With Phase Two of Marvel’s master movie plan well under way, each new film installment like IRON MAN 3 or this week’s THOR sequel has two missions: make a Mjolnir-load of money at the box office and unlock one new piece to the larger franchise’s mega-plot. THOR: THE DARK WORLD succeeds with both tasks even if Loki tends to steal Thor’s thunder — or is it because of this?
The post-AVENGERS juggernaut continues with director Alan Taylor‘s THOR sequel hammering into theaters this Friday, efficiently following up on Kenneth Branagh’s introductory 2011 tale while advancing Thor’s individual storyline amid the unfolding Marvelverse saga. Taylor’s experience directing six episode of HBO’s sword-and-lechery series GAME OF THRONES serves him well in THE DARK WORLD, giving the sequel a sombre, gritty visual texture in its several featured realms (including gloomy London on Earth) which are illuminated mostly by the script’s good-natured sense of humor threaded throughout the drama and action sequences. This lighter side to THOR remains consistent with both the first film and the broader tone of the collective AVENGERS meta-franchise, yet this sequel flexes its muscle with plenty of superhero action on a sufficiently epic scale to live up to fan expectations.
We won’t give away all the goods, but suffice it to say that Asgardian demigod Thor (affable and ripped Chris Hemsworth) returns to Earth to resume his interrupted romance with astrophysicist Jane Foster (somewhat marginalized and underwhelming Natalie Portman), who has been searching for him across the cosmos in the aftermath of THE AVENGERS’ alien attack on New York. Thor’s been busy helping quash ongoing wars among the Nine Realms to restore peace and order, unaware that a rare alignment of the Realms will allow an ancient enemy Malekith (menacing Christopher Eccleston in an underwritten role) one last chance to return the universe to darkness. Malekith plans to use a mysterious force called the Aether to empower himself and wage destruction against the warriors of Asgard as an invincible foe. Unfortunately for all, Jane discovers a rip in the fabric of space here on Earth that transports her to the galactic location where Thor’s grandfather hid the Aether long ago, and it infects her first. So begins a rather ham-handed countdown to destruction that Thor must foil, lest the Aether kill Jane and the Convergence allow Malekith to obtain it to wreak havoc and darkness across the aligned Realms.
If all this sounds a bit perfunctory in its elevated Asgardian dramatics, punctuated by a backstory threat of ancient Dark Elves who know how to hold a grudge across the eons, well… it is, but you probably won’t mind since it puts Hemsworth through his God of Thunder paces and enjoyably so. But his dastardly brother Loki adds the true spice to this recipe, and once again Tom Hiddleston has a field day heating up this simmering pot of family angst and flinging devilishly sharp barbs from his Asgardian prison cell. Alas, after Malekith’s attack on Thor’s home world with tragic results, Thor must release his untrustworthy brother in order to turn the tide of battle, and it is in this moment that dark-hearted Loki shines in the sequel. There’s no mistaking that Hiddleston gets all the fun in his villainous, smirk-sneering role as Loki though, to the credit of writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the script forces Thor and Loki to join forces in a way that does offer a few new twists on their epically messed up sibling rivalry.
Anthony Hopkins yet rules Asgard in his fluctuating modes of Shakespearian command and acting quirkiness, with Rene Russo‘s Frigga at his side and taking a slightly more active part in the action this go around. Thor’s armored allies Ray Stevenson, Jaimie Alexander, Zachary Levi and Tadanabou Asano join the fight and assist in a plot-function escape from besieged Asgard, keeping their supporting characters shallow if mildly entertaining along the way. Likewise Kat Denning‘s Darcy and Stellan Skarsgard‘s wacky physics wizard Dr. Selvig mainly serve up comic relief in the form of cute-if-annoying zingers and Selvig’s nude streaking dash through Stonehenge, his apparent inability to think with pants on being a comic downgrade from his character’s importance as seen in THE AVENGERS. Hopkins and Russo are really the only other two characters who figure directly into this tale of revenge and cosmic conniving, so these supporting familiar faces get sprinkled through the script as needed without much consequence to their actions, unfortunately. Idris Elba‘s galactic gatekeeper Heimdall shares a few significant moments in Thor’s quest, but THE DARK WORLD’s juggernaut plot must forever speed ahead lest it lose dramatic steam all together and sink. Director Taylor helps the film steer clear of that fate, but moments of true drama are more rare than many might like, though perhaps as plentiful as one might expect.
Taylor’s visual tone helps take some of the metallic sheen and fantastic colors off Asgard which effectively supports the story’s dark portents and quasi-tragic results. In this sense the large amounts of CG visual effects tend to provide more efficient ambiance and atmosphere for this sequel, helping the characters stay in the dramatic spotlight as this titanic battle against Malekith and his demonic warrior rages across aligned realms. This isn’t to say the film lacks the panoramic wonder of Branaugh’s original THOR adventure, oh far from it. The climactic war waged between Thor and Malekith which jumps acrobatically from realm to realm — though centered in Greenwich, England — is a rather clever, mind-bending sequence that meets the bar now set quite high thanks to THE AVENGERS’ finale battle. This interdimensional duel definitely earns THOR’s keep in the Marvel movie pantheon, and stamps this sequel with a medal of valor on its own merits. The 3D presentation adds some additional visual splendor to the film but neither gets in the way of the experience nor elevates it to a must-see experience, so watching THE DARK WORLD in 2D wouldn’t be missing much if you choose to avoid the glasses and ticket price bump.
This review must mention another spectacular choice made in THOR:THE DARK WORLD which we both applaud and cannot discuss in detail since it’s a significant plot spoiler. You’ll know it when you see it. And, rather disappointingly, you’ll also regret the apparent undoing of it which is a choice viewers will likely both understand (given how film franchises work) and wish weren’t so for the sake of this particular story. Just tuck this observation away in the back of your minds when you see the film, then see if you don’t agree with our reaction.
Speaking of seeing things, make sure you stay through the entire end credits sequence: it contains two significant coda tags, the latter of which pertains directly to future plot points of the larger Marvel film slate and specifically to events in James Gunn’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY coming in August 2014. Again, we refuse to spoil either for you, but know that you’ll see a new character introduced that has a key part in GUARDIANS’ story and you’ll gain another valuable piece of the AVENGERS 2 puzzle as well — a puzzle that devoted Marvel comic fans will appreciate well if not entirely predict after the events of this film. Plus, enjoy the digital paint brush stylings of the credit illustrations which are artistically clever and inventive.
THOR: THE DARK WORLD swings for the fences, or at least an in-park triple, and audiences should enjoy it considerably on its own merits and as another well-calculated move in Marvel’s movie game plan. Thor himself may be handicapped compared to his Avengers teammates since he’s so Asgardamned forthright and flawless, unlike this delightfully sinister brother Loki, but he remains a potent player on Marvel’s roster. Full credit to both Hemsworth and Hiddleston for mastering their roles accordingly, even if the blond demigod has a cinematically thankless job next to the pyrokinetic pathology of his sibling. In the end, Loki’s demonic demeanor would be less fun and scene-stealing without Hemsworth’s acting flex and personal charm enlivening good old Thor, and this character chemistry pays off handsomely once again for this worthy sequel. FilmEdge gives THOR: THE DARK WORLD 3.5 stars as another bold hammer stroke in Marvel’s continuing lineage of superhero hits.