Confused 'Thor: The Dark World' is a fleetingly amusing mess
Thor: The Dark World Walt Disney Studios
Director: Alan Taylor
Screenplay: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Rene Russo and Anthony Hopkins
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 52 minutes
November 8, 2013
(out of four)
Watching Natalie Portman survey a vast and shimmering neon kingdom as CGI airships whizzed by, she felt right at home. After all, it wasn't so long ago that she was queen of a place very much like this. That was Naboo, and she was Padmé, and while she's upgraded from Hayden Christensen to Chris Hemsworth since then, little else has changed.
Yes, what struck me most about the big setpieces and visual design of Thor: The Dark World was how reminiscent they were of the Star Wars prequels, of all things. It may be the first movie I've seen that almost seems to be taking direct inspiration from them. Scene after scene would fit nicely in Attack of the Clones.
Needless to say, this is not intended as a compliment. I don't remember if the Asgard from 2011's original Thor looked quite this cheesy and superficial, but that may just be because, in comparison to that film's utterly imagination-less Earth sequences, anything would seem magical. Whatever the case, it now seems like a glaring piece of artificiality.
I can't lay the blame all that much on director Alan Taylor - the great TV vet (The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, basically every other good show at one point or another) making a rare foray into feature filmmaking - because The Dark World feels like it was directed by one giant committee. Its tone shifts ungracefully between sequences, early weaknesses become late strengths, strengths turn into weaknesses. And as for visual style ... well, Marvel movies have a tendency to all look more or less alike (Captain America being a conspicuous exception).
The Dark World's maddening unevenness is exemplified by its comedy. Every attempt at humor over the film's first half-hour drops with a thud, from an early "witty" line from Loki - undone by bad time and a poor musical cue - to a completely tone-deaf scene showing Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) running around naked in a field before being institutionalized. But as things move along, it seems as though an entirely new set of filmmakers have taken over; the jokes start landing - including a great cameo by Chris Evans as Captain America (in fact just Loki appearing as Captain America to mock him) - and the whole movie lightens up. Despite all the obligatory fate-of-the-world nonsense that surrounds it.
And when the action-heavy final half-hour rolls around, it feels as though an entirely new movie has arrived. In three acts, it goes from tepid, deeply unfunny setup, to intermittently witty nonsense, to an inspired, screwball action climax. It all adds up to one of the more, for lack of a better word, interesting titles in Marvel's stable, but not a particularly successful one, its moments of charm and ingenuity undercut by cardboard characters and a balderdash excuse for a narrative.
The most succinct way to describe the film is to say that it is about portals. Marvel loves portals - can't get enough, really - and The Dark World has more than enough for the portal lover in your life. Portals between worlds, space/time portals, probably some interdimensional portals, though at a certain point it's hard to keep up. Or, rather, hard to care. In the days after seeing the film, all of its meaningless details and ideas faded almost entirely from memory, leaving only the bullet points. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) are in love, and fate has brought them together again. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is imprisoned for trying to take over the world, but is back in action because people like him and the studio needed to placate its audience Thor needs him to help fight off an army of dark elves.
The elves - led by Christopher Eccleston's Malekith - are after some sort of weapon called Aether, which ... aaaaand I've already lost my patience for that sentence. The problem with all the various weapons and trinkets and magical items that drive the plots of Marvel movies is that, while they're merely MacGuffins, the filmmakers never seem to realize it. They certainly don't treat them that way. They handle them with utmost importance, giving us full, elaborate backstories about where they came from and what they can do, have people talk about them ad nauseam in the most reverent of tones, and generally behave as though this item is the most important thing in the world. But the thing doesn't matter - only what happens because of the thing. We could save a lot of time if we didn't have to hear so much about this damn Aether and that damn Tesseract and this or that damn ancient war that means so much to the fate of the world.
If these films spent less time on details that don't matter and which no one really cares about, they might actually have time for the little extras like characterization. Hemsworth is a perfectly cast Thor, only he's been stuck in two lousy standalone movies in which he hasn't really been able to show much beyond the bare minimum the role requires (physical gravitas, arrogant charm). It doesn't get much better for Portman, whose character has still not found a purpose beyond "explain the scientific stuff" and "provide Thor with some eye candy." Both Kenneth Branagh's Thor and Taylor's The Dark World play around with wild sci-fi ideas and have a lot of good actors to sell those ideas - only the films themselves have shown a remarkable lack of interest in exploring any of it, or in giving those talented actors much of anything to do with it.