Thor: The Dark World  (2013)

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In the first film, we saw Thor (unwisely) picking fights with the Frost Giants of Jotunheim. This time, he runs afoul of the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim. (Yeah, “Svartalf” means Dark Elf in Scandahoovian.) They’re led by the evil Malekith (Christopher Eccleston — yeah, the Ninth Doctor!), who has a foul plan to plunge all the worlds into darkness. Both sides tell a story that the Dark Elves, though they seem humanoid, actually predate the Universe itself. They seek to undo our interloping universe because it was never supposed to exist. And to stop the threat, Thor has to defy Odin, break his rotten brother Loki out of the dungeon, and persuade him to team up...

Natalie Portman is back, no longer sundered forever from her divine crush... but Kenneth Brannagh is not back as director. I was mildly optimistic.

One cool thing about this movie is Loki’s character arc. It’s more interesting and has more depth than anything he did in The Avengers, and it’s much more tricksterish than anything he did in either that movie or the original Thor film.

Another cool thing is the way the final battle constantly slips between worlds. Malekith’s attack takes place at a time when the walls between the Nine Worlds become super porous, and any time two fighers zoom toward each other, they may find themselves knocked into a random parallel dimension. This adds an interestingly fun and novel element to the fight.

Unfortunately, that pretty much completes the list of all that is cool in this movie. Everything else is dull and ordinary.

My biggest disappointment was not with the story, but with the look of the film. The difference is subtle, but somehow the Jack Kirby magic that infused the original Thor is gone. Even though a lot of the same elements are reused, somehow the action in Asgard — and there’s a lot of it, as the elves mount a large-scale raid on the city — ends up looking like a Star Wars prequel, which feels like a big come-down. This story shows us a lot more of the inside of Asgard, and its people, than we saw before (even less of the action is on Earth than was the case in the first movie) but it somehow ends up seeming a lot more plain and drab and grubby and low-tech than it used to.

Then, when the action shifts to Earth — specifically, to Greenwich, England — it feels like we’re in a Doctor Who episode, only with more fighting. (This has nothing to do with Eccleston, who between the makeup and the way they alter his voice, is completely unrecognizable.) The similarity actually made me disappointed that there wasn’t a cleverer way to stop the bad guy than with a fight.

And I might also mention that when they visit some of the more rural places in the Nine Worlds, I was reminded of the muck-splattered mise en scène of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So that adds up to a lot of fail at maintaining the distinct visual identity that Brannagh created for the series. Even Mjolnir itself somehow looked flimsier than usual. And as I mentioned in the first review, this is a case where the visual look is a more important factor than you’d normally expect.

Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster is still well-acted and well-rounded in general, but they haven’t really made a human being out of her. The things she says and does and feels are all driven by the plot, not by a real personality inside the character. Her sidekicks, played by Stellen Skarsgård and Kat Dennings, plus newcomer Jonathan Howard, are fine, but again are only as human as required by the needs of plotting or comic relief. (I will say that, though some loathe Kat Dennings here for the usual comic relief reasons, I actually enjoyed her presence.)

Overall, no matter how much big stuff kept happening, this movie generally felt dull and disappointing to me. It’s not an offensive failure like the 2008 Incredible Hulk, but to me it does feel almost as lame as Iron Man 2.

I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised by the rumor that Natalie Portman wants out, and won’t appear in this role again, and ditto for Anthony Hopkins as Odin. Marvel Studios is said to have a huge list of contingency plans to cover any eventuality in case an actor is lost... and they show little compunction about replacing people with new actors who don’t even look like the previous person in the role, so they’re probably perfectly willing to drop her if she wants to be difficult. And though many of their choices and policies might sound wrong on paper, whatever they’re doing really works. They’re pumping out dozens of these movies now, planned years and years in advance, and still have no real turkeys to show for it. (As much distaste as I have for the Hulk reboot, I have to admit that if it hadn’t been preceded by the Ang Lee version, it wouldn’t seem all that bad.) It’s not uncommon for the #2 film in a sequence to be disappointing relative to the original; the overall average level they’re maintaining in spite of these low spots is pretty amazing.