Coming off a string of Marvel successes – “Iron Man 3,” “The Avengers,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” – the dunderheaded and inelegant misfire that is Alan Taylor’s “Thor: The Dark World” seems both inevitable and unnecessary. Surely the vast cinematic universe that the team at Marvel has meticulously laid out requires some elements of “Thor: The Dark World” to be put into place before launching into their next wave of productions, but it doesn’t seem like coincidence that the only seemingly essential bits of the film take place in its final third, the only redeeming section of the entire outing. It’s not that the first seventy-five minutes of “Thor: The Dark World” are bad (although they are), but it’s that they’re so packed with meaningless exposition and messy action that they actually read as indecipherable. Whole chunks of the film simply fail to make sense, and the required suspension of disbelief effectively robs any emotional engagement audiences could make with the material. When you ask us to treat everything like a trick or a bit of magic or simply a poorly edited piece of film, you’re also asking us to disengage with anything that comes with realistic merits. The result is the cinematic equivalent of getting hit on the head by Thor’s hammer (painful and confusing).
The second “Thor” feature (and rest assured, there will be a third) flips the script on the original, to numbing effect. Whereas the first “Thor” outing worked because it took obvious glee in its fish out of water premise, giddily placing the thunderstruck Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in a small New Mexico town and watching him literally bump against everything in his path, from coffee cups to Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), “Thor: The Dark World” sees the Norse God of Thunder back at home in dreamy old Asgard. The film picks up after the assault on New York City as portrayed in “The Avengers,” and Thor has kept himself busy in the interval (approximately two Earth years, we soon learn), thanks to continued skirmishes across the rest of the Nine Realms that he and his merry band of broheims are tasked with snuffing out. It’s not easy being the biggest, baddest warrior in Asgard, except that for Thor, it actually is, and it’s not very interesting stuff.
The real problem with Thor as a character is that, on his own, he’s not very interesting – he requires other characters to smash against to create something compelling, be it humorous or dramatic (Tony Stark, for instance, is wholly amusing and entertaining on his own and doesn’t need other people to make him zing as a character). Even Thor’s emotional blockades – not knowing if he wants to be king, the little problem of his locked up brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, excellent as ever), missing Jane – don’t give him much depth, and both Thor and “Thor: The Dark World” scream out for something resembling actual drama and trauma.
They’ll get it, thanks to the Dark Elves, introduced to us by way of a long-form and wholly lackluster sequence that attempts to explain their origins (they’re from the darkness, whatever that means), their power source (something called the Aether), their leader (Christopher Eccleston, utterly wasted here), and their seemingly final losing battle (Thor’s grandpapa and his army killed “all” of them, though we soon learn they didn’t do a very complete job of it). The remaining Dark Elves have been dormant for centuries, but a coming cosmic event that only a perennially pantless Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) seems to know about threatens to free them and unleash the now-hidden Aether.
While Selvig wanders in his skivvies across England, the mopey Jane and her ever-ready sidekick Darcy (the wryly wonderful Kat Dennings) find themselves engaged in their favorite activity – running around with pieces of scientific machinery in their hands, yelling about numbers. This time around, yelling and numbers and machines take them to an abandoned London factory, where a pack of cute kids show them something weird – a wormhole that occasionally doesn’t bother to return the various items they toss down it. Jane, inevitably, gets sucked into a different portion of the wormhole between realms and returns to Earth jam-packed with the Aether (what a coincidence!). Back on Asgard, rainbow bridge guardian Heimdall (Idris Elba) tells Thor that young Jane disappeared from his vision for a spell, sending Thor down to Earth, desperate to make sure she’s okay (you could have called, Thor, you could have called two years ago, too).
Jane is not okay, however, and the pair soon returns to Asgard, briefly putting the ol’ switcheroo on the fish out of water tale, before a band of recently reanimated elves, led by Eccleston’s Malekith, come looking for whatever is swimming through Jane’s veins. What follows is a mixed-up mash-up of drama and emotion, action and war, exposition and confusion, none of which appears to actually matter, all of which takes up far too much of the film’s running time. Gone is the humor and heart of the first “Thor,” and what’s left is a head-scratching series of events that stretch the limits of “but it’s a magical superhero movie!” to its breaking point.
And yet, after two acts of muddled exposition and action-packed sequences meant to alleviate the boredom, “Thor: The Dark World” finally finds it footing – by thrusting Thor back onto Earth and thus capitalizing on both the wacky weirdness of seeing him thump about the planet and a series of quickly moving action sequences that actually make a smattering of sense. “Thor: The Dark World” evidently has good stuff – we see it for the film’s final half an hour – a solid marrying of tone and action that makes everything else that comes before it seem still worse and more grating, highlighting the film’s issues even as it flies in to rescue the entire production. If only all of “Thor: The Dark World” could capture the magic of its last act, the film wouldn’t feel like such a chink in Marvel’s otherwise solid armor.
SCORE: 5.2 / 10