Review: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Thor: The Dark World is the latest offering from Marvel Studios, with Australian native Chris Hemsworth in his third outing as the beefy God of Thunder.

From its opening scenes, the film ambitiously aspires to the narrative sweep of Lord of the Rings–or at least trades on its narrative elements.  Like LOTR, TTDW begins with the sonorously narrated tale of a long-distant battle between good and evil.  In place of the One Ring, we are given the Aether, a mysterious slime through which Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), ruler of the Dark Elves, hopes to shroud the Nine Realms in darkness at the moment they align (as realms do every now and again).  But the forces of Asgard triumph, the Elves are thought destroyed, and the Aether is banished to a place where it will never be found.

Unless, of course, Malekith isn’t really dead, the Aether has a mind of its own, and the realms are about to line up again.

Bad luck, that.  Good thing Thor’s been working out with his hammer.

TTDW is neither the best nor the worst entry in the Marvel universe.  To be fair, translating superheroes from the page to the screen is always a challenge: how do you make them look and sound right, so they don’t come off as goofballs running around in Halloween costumes?  Lose the winged helmet, for one.  But the writers try to preserve Thor’s famously anachronistic and ponderous way of speaking, wisely playing up the comic side.  At one point, defending his long absence to his mortal love interest, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor explains that he’s been busy fending off the “marauding hordes” who have just been “pillaging” all over the place.

And you thought you were having a bad day.

The central problem with the film (and perhaps the franchise) is that Thor is not a particularly compelling character, through no fault of Hemsworth.  The mischievous Loki (Tom Hiddleston), with his “why didn’t you tell me I was adopted?” backstory, is far more interesting than his fair-haired brother.  Whereas the heart of the first movie was Thor’s lesson in humility as a powerless outcast, TTDW has no similar core.  There is an abortive attempt at a Big Lesson about the morality of war, thwarted by too little development and too big of a character swap: Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is now vengeful and unreasonable, and Thor is the cool head, recruiting his friends and Loki into a treasonous plan to stop Malekith without unnecessary bloodshed.

Thor rampages through one battle after another, building toward the obligatory showdown with Malekith as the realms interpenetrate and the slugfest careens chaotically between worlds.  Even the hammer seems confused.

But does anyone care?  There is superhero action aplenty, leavened with bits of humor, as when Thor politely hangs his hammer on a coat rack (why didn’t it collapse?), or we’re treated to a random Captain America cameo (consider it product placement).  Some of the gags, though, are just odd: Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), suffering the hangover of Loki’s mind-control (in The Avengers), now apparently thinks more clearly when not wearing pants.

The extensive CG effects make TTDW enjoyable entertainment.  But bottom line: without a more emotionally resonant story, or a more complex hero, it’s not a movie to stand up to multiple viewings.  Avengers, assemble.

(Note: if you care about bonus scenes, stay all the way through the end of the credits.  There is one in the middle of the credits that sets up the next installment, and another at the end that fittingly caps this one.)