MARVEL’S THOR: THE DARK WORLD (7 out of 10) – Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston and Anthony Hopkins; directed by Alan Taylor; written by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Chris Yost; rated PG-13 (intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content); in general release, showing in 2D, 3D and 3D IMAX; running time: 112 minutes.
Balance. It’s an important aspect that was missing from the first Thor movie.
For all its sense of grandeur and its widescreen digital visuals, “Marvel’s Thor” was a mini-triumph of style over substance. The first film – which was based on Norse mythology and the various and varied Marvel comics -- tried to give us enough time on Earth while letting us see what things are like on the other Norse Nine Worlds, including the grandest of them all, Asgard.
As a result, the action-fantasy felt a bit stuffy and was ultimately unfulfilling. There wasn’t nearly enough humor to balance out the movie’s pokey, pseudo-Shakespearean atmosphere and its sometimes routine super hero action scenes, especially the Earth-bound ones. (To be fair, director Kenneth Branagh did what he could with the material and characters, but the script was a little half-baked.)
The good news is, its follow-up, “Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World,” is a decided improvement in the balance department. Not only do we get more in the way of humor, we get more convincing, exciting action, as well as a few welcome surprises.
In fact, the first hour is very solid, as good as any of the Marvel-based movies of late. However, wrapping things up is another matter, as yet another of the movie Marvels experiences a third-act fail, with a rushed, somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. But encouragingly, they’re getting better at this. (At least it’s not the explosion-o-rama that “Iron Man 2” and “Iron Man 3” turned into.)
“The Dark World” picks up the story two years later. Mortal scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is pining away for our titular hero (Chris Hemsworth), whom she hasn’t seen for quite some time. And as it turns out, he’s been doing the bidding of his pops, Asgardian All-Father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who’s had Thor off quelling rebellions in the Nine Worlds.
However, Thor is forced to return to Earth and to Jane when she becomes “infected” by the Aether, a powerful dark force that was originally wielded by an ancient evil, the Dark Elves. Their leader, Malekith the Accursed (Christopher Eccleston), has been biding his time, waiting for a “convergence” of the Nine Worlds that will allow him to use the Aether to destroy the universe.
At the same time, Malekith and his Dark Elves launch an initial attack on Asgard that’s so destructive, Thor is forced to turn for help to the one person he trusts least: his stepbrother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who’s been languishing in an Asgardian dungeon since the events of “Marvel’s The Avengers.”
Interestingly, the filmmakers and designers appear to have taken some cues from the myth-heavy, but still science-fiction-y version of fantasy that was so prevalent in Marvel’s recent, Matt Fraction-written Thor title. A few of the action scenes have distinct, Star Wars-like look and vibe to them, which is a refreshing change from the faux-Lord of the Rings feel of the first Thor movies.
(By the way, if they really are taking cues from the comics, might I suggest that the inevitable third Thor movie should have some of the Heavy Metal Wagnerian tone showcase in Jason Aaron’s excellent, current monthly Thor title, “The God of Thunder?”)
Another smart decision was making Portman’s Jane less of a helpless female and more of a go-getter. While it’s still a stretch to think that Thor would prefer her to the butt-kicking Asgardian goddess Sif (a returning Jaimie Alexander), at least Jane is more appealing and more of a fleshed-out character this time around.
So, for the matter, is Thor. Hemsworth is becoming increasingly more confident with each role, and he seems equally at home whether he’s wielding Mjolnir in action or making occasional wisecracks. And chemistry-wise he’s at his best when paired with Hiddleston’s scene-stealing Loki, who seems to be having even more fun and more relaxed when he’s not the sole villainous focus.
Director Alan Taylor (TV’s “Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men”) and three credited screenwriters (including comics scribe Christopher Yost) also find more for the supporting characters to do, in particular Idris Elba’s faithful guardian Heimdall and the Warriors Three. “Chuck” star Zachary Levi begs for more screen time, in his role as Fandral the Dashing.
As for Kat Dennings (TV’s “2 Broke Girls”) and Stellan Skarsgard, who play Jane’s fellow mortal scientists, they’re consigned to be comic foils – albeit, amusing ones. And it would be nice if they had given the talented English character actor Eccleston (“28 Days Later,” TV’s “Doctor Who”) more to do than just glower and gesture menacingly. But at least he looks good as an evil elf.
By the way, I won’t spoil anything about the two credits-scene extras – one that occurs during the credits, and another after they’re over -- except to say that they were both filmed by other directors rather than Taylor and that they set up future Marvel projects, both the small and big screen.
Jerk-bot, aka Jeff Michael Vice, can also be heard reviewing films, television programs, comics, books, music and other things as part of The Geek Show Podcast, and can be seen reviewing films as part of Xfinity’s Big Movie Mouth-Off.