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Thor: The Dark World (2013)

thor2DIRECTOR: Alan Taylor

CAST: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Jaimie Alexander, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Alice Krige, Adewale Akinnouoye-Agbaje

REVIEW:

Thor: The Dark World, following in the footsteps of the introductory outing for its title character, 2011’s Thorand the 2012 superhero all-star extravaganza The Avengersis a step down and feels like an obligatory episode.  It moves briskly and serves up serviceable fantasy action-adventure, but it lacks the epic feel of Thor and it’s hard to care much about what’s taking place onscreen despite a bunch of flashy special effects, dwelling in the middle ground of mediocrity also occupied by Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man 3.  

When we pick up after the events of Thor and The Avengers, the Nine Realms are in chaos, with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his comrades Sif (Jaime Alexander), Fandral (Zachary Levi, replacing Josh Dallas), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) with their hands full trying to restore order.  Meanwhile, Thor’s Earthling girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) stumbles across the indestructible superweapon Aether, awakening Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), King of the Dark Elves, Asgard’s ancient enemies, who seeks Aether to wreak destruction on Asgard.  Thor is forced to reluctantly seek the help of his untrustworthy, power-hungry brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), cooling his heels in the dungeons after his escapades on Earth in The Avengers, but Loki might have his own ideas.

If the above sounds thin, that’s exactly right.  Malekith may be the most poorly-developed of any Marvel villain, the backstories of the Dark Elves and the Aether are truncated and thinly-explained, and none of this interdimensional running around seems to amount to much, even when Thor and Malekith have a climactic smackdown across multiple realms (with Thor’s hammer racing to catch up), and worlds align in “The Convergence”, an equally thinly-explained once-in-a-millennium event that will allow Malekith to use the power of Aether to void the entire universe in one fell swoop (or something to that effect).  Malekith is as thinly-developed, one-note, and shallow a villain as they come, and is never given a chance to become remotely interesting.  He’s not a character, he’s a walking plot device.  This all feels a little thin and inconsequential even with the obligatory grand evil scheme, and it doesn’t help matters that this sequel indulges in more silliness than Thor.  The previous film had its share of comic relief, but it didn’t stoop to the cheap laughs level of Stellan Skarsgard running around acting goofy in his underwear (or less).  In Thor, there was an intriguing sense of depth and an epic underpinning.  The Dark World feels like a superfluous side trip.

Chris Hemsworth, in his third outing as the hunky, hammer-wielding Thor (following Thor and sharing the screen with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America in The Avengers), is brawny and charismatic and fully capable of holding the camera’s attention.  Natalie Portman, meanwhile, is bland and the faint spark which she and Hemsworth showed in their first pairing has fizzled (reportedly, Portman did not want to do this sequel, especially after the first film’s director Kenneth Branagh did not return, and her lack of enthusiasm is a little too obvious).  There’s far more spark in the confrontations between Thor and his untrustworthy brother Loki, and Hemsworth shows more give-and-take chemistry with Tom Hiddleston than he ever does with Portman.  Hiddleston is now three for three for stealing scenes in his appearances as Loki (previously playing the main villain in both Thor and The Avengers, and here in uneasy ally mode), and his sly wit and knack for one-liners enliven every scene in which he appears.  Loki is one of the most delicious comic book villains this side of The Joker, and Hiddleston savors every line with relish.  The energy level kicks up a notch around the halfway mark when Loki is freed; unfortunately, his time in the center stage isn’t long enough.  Kat Dennings also gets a few one-liners as the smart-mouthed Darcy, while poor Stellan Skarsgard, brain-fried after being possessed by Loki in The Avengers, is reduced to bumbling comic relief, running around naked and raving like a lunatic.  Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, and Rene Russo don’t get much to do.  Christopher Eccleston, unrecognizable beneath prosthetics and makeup, is wasted as the ho-hum, one-dimensional, undeveloped Malekith, perhaps the thinnest, blandest, most personality-deficient comic book movie villain any time in recent memory (just compare him to Loki).  At one point, Malekith was set to be played by Mads Mikkelsen, who dropped out due to commitments to the title role of Hannibal Lecter on NBC’s “Hannibal” series.  Mikkelsen lucked out; Hannibal gives him the chance to play a vastly superior villain.

Thor was an intriguingly different entry in the crowded comic book movie genre.  The Dark World inhabits the realm of generic mediocrity already crowded with those who are unable to rise above the formula and stand apart from the large pack.  It’s an adequate couple hours of diversion, but along with Iron Man 3, it feels like an unessential episode in the Avengers universe that you can skip without missing much.

* * 1/2

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