Convergence” and its effects is needlessly complicated, and Malekith is frustratingly thin as a character: he postures and threatens, but we know nothing about him except that he is evil, and therefore he is evil. Thankfully, once Loki gets in on the action at the halfway mark things start to pick up considerably. A lot of this is obviously Hiddleston’s ability to lift any scene he’s in (and make the other actors raise their game, too), but despite the film taking its sweet time putting the pieces in place — and despite those pieces not making a whole lot of sense — the sudden infusion of the Trickster God, both in character and in performance, carries us through to a truly entertaining finale.

And boy, that finale. It’s memorable and inventive in all the best ways, well worth the price of admission, not to mention having many moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. That’s been one of the secret strengths of the Thor films: their humor. Hemsworth and Hiddleston have endlessly quotable banter, even Kat Dennings manages to be endearing instead of insufferable (a rare accomplishment), and Stellan Skarsgard is pantsless, so there’s that. In The Dark World, Jane’s arrival in Asgard reverses the amusing “fish-out-of-water” tale from the first film, and never has meeting your boyfriend’s parents been more terrifying.

Unfortunately because of the busyness of the plot, the Warriors Three get shunted off to the side this time around, with each only getting a couple of scenes to make an impression. The most screen time goes to Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), but her primary character beat, directed at Jane, is simply “jealousy.” Clearly, Thor has a type. I found myself wanting to see much more of Fandral and Volstagg, and Hogun — who was barely a character last time — has perhaps only one line.

I was also a little disappointed in the writing for Odin, who primarily exists to be an obstacle here, doomed to be wrong at every turn instead of playing the wise King and All-Father. He wants to teach Thor a lesson about having to make hard choices as a ruler, but doesn’t know what the audience knows: that Thor has already had his “maturation period” and we’re going to side with him no matter what. The biggest winner overall is undeniably Rene Russo as Frigga, Thor’s mother. She gets a pair of scenes with both her sons that fill in emotional gaps between all the punching and hammer-throwing.

Obviously, be on the lookout for a delightful cameo from elsewhere in the series, and a teaser after the credits that hints at the incredibly strange things to come. I couldn’t believe how many people got up and left before that bonus scene. Shouldn’t they really know better by now? Have they seen one of these before? If not, they were no doubt horribly confused. This is anything but a standalone film, which is both a blessing and a curse — but there was already so much exposition just setting up this story, there was no desire for any more. If you’re not caught up, you go in at your peril.

Overall, the shortcomings can be mostly overlooked because of the confidence in the performances, and in the direction from television veteran Alan Taylor, who brings the same lived-in, grounded aesthetic to the nine realms that he did to the seven kingdoms on HBO’s Game of Thrones. For one thing, the guy knows how to stage a battle scene. Occasionally the seams show (Hemsworth’s changing beard is a less-than-subtle reminder of the rewrites and extra shooting required), but the film is a visual marvel — no pun intended — and a worthy continuation of the studio’s much-hyped “Phase 2.” I’m eager to see what they have for us next.

Grade: B

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