Review: “Thor: The Dark World”

One feels a little silly applying questions of logic and rationale to a movie like “Thor: The Dark World,” which even by superhero standards is blithely unselfconscious of its machinations’ zaniness. And yet, I spent much of my movie-going experience with the second Thor film puzzled, be it from strange filmmaking choices or seemingly contradictory plot elements.

Then again, I wasn’t a big fan of “Thor” 1.0, so perhaps the cinematic exploits of the God of Thunder just aren’t my flavor.

“The Dark World” opens “Fellowship of the Ring”-style, with a monologue explaining some elf-related mischief while swords and spears clash on a barren plain. It seems that some dark elves are pretty unhappy about the creation of the universe and wish things would return to their previous state, which was a black hole or dark matter or something (how the dark elves managed to exist in this plane and why they liked it so much is never explained). Thousands of years ago, the forces of Asgard, known on Earth as the Norse pantheon of gods, defeated the dark elves and stole and hid their weapon, a dark matter generator called The Aether. Early in the movie, scientist and Thor’s girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) finds and is accidentally possessed by The Aether, and our hero (Chris Hemsworth) must save her while keeping the dark elves from taking the power in her veins for themselves, destroying the multiverse in the process.

These may sound like silly questions, but I had them: For a big job like this, why aren’t the Avengers there? Why do the dark elves want things to go dark again? If they can track The Aether in Jane, why couldn’t they track it in the millennia prior to it invading her body? How did the dark elves lose to the Asgardians the first time when only one dark elf secret agent practically brings the realm to its knees? Are there any real rules to how senior scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) uses his weird inter-dimensional tuning fork machine? Perhaps most of all, when chief dark elf Malekith (a rather bland Christopher Eccleston) actually wields the supposedly world-destroying Aether, why can’t he even kill Thor with it?

These questions are never answered, and the film doesn’t seem particularly concerned by them. Too often, “The Dark World” is simply content to coast on the expectation of its fans’ acceptance. After all, Hemsworth is a hottie, and this installment is simply the latest in the unstoppable cash cow that is the Marvel cinematic universe. If viewers missed out on this one, their mental encyclopedias might not be fully stocked for “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” in 2015.

That approach often seems to extend to the technical and storytelling decisions as well as the plot logic. Thor and dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins) are curiously absent from some key moments of Asgard action, the main five cast members spend much of the movie separated from each other, the sound in the mid-film battle is mixed curiously low (a complaint I almost never have about an action movie), and much of the fighting is murky and shrouded in subpar graphics. It’s as if the people responsible for the film knew it would make a zillion bucks no matter the product, and the packed house at my mid-morning screening suggested they were right.

“The Dark World” begins to make up for its previous errors in its final minutes, with Thor making his long-awaited return to Earth (Hemsworth’s well-played fish-out-water sequences were the best part of the first movie, and they remain so here) and an inventive final fight that’s reminiscent of and as funny as the climax of “Monsters Inc.” But the light-on-its-feet finale can’t quite erase the ponderous beginning, particularly when it’s undercut by a last-moment twist that makes little sense beyond corporate synergy concerns.

My dense description of plot perhaps belies the Thor series’s greatest weakness. Far too often, it is to the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe what the Star Wars prequels were to the original films: related counterparts drowned in exposition, with none of the simple hook that makes their brethren so engaging. Like “The Phantom Menace” before them, the Thor films pack in more obvious jokes than their compatriots do but still don’t manage to be as effortlessly entertaining. It doesn’t help that “The Dark World” keeps its best asset, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, locked in a dungeon for his crimes in “The Avengers” for far too long.

There exists out there the key to a good Thor movie. The cast is strong, the power set is engaging, and we’ve even seen Hemsworth and Hiddleston do wonderful work in a different Marvel setting. A focus on character and thematic simplicity would service this world much better than these mythology-heavy outings.

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