Trading in directors and screenwriters (only one of the six credited here for story and screenplay were involved in the first film), Thor: The Dark World proves to be a solid follow-up to director Kenneth Branagh‘s 2001 origin story for Marvel Studios’ version of Thor. With nearly the entire cast of characters already introduced in the first film director Alan Taylor and his half-dozen writers can take the time to delve a little deeper in the supporting cast and give several characters from the previous film stand-out moments in the sequel.
I keep mention the number of writers on Thor: The Dark World because the script itself does feel like an odd mix of concepts and mashed-up designs that don’t always quite work. There is plenty to question in both film’s villain (Christopher Eccleston), an odd amalgam of Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, which to be fair so is much of Thor’s lore which jumbles sci-fi and fantasy with relish, and His quest to destroy all of creation with magic floaty water (that is shown mostly as smoke because apparently the CGI folks couldn’t decides what the “Aether” should actually be).
The biggest surprise of the film is how funny the end of everything adventure is. I’m willing to bet several of my favorite moments came courtesy of comic writer Christopher Yost whose run on Scarlet Spider I’ve enjoyed for the better part of two years. The number of laughs also helps cover-up some of the less palatable story elements or the indecisiveness of the movie such as the kinds of weapons and defenses Asgard and Asgardian defenders would have at their disposal (swords, magic lances, cannons, lasers, machine guns, and force fields are all thrown together in a single sequence as the kind of coherent design choices you’d expect from a Marvel Studios production seem wanting).
The story begins, as do many sci-fi/fantasy tales (see 2007’s underrated TMNT) with an aligning of planets (or here the nine realms) that allows the villain an unique opportunity and causes chaos on Earth where Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) discovers invisible portals to other dimensions. Accidentally finding her way through one such doorway, Jane is infected with the Aether. Returned to Earth, the presence of the powerful force that turns into a many-tendrilled smoke monster later in the movie (not unlike that found in Green Lantern) causes the reawakening of the space-dwelling Dark Elves who wish to unmake the universe and return all of reality to the darkness before the Big Bang.
To save the universe, and the life of the woman he loves, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) will be forced into a partnership with his jailed adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Along the way he’ll also call on the help of Heimdall (Idris Elba), Sif (Jaimie Alexander), and the Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, and Zachary Levi in inspired recasting that steals him a couple of scenes) as well as Jane’s friends Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), Darcy (Kat Dennings), and Darcy’s new intern (Jonathan Howard).
It’s in these characters and their interactions where the sequel flourishes. Taking time to pause the apocalyptic story, Thor: The Dark World offers each character a moment to shine. The scene between Heimdall and Thor discussing the Thunder God’s proposed course of action is one of the film’s best as are the interactions between Thor and Loki who helps liven up the script immediately once he is woven into the main storyline. Is Dennings still a bit much? Do we see more than enough of Skarsgård’s backside? Yes, but these character-driven subplots also provide nearly all of the film’s best moments.
With one exception (who I will get to in a minute), of the entire cast it’s Portman who suffers most. Only agreeing to sign-on to work with a director that was soon kicked-off the project, it’s obvious the actress doesn’t want to be there. And why would she as the script allows her to be little more than the love-struck swooning helpless maiden in distress for all but the film’s final act? Poisoned by the Aether, which offers her protection from harm but no real power, Jane is in constant danger throughout which is mainly used to cause create dissension between Thor and his father and push the plot forward.
And sadly Anthony Hopkins looks every bit his 75 years of age (and then some) as a tired version of Odin who isn’t able to muster up enough bluster for a crucial scene. I actually felt sorry for the actor who comes off at times not unlike a befuddled grandfather dressed in an elaborate getup against his will.
Although I have issues with both the extended opening sequence in Asgard and the final act of the original Thor, the first film succeeded on the strength of the Thunder God’s time on Earth and the hard-won humility of his situation. Thor: The Dark World suffers a bit as well from heavy set-up as the story doesn’t really get going up Thor and Jane are reunited. Although I think the final act of the sequel is much better than that of the original, the sequel lacks the character arc of the first film and offers us a villain who is far less interesting than Loki. I’d compare it to the mixed success of Iron Man 2 (which I’ve grown to appreciate a little more over time despite its issues, which eventually may also be the case here).
I found the 3D version of the film mostly forgettable and wouldn’t recommend shelling out the extra cash, but I would encourage people to stay through the credits for two separate sequences. The mid-credit sequence, which felt a bit off to me as the tone was decidedly different from the rest of the film, lays the foundation of Marvel’s Phase 2 going forward. And the post-credit sequence provides a nice moment and one final laugh before the curtain falls.