MOVIE REVIEW: Thor: The Dark World

(Image: imdb.com)

THOR: THE DARK WORLD-- 3 STARS

Much like within the unified plot thread of the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself, the entire direction of this series of comic book movies changed with the arrival of Thor in 2011.  Before the Norse "God of Thunder" was cast out of the realm of Asgard and sent to learn a few lessons on Earth, the Marvel movies surrounding Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk before 2011 took a page out of Batman's movie rule book by playing very grounded, realistic, and, for the most part, plausibly believable.  Unlike the usual fantastical nature of comic book movies where aliens fly with red capes or wield green power rings of will, one could readily accept and believe the ability of a mortal billionaire industrialist like Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark to make a suit of armor much in the same way we've watched Bruce Wayne gadget himself up into a crimefighter.

With Thor and especially later with The Avengers, Marvel took everything a step further and bigger.  They upped the scale to go beyond mortal and earthly settings.  They left the plausible behind and entered the fantastical.  In Thor, gods now walked the earth and Earth's mightiest heroes took on aliens from space in The Avengers.  Still, to maintain the analogical brilliance of RDJ, in another role, that being Tropic Thunder, Marvel made sure to "never go full retard."  Even with the fantastical going on, our characters remained very connected to their humanity.

The loosest exception to that is the character of Thor.  He's the proverbial alien of the bunch, even if he's seen as a demigod.  To follow his story, Marvel has to hit the spaceways and dial up the fantasy.  Thor: The Dark World, the next chapter in the God of Thunder's journey, is Marvel's "spaciest" movie yet, diving in and out of several worlds and exotic settings.  In going full fantasy, Thor: The Dark World has plenty to entertain the masses, but loses a little of the coherence we enjoyed from other better Marvel films.

In a quick prologue narrated by Odin (returning Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins), we learn of the Aether, a powerful fluid energy weapon that has the ability to rearrange and destroy matter.  Thousands of years ago, Odin's father Bor battled with Malekith (professional movie villain Christopher Eccleston of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), the ruler of the Dark Elves over the Aether.  The victory led to almost complete annihilation of the Dark Elf race and the Aether being contained and hidden on another realm.

Back in the present, it's been two years since the events ofThor and one year since the thwarted alien takeover of Earth from The Avengers.  The traitorous Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the leader of that failed invasion, has been brought home to Asgard and faces imprisonment for his war crimes.  Meanwhile, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the lady warrior goddess Sif (Jaimie Alexander), and the Warriors Three of Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tabanobu Asano), and Fandral (Chuck 's Zachary Levi, replacing Josh Dallas from the first film) have finished a two-year world-hopping battle to bring peace to the Nine Realms.

With an end to battlefields, Thor finally has the chance to return to Earth to see his lost-love Jane Foster (Academy Award winner Natalie Portman).  Whisked away to safety off-screen during the events of The Avengers, she was never able to move on from Thor and still maintains her scientific work alongside Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and her trusty intern Darcy (Kat Dennings).  Foster and Selvig have been tracking scientific anomalies that match a 5,000-year "convergence" of the Nine Realms, where their alignment causes the boundaries between them to blur.  In doing so, Foster encounters and is infected by the rediscovered Aether.  Trapped within her body, the energy it contains will eventually kill Foster.  Thor brings her to Asgard for protection but the return of the Aether awakens Malekith and his minions.  His plan is to use the convergence as the window to unleash the Aether's power to destroy the collected worlds while their defenses are down.

Dashing between showdowns on alien worlds, alien assaults on Asgard, and a finale in Greenwich and London, the galaxy-sized game of hopscotch keeps the setting always on the move.  The action of Thor: The Dark World doesn't disappoint.  Game of Thrones helmer Alan Taylor was brought in to replace original director Kenneth Branagh (who wanted Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and probably more money instead) and bring a big, muddy sense of battle and royalty to this sequel.  Taylor succeeds in both of those areas.  The gravitas of Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo as Thor's royal parents get a nice boost and the fighting scenes are exceptional.  When compared to Game of Thrones, Taylor was also a natural fit to bring out the best in the deceptive Loki, who's role was increased with late-added additional scenes to deepen Tom Hiddleston's impact.

