Thor: The Dark World (TTDW) is shackled by a desire to set the scene and pay lip service to comic book 'lore' that the seemingly impervious Marvel Studios nearly botches the expansion of the most unique arm of their universe. But trust me, strap yourself in, endure the opening 30 minutes and you'll get to the most hilariously self-aware Marvel film in the series.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is back and he's sent to quash rebellion in 'The Nine Realms' in the wake of the invasion of New York. The galaxy's favourite adopted and deliciously evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been imprisoned and bifrost (the multicoloured worm hole between dimensions) has been restored. Thor's attention turns back to Earth and toward Jane Forster (Natalie Portman). But as the thorough voice over narration and several 'just in case you missed it' pieces of exposition would let you know, the Dark Elves have returned from the recesses of the galaxy to extinguish light from the universe.
The flaws with TTDW land squarely in the assumption that the audience is stupid. Understandably TTDW shares much more in common with The Lord of the Rings fantasy epic than it does with comic book films like The Dark Knight however, during the opening stanza of the film it feels as if there are scenes that repetitively explain to the audience what we'd been economically told in the prologue.
The villain Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and his offsider Kurse (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) are formidable, they're merely a cataclysmic distraction in Thor's battle for Loki's soul. Screenwriters Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely absolutely excel at the interaction between characters and constantly bringing the humour and humanity back to each of these unbelievable situations. It is relentless in the best way possible. The carousel of people warning Loki that if he betrays Thor they'll kill him, and him asking them to take a number; or the constant niggling banter between brothers as they criticise each other's approach to every situation. Alan Taylor's directorial vision really shines in the moments that there's a tangible space for his characters to interact and in how he approaches the god's vulnerability. It's a darker and more intimate vision of Thor especially when you're seeing him interacting with Loki in the dungeon, or with Heimdall (Elba) yearning for his earthly love or slogging through the gravelly waste of the Dark World. The industrial dilapidation of London factories and especially the striking visions of realms colliding bring the universal dimensions to the figurative Marvel-verse. However, there's an entire sequence where Thor and his band of merry men (and lady) begin plotting a daring escape; instead of fleeting glimpses and misdirection to heighten suspense, the cross-cutting explanation spliced with the action deflates and spoils the entire sequence.
One of Loki's great proclamations of The Avengers was that he was "burdened with glorious purpose." It seems that Hemsworth's Thor, once cocksure and brash realises the isolation of his station protecting the galaxy. Diplomacy, contemplation and most importantly vulnerability are all present in this expanding characterisation. Hemsworth portrays Thor as tormented by love, for Forster and for his brother.
Hiddleston is the sun. He's such an infectiously loveable character that every single second that he's occupying the screen you're smiling with anticipation. While in Thor he portrayed a cunning introvert and in The Avengers he's a "full-tilt diva," TTDW sees Hiddleston in a state of flux between those poles. It's an increasingly fascinating and engaging performance from an actor demanding growth and imposing layers on an already iconic character.
The comedic chorus of TTDW is sensational. Chris O'Dowd, Kat Dennings, Skarsgård all deliver memorable, straight faced cheek to counterbalance the impending universal destruction. Rene Russo returns as Thor and Loki's mother Frigga, with slightly more to do than dress in fancy wardrobe for this film while her on screen partner Anthony Hopkins drowns in Odin's garb. The once potent acting titan is a shadow of what you've come to expect from him. For some reason the now Oscar winning Portman goes back to nigh Star Wars prequel static. For starters her character's wardrobe and extremely Vidal Sassoon hair will have you asking how her scientific brain survives that many hours in hairdresser.
THOR: THE DARK WORLD is two-thirds self-effacing hilarity in the face of the end of the universe, one-third inter-dimensional over explanation. The committee of collaborators and their conflicting visions didn't allow this Norse god to totally bring the hammer down.
[rating=3] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Alan Taylor Written by: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (screenplay) - Don Payne and Robert Rodat (story) Based on the comic book by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby. Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Jaimie Alexander, Zachary Levi, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård