Thor: The Dark World | Grade B-
Gods, monsters and the geeky gals that love them are at the heart of this pleasurable yet largely disposable sequel to 2011’s hit Thor, and, to a lesser extent, a follow-up to the mega-smash The Avengers — although it seems most comic book movies released these days are in the shadow of that money-grabbing behemoth.
Having finally capitalized on its half-century of serialized publications, Marvel Studios is at last building a cinematic universe as immense, complicated and interconnected as the one that’s been seen in print since the early ’60s. So, as the new Thor flick dutifully zooms through its tale of ancient, feuding interstellar kingdoms, and the crew of wide-eyed human scientists that get turned on by that sort of thing, there is a lingering sensation that, no matter how much lightning and rubble flies by the screen, it’s all just a glitzy prelude to something grander.
The action focuses on Thor’s attempt to stop an invasion by an army of generic bad guys bent on crushing all reality with their ruthless weapon of CGI-assisted, plot-enhancing gloop. The head villain is a nasty customer called Malekith (Dr. Who’s Christopher Eccelston) King of “Svartalfheim,” which means “Dark Elf home,” and is one of the nine realms situated on Yggdrasil, the world tree; I can already hear some of you dozing off.
A slavishly Tolkienesque prologue establishes Malekith’s eon-spanning grudge against the Asgardians, ever since Thor’s creatively named granddad Borr trounced the dark elves several millennia ago. His army of foot soldiers sports creepy blank baby-doll masks for no apparent reason other than saving on action-figure tooling costs.
Due to some gobbledygook about a “harmonic convergence” of the worlds, Malekith is at last able to gain his revenge. Meanwhile, after a few years of mopping up disturbances, super powerful beefcake Thor is able to zip back to Earth for some quality private time with his dainty scientist girlfriend, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).
A perennial doormat in the comics, Jane has gotten a promotion from nurse to astrophysicist for the screen — though poor Portman still has to spend a lot of time looking forlorn, then batting her eyelashes and biting her quivering lower lip in ardor whenever her Viking lover boy stops swinging his hammer long enough to look her way. She seems stuck in contractual obligation mode.
Cat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard have their funny little moments as Jane’s kooky colleagues, though Thor’s otherworldly sidekicks get seriously underused, especially Jamie Alexander as the butt-kicking sword maiden, Sif, Chris Hemsworth is still tremendously charming in the title role, though the hulking blond hero is a bit too doggedly noble to be interesting, even when he’s bending the rules laid down by his gruff, almighty father, King Odin — again played with hammy zeal by Anthony Hopkins.
Dad wants his boy to settle down and take over the company business, inheriting the throne, but Thor is too enamored with humans, particularly the ladies, to give up his adventuring ways. As stolidly drab as Thor can be, his trickster half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is still a scream, and the picture perks up considerably when he’s around, though how much more energy can be squeezed out of his antics is debatable.
Previous franchise director Kenneth Branagh deftly managed a balance of the epic, cosmic camp and the earthly shenanigans, whereas here, HBO vet Alan Taylor is much better with his feet squarely on terra firma.
True believers will be on alert for the obligatory Stan Lee cameo and other dabs of savory geek butter, including a couple mindblowers during the end credits. Civilians may find themselves pleasantly diverted, but never really transported by the mythic chaos.
Thor: The Dark World is rated PG-13, has a running time of 112 minutes and is in theaters now.