Thor: The Dark World (2013)
112 min., rated PG-13.
2011's "Thor" wasn't the strongest Marvel Comics table-setter for 2012's "The Avengers," but it solidly got the job done, meeting somewhere in the middle as a spectacle-heavy superhero tentpole and a fun fish-out-of-water comedy. Director Kenneth Branagh brought a light, playful touch that for-hire director Alan Taylor (who's had a long run directing TV) does not with "Thor: The Dark World," a fans-only sequel that, unfortunately, falls into the lower rung of the "Avengers" canon. More heavy-handed than it had to be and confusing underwhelming bombast for overwhelming excitement, the film is generic and unspectacular by itself, but it functions as a convoy for bigger and better things to come. Given all the talent and money involved, it's just a sin that more work goes into teasing Marvel's fan base for the next Big Event instead of the studio putting out a worthwhile film proper.
Centuries ago, the Dark Elves, led by the evil Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), craved a powerful red gas called the Aether, which has the force to cause infinite destruction for the cosmos, before it was safely buried within a stone column. In present-day Asgard, after committing his crimes in New York City, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) still thinks it's in his blood rite to take the throne from father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), but he's sequestered to the dungeons. Meanwhile, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) does battle to bring order to Asgard's Nine Realms. Then, in London, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is still sulking and pining for Thor, who never called (or returned to Earth), until her intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) and Darcy's intern (Jonathan Howard) show her a wormhole in a warehouse they found. Through a series of events, Jane absorbs the Aether through her body, Malekith and his lieutenant are awakened, and Thor might need help from someone other than his hammer. What do you know, the imprisoned Loki might be up for it. Where's the rest of The Avengers when you need 'em?
Written by Christopher L. Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, the storytelling is mechanical and convoluted, never making up its mind on what story it's telling. As was one of the problems in the first "Thor," the green-screened Asgard is a stodgy place to watch for long on screen. Things get livelier on Earth, but even more so here, an exorbitant amount of time is spent in the Norse universe, where nearly everything looks silly and processed with CGI. Thus, it's hard to get emotionally wrapped up in any of this "Lord of the Rings"-esque gobbledygook when London's not in the picture. Thor might be the opposite of Iron Man, but at least he showed more personality the first time around as he shed his arrogance a bit. Here, he seems stranded in his own story, even as the hunky, blonde-tressed Hemsworth, whose comic timing is barely put to use, is still in his element with his natural charisma and godlike physique. For a romance that was hard to get invested in to begin with, there's really nothing to swoon about or feel again between Thor and Jane, with an uncharacteristically bland Portman there for contractual obligations.
As welcome but not always successful sources of levity, Dennings throws off nonstop quips as Jane's sardonic intern Darcy, some of them funny and others flat, before becoming a bit of a nuisance. Stellan Skarsgård, as astrophysicist Erik Selvig, gets to play kooky by streaking through Stonehenge and then later on walking around in his underwear (because it helps him think). Without much of a payoff, Chris O'Dowd also has a couple scenes as a hapless schmo who tries dating Jane. That pesky Loki might hold the most inspiration, luckily figuring more prominently into the proceedings and Hiddleston bringing the most gusto and a sly sentimentality to his deliciously sniveling side. As prime villain Malekith, Eccleston is menacing in his pointy prosthetic ears and make-up, but there's not much to him to be memorable. Hopkins, still in Shakespearean mode, is a trooper for reprising his role as Odin; Rene Russo gets more to do this time as Thor and Loki's mother Frigga; and Idris Elba somehow sells his lines as sentry Heimdall without being completely outshone by the ridiculously campy bull helmet on his head.
None of this means that there aren't isolated pleasures inside "Thor: The Dark World" as a passable time-killer, but it's a mighty slog to find them. Loki does an impression of a certain someone for a cute cameo. You'll spot Stan Lee in his requisite cameo, too. In an amusing sight gag, Thor finds a place to hang his hammer, literally, and asks for directions on a London train. Finally, before lumbering to an indifferent outcome, the final battle which goes between destroying Greenwich and Asgard's other realms is diverting enough on a purely visual, popcorn-munching level. Otherwise, nothing on display, through all the pixelated sameness, evokes a thrill, a "whoa!" or a sense of awe. Was this story of "Thor" begging to be told in order to lead into the next phase? Probably not. Without being objectionable, "Thor: The Dark World" is just sort of there, struggling to come up with a reason for existence. Pre-enthusiastic fanboys will undoubtedly squeal over the noisy action sequences and some of the Marvel universe's Easter eggs (mostly in the expected post-credits' two slices of "shawarma," the former setting up "Guardians of the Galaxy"), but everyone else will be waiting for the genuine excitement to begin even after the "Directed by Alan Taylor" credit card comes up. So much for spectacular returns.