After the fitting new infusion of regal tone from Taylor, the story gets pulled in a lot of different moods and directions, which is clearly the movie's biggest flaw.  There are too many cooks in the kitchen.  The initial screen story was written by Thor screenwriter Don Payne and Saving Private Ryan's Robert Rodat.  That's a nice combination, but once it hit the screenwriting desk, the Chronicles of Narnia franchise duo of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely softened the edges and a quick polish from comic writer Christopher Yost attempted to keep things honest to the source material.  Thor: The Dark World could have been edgier, but the powers-that-be were never going to let that happen.

With Marvel Films and Marvel Comics now firmly part of the Walt Disney empire, that "cuteness" influence to make a cheeky crowd-pleaser has seeped in and watered down more than a little bit of Thor.  The comedy worked for a guy like Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man 3 , but he's a natural for that and one of the aforementioned grounded human characters.  It doesn't always work here in Thor: The Dark World.   Kat Dennings is a colossal distraction and annoyance in her role of comic relief.  She needs to stay out of comic book movies and stick to television.  Natalie Portman is made to look less like the capable scientist we saw in the first film and more like a neurotic floozy in this sequel.  Even Skargard's Dr. Selvig gets diminished with a lame mental health angle of shenanigans (which opens the door for Stan Lee's obligatory cameo).

The goal was to get the teens and kids to laugh and make the movie less threatening and more Disney-ish.  The sidebars to include these stupid comedic elements put richer characters like Idris Elba's Heimdall, Sif, the Warriors Three, and even the main villains firmly in the background rather than part of the center stage.  A few extra layers are briefly given to Heimdall and the unrequited love Sif has for Thor is teased, but opportunities were missed.  There's still enough for the comic fans to geek out about and, yet, probably enough to complain about too.

What saves Thor: The Dark World is the movie star presence of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston.  Make no mistake.  Chris Hemsworth is perfect physical embodiment of a superhero and makes all of the action scenes worthwhile.  While given far fewer windows than the recent Rush to show off his charisma, Hemsworth still does enough to make women swoon and make kids want put his poster on their wall.  Hiddleston continues to steal the show every chance he gets and turns more than a few heads himself.  Their interaction and brotherly rivalry are the core of this film's effectiveness.  When they are onscreen, the other annoyances go away and the film raises its game.

As always, be sure to stay into and after the credits for not one, but two additional scenes.  One is key to Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy  future and one is more of the "put-a-cute-bow-on-it" variety.  If you are lucky, some 3D and IMAX screenings are also showing a prologue and extended trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier coming next April, which is the next step in Marvel's "Phase 2" march towards The Avengers: Age of Ultron happening in 2015.

LESSON #1: KEEP A GOOD LID ON YOUR STUFF, WORDS OR OTHERWISE-- If you have a dangerously powerful, uncontrollable weapon and you mean to hide it, maybe don't leave it on Earth for an unlucky Oscar-winning actress playing a comic book scientist and the protagonist's girlfriend to find it.  There have to be better hiding places.  Along the same lines, if you don't have anything good to say, don't say it.  Keep a lid on it.  That goes for any over the 17 Chatty Cathy characters in the film.

LESSON #2: THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE THRONE-- That's enough farce.  It's back to the semi-serious comic book family drama.  The big growth spurt for Thor in this sequel is with taking on the growing responsibility of being the future king.  In the first film, he was young, brash, and unworthy.  This time around, he has really come around and cemented his place as a wise future king.  Thor shoulders the load to care for his people, defend the Realms, take on the politics of leadership, and look more at the big picture underneath his legendary father.

LESSON #3: PUTTING ASIDE STRIFE TO FORM AN ALLIANCE WITH A RIVAL-- No matter his crimes, Loki strongly considers himself a rightful ruler, whether it's of Asgard, Earth, or even his Jotunheim roots.  Even while being at odds with Thor and his adoptive parents, there are still some inner fibers of brotherly and familial connection within Loki.  When events threaten the fabric of those roots, Thor and Loki put aside their differences and their egos to work together tenuously.