It’s a shame. Marvel was able to start the year off so promisingly. Iron Man 3 wasn’t just the best film the comic book themed production company had created, but it was also a deliriously fun stand alone movie that worked well outside of its core mythology. Now with Thor: The Dark World, an uninspired and almost shockingly lethargic entry into the Avengers canon, they’ve also used this year to deliver reason to pause and reassess the current direction of their franchise.
I guess I should start off by saying, in full disclosure, that I don’t like Thor as a character very much. I don’t see any huge appeal to hulking behemoth of a God who can actually be killed through very vague definitions, meaning he really, kinda, sorta, isn’t a deity. It’s not that I don’t think there are interesting directions to take the character in, but no amount of romantic subplots or team-ups or fish out of water stories will really make me care about him any more as a character. He sure can swing a powerful hammer, and he can unwittingly luck into a good one liner every now and then, but his first feature outing was only mildly passable at best. This one doesn’t change things very much at all, creating only an exact inverse of the first film’s plot and almost never doing a single original thing worth noting.
Picking up shortly after Thor’s return to Asgard, having apprehended his evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) for his reign of terror in New York City, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finds himself at a crossroads. He’s still fighting to preserve a sense of peace and balance throughout the nine realms of the universe, but he still has no desire to take over his father Odin’s throne. He still pines for his Earthbound love, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who he keeps an eye on from afar despite her moving on to dating other people and becoming disinterested by the science that brought the star crossed lovers together. Jane gets brought back into the fold when her colleague Darcy (Kat Dennings) discovers a seemingly random and invisible wormhole not of this world. After getting sucked into the hole, Jane becomes the unwitting carrier of another potential world destroying superweapon known as The Aether. The weapon was buried deep so its creators, a race of dark elves that predates the creation of the universe, could never find it. Jane’s discovery awakens the race’s long thought deceased ruler Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), and Thor is forced to form an uneasy alliance with his now vengeful brother to save the universe and protect the woman he loves.
Whereas Kenneth Branagh’s first outing with the character was a fish out of water story involving Thor adapting to life on Earth without his powers, new director Alan Taylor (predominantly known for working quite frequently on Game of Thrones) tells the exact opposite story, making it classic sequel 101 in the same vein as The Hangover II or Rush Hour 2. Jane finds herself on Asgard with a newfound power she can’t control and no frame of reference to the world around her. Not only is the very flip-flop incredibly lazy writing, it’s not even that entertaining in its laziness.
It’s clear that Jones cut his teeth on a hit TV show with decidedly medieval elements because he goes out of his way to stick to his strengths, and it’s that very idea that simply serves to underline the flaws that made the first film so awkward. It’s actually trying even harder to be epic and operatic, and it ends up seemingly like a film that takes itself far too seriously for its moments of comedic relief to not feel completely out of place. There are plenty of space battles, but I really can’t recall any that left any lasting impact beyond feeling like the film was merely stalling for time because it didn’t have much to offer. Every scene where Thor has to face off against an enemy feels interchangeable. He’ll start by kicking some ass, the baddie will get a few shots in, Thor regulates hardcore with Mjolnir. It becomes monotonous early on, and never fully recovers. In addition, the dramatic beats never get furthered beyond what was already established in the first film, and the plot never really gets anything added to it beyond what’s already been outlined in the franchise or during one of the film’s two credits stingers (the first of which is vastly more interesting than the maddeningly pointless second one).
It’s not Hemsworth or Hiddelston’s faults, at least. Both are very appealing actors doing what they can and at least looking like they are having fun doing it. If it weren’t for Hemsworth’s ability to imbue a certain amount of humanity onto Thor, this film might actually be unsalvageable. The script only barely allows for the character to have range, but Hemsworth does a fine job of conveying the sense of a superhero coming to terms that he was once an arrogant young man, and that he now understands what he’s fighting for and why it’s important. It’s hard to pull off when the film and the supporting cast around him aren’t doing him any favours.
One of the biggest problems with both films is that Portman seemingly can’t be bothered to care to be in the film. Ditto Anthony Hopkins as papa Odin. They always give off the sense that the entire enterprise is beneath them. Almost all of their line readings are delivered with the conviction of someone who has simply rested their head on their elbow and is perfectly content to let the spectacle bring a level of interest they can’t be bothered to achieve. And when the focus is placed more squarely on these characters as it is here instead of on Thor having to find out more about his place in the universe, it makes the movie drag like it has lead weights tied to it. Their chemistry with Hemsworth was, and continues to be, like oil and water. Even Portman’s few scenes with an almost confused looking Chris O’Dowd as a potential suitor feel dreary.
Hiddleston thankfully gets to play Loki more like he was written in The Avengers, rather than the his first outing, where he came off as nothing more than a petulant, annoying brat instead of a credible threat. But even the “teaming up with your biggest enemy” idea has been done to death both inside and outside the genre, and for these films to sustain themselves in the long term, the writing teams have to come up with fresher material than this. Unless audiences simply want lowest common denominator rehashes, then by all means don’t let me get in the way of success.
It’s also distressing because Hiddleston and Hemsworth are such great foils for each other that one wishes Loki was just the main villain again. Instead, we get a thoroughly wasted turn from Eccleston in one of the most non-descript and pat feeling evil doers possible. How unmemorable is this villain? I had to take note of his name three times before even once having it stick in my memory, and I had to wait until the end of the credits to find out who even played him under the immense amount of make-up. When I saw it was Eccleston, my heart sank. I try to go into films as cold as possible, and I honestly never even knew he had been cast in the picture. He’s genuinely a pretty great actor, and here he’s playing a character that looks, sounds, and moves like it just could have been entirely created in post via CGI.
There are a few other bright spots in the supporting cast from some returning faces, but they seem to be shoehorned into the film because audiences liked them so much the first time around. Idris Elba gets a couple of extra scenes as Asgardian gatekeeper Heimdall, but even the one major thing he gets to do this time out smacks of someone at a higher corporate level saying to be sure he gets more screen time because he’s a bigger star now. Dennings has the most increased role from the first film, bringing with her some much needed levity and good will. Stellan Skarsgard also returns as Jane’s former boss, now a basket case following his possession by Loki in The Avengers. The character is almost too buffoonish here to work all that well, but he does get the film’s biggest laugh with an exceptionally timed piece of dialogue.
While it’s undoubtedly going to make a lot of money at the box office thanks to branding and the franchise juggernaut that fuels it, Thor: The Dark World isn’t a good movie. It might appeal to those who live only for credit stingers, plot twists that can be undone mere moments after they happen, or those who enjoy comic book epics indiscriminately, but this really does represent a turning point for the character and the series it now finds itself entrenched within. Thor needs a filmmaking team who can make him appear more human and a lot less self-serious. He’s a God. He can do anything. Simply having him go into battle after battle isn’t all that fun to watch, especially if the story being told is almost the exact same structure as the one that came before it. After only two features built around the character, he feels played out. Here’s hoping the inevitable third film isn’t such a drag.