'Thor' is crafty and undeniably entertaining
The God of Thunder is back in his second solo outing and while "Thor: The Dark World" is undeniably entertaining, it's still not as strong as some of Marvel's previous efforts.
This time, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must contend with the return of the Dark Elves, a race of creatures who are determined to return the universe to all-consuming darkness by using a weapon called the Aether, which was hidden from the Elves eons ago by Thor's grandfather, Bor.
Meanwhile, Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is imprisoned in Asgard by their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) due to his actions in "The Avengers."
Back on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is still looking for the hunky god that swept her off her feet two years ago and accidentally (some might say conveniently) stumbles upon a portal that leads her to the mysterious Aether, which infects her when she touches it; because you can't not touch a spooky, gravity-defying liquid in these types of movies.
I could go into a lot more detail just about the setup of the plot, but I'll spare you.
The movie is constantly throwing exposition at the audience, which wouldn't be too bad if it wasn't a bunch of incomprehensible, pseudo-scientific nonsense.
I understand that in a fantasy setting, certain things need to be explained but, in this film, most things are over-explained.
This actually makes the movie more confusing, less captivating, and distracts us from the more compelling parts of the narrative.
Mercifully, the movie gives us an abundance of stunning visuals to accompany the dull stretches of dialogue.
The production design is gorgeous. The aesthetic hybrid of science fiction and fantasy is endlessly inventive and always a joy to behold.
I love the way the kaleidoscopic celestial bodies intermingle with the Tolkien-esque city that's been enriched by magic and technology.
Without a doubt, this is the best looking film in the Marvel universe.
"The Dark World" shines brightest when the film focuses on the family turmoil in Asgard and the impending invasion of the Dark Elves.
So, it's a shame then that the film spends much of its first 45 minutes on Midgard (Earth to us mortals) with the bland human characters.
Natalie Portman fares better in her role as Jane, but she still seems a little too ditsy and careless to be taken seriously as an astrophysicist.
Kat Dennings makes an unwelcome return as the "comic relief," Darcy, who's almost as unnecessary as she is irritatingly unfunny.
Then there's Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd as Dr. Erik Selvig, who's so traumatized from being possessed by Loki in "The Avengers" that he spends most of his scenes pantsless ... *sigh.
"Thor: The Dark World" tries harder than any of the other Marvel films to make you laugh, and somehow it's the least amusing.
It's odd that they tried to wring most of the humor out of the human characters because it's actually Thor himself that provides the most chuckles.
Hemsworth is hysterical and his fish-out-of-water shtick surprisingly never gets stale.
There's a lot of fun mined from Thor's time spent with his traitorous brother as well, mostly because Hemsworth and Hiddleston are exceptional in their respective roles, but also because the jokes are grounded in a relationship that is real and immediate.
When the sibling rivalry between Thor and Loki is finally thrust into the foreground of the story, the movie improves exponentially. Their complex love/hate relationship is the heart and soul of the "Thor" franchise.
The time spent uselessly explaining the plot could have been put to better use by giving these two more screen time together.
The movie really feels alive when Hemsworth and Hiddleston are sparring onscreen.
It gives the movie an emotional anchor, and their chemistry is electric.
Unfortunately, that chemistry doesn't transfer over to the romance between Thor and Jane, which seemed forced in the first movie and isn't much better in this one. It was forced in the first movie, and it doesn't feel much more authentic here.
Jane falling for Thor is understandable: he's funny, confident, powerful and knows the secrets of the universe.
His love for her remains questionable, though, because we never get to know her as a person, but as an intelligent goof who likes the stars.
Portman is endearing, but that does little to convince me that a god can fall for this mere mortal. His desire to protect her from the Dark Elves though, makes perfect sense.
Their motives for destroying the universe are somewhat fuzzy, but it does little to diminish their terrifying presence.
Their leader Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) is a sinister force to be reckoned with.
When "The Dark World" finally gets to the otherworldly action, you'll almost forget about the sluggish journey it took to get there. The battle scenes are elegantly orchestrated and leverage their fantasy elements to create some creatively loopy scenarios.
The final showdown involves our hero tumbling with Malekith through portals to other realms. It's head-spinning fun.
"Thor: The Dark World" is definitely an improvement over the first film, but the pull of Earth's gravity - and especially its inhabitants - prevents it from reaching the stars.
Hopefully in the inevitable third installment, Marvel will put as much care into crafting Midgard as they do Asgard.
3.5 out of 5
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