Dark is right. Seen in screen-dimming 3D and set across a variety of murky CGI environments (the titular Dark World certainly lives up to its name), this Thor sequel doesn’t make things easy on the eyes. It might’ve just been my screening, but I frequently had to lift up my 3D glasses to see if I was missing anything; I’d recommend seeking out a 2D version.
Unfortunately, dim lighting isn’t Thor’s only problem: The Dark World is Marvel’s first big misstep. Sure, the studio has seen their property mishandled over the years in adaptations of The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, X-Men, and other franchises (Daredevil, anyone?) But the studio’s track record with films they’ve produced themselves had so far been spotless: despite other issues, the Iron Man, Captain America, Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Avengers films each perfectly captured that comic book feel.
The Dark World gets that mostly right, too, and exhibits (in spurts) the same goofy charm of the original, which was one of the better Marvel outings. The film is at its best when focusing on the titular god of thunder and his brother Loki; Chris Hemsworth’s effortless swagger is a perfect fit for the role, and Tom Hiddleston continues to develop the best villain the Marvel cinematic universe has given us so far.
But interest plummets whenever Thor and Loki are offscreen – which happens far too often. The film opens with some barely intelligible gobbledygook about dark elves and their leader Malekith (played by an unrecognizable Christopher Eccleston), who once waged a war to, uh, unleash the mystical Aether when all the planets were in perfect alignment – or some such nonsense – in order to destroy the universe. For some reason.
The Asgardians managed to stop them, but thousands of years later (present day on Earth, conveniently), the planets are lining up again. Coincidentally, Jane Foster – Thor’s love interest from the first film, played by Natalie Portman – stumbles into the “Dark World” via a London parking garage and manages to infect herself with the Aether. You know, these things happen.
In addition to Jane, there are three other characters working with her that we don’t really care about: Stellan Skarsgård’s Erik Selvig, stumbling around Stonehenge naked with a tinfoil hat, and Kat Dennings and Jonathan Howard as straight-up comic relief.
Actually, all the human characters serve as comic relief. Including Jane, who we first meet during an awkward dinner date with The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd. But the human stuff rarely works: Thor is the only true comic presence here, whether hanging his hammer on a coat rack or deadpanning a reaction to a ringing cell phone: “It isn’t mine…”
With all the exposition taking place, the first half of The Dark World really struggles to maintain interest. We don’t care about the overly-serious threat posed by the dark elves or the half-serious nature of the human scenes. All this time devoted to establishing a plot we have little interest in, and there are all these cool alien gods – Jaimie Alexander’s Sif, Ray Stevensen’s Volstad, Zachary Levi’s Fandral, and Tadanobu Asano’s Hogun – just sitting around on Asgard, barely in the film.
Thankfully, the film picks up on Asgard, as Thor deals with parents Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Frigga (Rene Russo) about Jane and the impending threat posed by the elves. And things really pick up in the second half of the film, when Loki is added to the mix and finally gets to share some screen time with his brother.
Director Alan Taylor was an unusual choice for the film: a TV veteran with few film credits to his name (though he did debut with the wonderful little Palookaville), he made his name on HBO series like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. One scene in particular – a riverside funeral, with a flaming arrow shot into a floating casket – directly recalls a similar moment in Thrones.
The Dark World is capably put together, but Taylor is never as invested in the cheesy Shakespearian nature of the material as Kenneth Branagh was in the original film: he’s more interested in telling the story straight, but the silly comic book plot isn’t why we’re watching Thor 2. Tone is a particular casualty: too serious one minute and too goofy the next, with Brian Tyler’s overbearing music underscoring each tonal change, the film struggles to achieve that balanced comic book feel.
One last pet peeve: Thor and the Asgardians are mighty gods, and the dark elves are plenty powerful too, and we have absolutely no idea of the threat posed by or to these characters. This comes up in movie after movie: we don’t know how effective it is when Thor lands a blow with his hammer, or how dangerous it is when he’s pummeled into the ground by a monster (and heck, these characters don’t seem to know how to effectively battle each other either!) I’d love to see Thor learn what works from his attacks, to discover and exploit weaknesses, but no, it’s just bash-bash-bash until the bad guy is dead.
As is expected with these films, be sure to stick around during the credits for an unexpectedly campy scene that (presumably) sets up the next Avengers get-together, 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy.