Marvel’s post-Avengers (2012) blueprint is obvious, existing less as an exercise in good old fashioned cinema and more as a series of very long, very expensive television episodes. It should’ve been obvious as phase two veered away from solid yet interesting directorial choices like Jon Favreau and Kenneth Branagh and into the realm of TV directors, such as here with Alan Taylor and Thor: The Dark World and next year’s sequel to Captain America with Alan and Joe Russo. While James Gunn’s theoretically odd space opera Guardians of the Galaxy (complete with a talking raccoon) and Edgar Wright’s long-promised Ant-Man holds what’s left of Marvel’s potential for interesting films, the core stable of superhero movies now exists to play it safe. I’m not sure I can blame them from a purely pragmatic standpoint, since these things are a license to print money.
But I don’t write for Variety, so I don’t have to concern myself with the piles of cash some movie about a muscle-bound Norse superhero will make. Instead, I get to write about how bad said muscle-bound Norse-superhero movie is, which is a pity, since that sort of movie can be entertaining sometimes. It was, at least, with Branagh’s original Thor (2011), a film that was at times both operatic and smart-assed, but never too much of either, with Tom Hiddleston’s Loki easily being the Marvel films’ best villain (given this type of storytelling’s dependence on the idea of a rogues’ gallery, these movies have lousy bad guys). Thor was no great film, but it was fun, which is all you want from a giant dude with a magic hammer fighting robots and ice giants. In Taylor’s milquetoast hands, everything fresh about the original has been sucked dry, leaving Thor: The Dark World in its place—an uninspired photocopy of every popular fantasy and sci-fi property, from Tolkien to Alien (1979)—with nary an original idea of its own. Of course, originality isn’t needed when you’ve got a surefire hit on your hands.
The story is a dull little affair, with Norse god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth) trying to stop some Dark Elves in space ships from destroying the cosmos (or parts of it, which is never quite clear) with some dangerous weapon called Aether. Why are they so malevolent? Well, because the script says so, since the motivations of these elves and their leader Malekith (a role that utterly wastes Christopher Eccleston) are never mentioned. They’re there, they’re evil and they’re pissed—and that’s enough to build some fight scenes on. The lack of a good villain is a huge problem here, as the elves come across as forgettable b-list Star Trek baddies, while Loki’s been reduced to a smoldering pile of daddy issues. Thor exists to hit things with his hammer and to pine over his Earth girl (Natalie Portman). Everything leads up to the big, climactic battle in the middle of London, a scene that’s disappointing in how matter-of-factly it’s directed. On paper, this should be fun, with Thor and Malekith duking it out while the laws of physics warp and twist, and the two find themselves frequently—and unexpectedly—teleported to different worlds. Taylor will have none of that, however, since there’s nothing cinematic or energetic in his direction. I’d call it “workmanlike” if I felt that illustrated how dull he made Thor: The Dark World. And this is all before the cynicisms kick in, as we get to the film’s first tag scene (featuring a foppish Benicio Del Toro of all people), where we learn all this Dark Elf business is just prep work for the next Avengers—a moment that really illustrates how secondary the idea of making a good, entertaining movie was. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content.
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