Of all the Marvel heroes comprising The Avengers, Thor was always going to be the trickiest to translate to the screen. After all, the Norse god with formal speech and a celestial backstory doesn’t exactly pack the same simplistic punch as his “explained in their names” buddies Iron Man or Captain America. The last time Thor got a movie, director Kenneth Branagh got around those weaknesses by poking fun at them through camp humor. It worked well enough for audiences to ignore the fact that the plot was a remake of the 80s Masters Of The Universe movie, and now that it’s sequel time, much has changed and much has stayed the same. The film remains laced with winking referential humor as is a Marvel movie staple and this time it’s also filled with massive CGI action that wasn’t in the budget of Thor 1. In the end, Thor: The Dark World is meaningless pulp that essentially throws a bunch of stuff at the screen and leaves the heroes in roughly the same place they were when it began. However, Marvel Studios has turned into such an impressive entertainment factory that it works. The film is more amusing than last week’s Ender’s Game despite the fact that it offers none of the intelligence or meaning. As far as cinematic cotton candy goes, you could do much worse.
The plot is a bunch of incidental gobbledygook designed to facilitate as much CGI action and brotherly bickering as possible. We start with a prologue setting the stage for a Dark Elf (Christopher Eccleston unrecognizable under prosthetics) who has beef with those Asgard folks and wants to plunge the universe into all-consuming darkness. To do so, he needs a weapon called The Aether and a special time to attack when all the realms of the universe align. Guess what time in the space charts this movie takes place? Back on Earth, Natalie Portman’s Thor-loving astrophysicist is struggling to date London dudes who aren’t Norse gods, semi-working with her intern Kat Dennings (who now has her own intern because that’s HILARIOUS), and listening to her scientist crazy boss Stellan Skarsgard babble about planets aligning. She also discovers some sort of inter-dimensional portal in a derelict building (don’t ask) that inexplicably transports her right to where the Aether is hidden and infects her with the universe-shattering weapon.
Back on Asgard, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has created a land of peace and is reluctantly planning to take over the kingdom from his father (Anthony Hopkins). Loki (a never-better Tom Hiddleston) has been imprisoned and is all bitter about it, desperate for revenge. All Thor can think about is Natalie Portman though, so when he finds out that she’s been infected with an apocalyptic weapon he races to her aid. She comes to Asgard, making Thor’s Xena-lite warrior love interest (Jaimie Alexander) jealous and causing Eccleston’s Elf to show up and declare war. Battles ensue and eventually it becomes clear that not only will the final battle to decide the fate of the universe conveniently have to happen on earth, Thor will have to team up with Loki to pull it off. So yeah, it’s a lot of convoluted nonsense overstuffed with characters (I haven’t even mentioned Thor’s battling buddies The Warriors Three, who also suck up screen time even though you can tell the team of writers didn’t really want to use them). The good news is that the plot doesn’t matter that much. It’s just material used to stitch together scenes in which Hemsworth and Hiddleston can ham it up once more and the filmmakers can make big things go boom.
One of the more telling aspects of the film is the fact that directing duties were passed from Branagh to Alan Tyler. For better or worse, Branagh was a filmmaker with a distinct style who left his campy touch on the original. Tyler, on the other hand, hasn’t made a movie in ten years, instead directing-for-hire on television shows like The Sopranos and Game Of Thrones. Now, Tyler certainly has talent, and he’s done great work for television. However, he’s a director who is hired to work within a house style at all times. Marvel has become such a massive movie factory that at this point, they don’t need a filmmaker with a point of view to guide their projects. They’ve got a collection of comic book artists and the best effects team in the biz to design the massive action sequences as well as a staff of writers headed by Joss Whedon to nail the tongue-in-cheek tone. More than any other production before now, Thor: The Dark World feels very much like a Marvel Studios movie over any particular filmmaker’s vision. Obviously, that’s not ideal. However, in this case, that’s perfectly fine since no one knows how to make a Marvel movie better than Marvel Studios.
Thor: The Dark World hits all the beats you’d want out of a Thor movie and then leaves before tedium can set in. Hemsworth doesn’t have as many comedic opportunities as last time, but still does the stomping superhero routine with ease. Natalie Portman brings a pretty face, sarcastic spunk, and a light touch to her damsel in distress routine. Skarsgard gets big laughs as an idiot scientist in his underwear. Anthony Hopkins poses and shouts, as he’s wont to do (though sadly he isn’t hilariously given a new eye patch for every scene this time). Then, of course, there’s Tom Hiddleston who clearly has a blast returning to the role of Loki that he’s completely made his own. Hiddleston is one of the secret MVPs of the entire Marvel Universe whose dry British wit, delightful evil grin, and classically trained acting chops are always a joy to behold. He is the star villain of this universe and the sequel gives him plenty of opportunities to steal the show. On the sidelines, the Warriors Three are still underdeveloped and underused while Kat Dennings’ wisecracking 20something routine is quickly turning into the Jar-Jar Binks of the Marvel Universe. However, with so much stuff going on and so many characters competing for attention, at least she’s less of a distraction than last time.
Ultimately Thor: The Dark World is a more consistently entertaining experience than the original, even if Branagh’s campy mockery is missed. The action is more visceral and executed on an Avengers-style scale. The dialogue zips and quips. The plot fires along without the overlong set-up and periods of tedium from the original. The stars shine and the explosions shine brighter. It is exactly what we’ve come to expect from a Marvel movie and the studio knows how to give the fans what they want. Like the original Thor, this is still on the low end of the spectrum of Marvel movies. They’ve yet to give Thor a classic solo film like Iron Man or even Captain America and given the difficulty of the subject matter, they probably never will. Making a Thor movie this breezily entertaining is difficult enough and we should all be grateful that the studio has yet to deliver a Thor-sized disaster. It may all be meaningless fluff, but no one is better at providing meaningless fluff to the masses than Marvel Studios. It’s still an excellent popcorn-crunching crowd pleaser that’ll tide over fans until the next Marvel movie epic. Expecting anything more would be greedy. The flick could and should have been so much worse, and if this is as bad as Marvel movies get, then it’s a damn good time to be a fan of superhero movies.