How’s your appetite for lore? And what about your stance on alternative spellings? They’re both tested when the latest installment in the Marvel cinematic universe opens with some ponderous business about truculent elves, an ancient and airborne weapon called the aether, some nasty superwarriors christened the Kursed, and intimations of a coming “eternal night” – thus scotching all hope that the title’s Dark World was a sincere mea culpa about 3-D’s continued cruddying of color. The question stands: Why again are we shelling out three extra bucks when everything looks so much brighter and sharper with the shades off?
This sequel to 2011’s Thor warms to the touch slowly, with sad Thor (Hemsworth) moping around home base Asgard and casting long looks at Earth, where his estranged love Jane Foster (Portman) is still doing her astrophysicist thing. But once Jane stumbles onto a portal between realms and – oopsy-daisy – gets poxy with said aether, Thor swoops into her orbit, bad penny/bonny baddie Loki (Hiddleston) gets called back from reserves, and the film finds its forward thrust, confidently alternating beats between the solemn and swashbuckling and sworn to fealty to the Marvel master plan. (Even before the obligatory end-credits teasers – for which you will want to sit in your seat until the very, very end – the film slips in a sporting cameo from one of the Avengers.)
The cast and crew are a mix of old and new. Freed from the first film’s regrettable mandate for peroxide-blond eyebrows and cheek moss, Hemsworth now wields Thor’s mighty hammer with greater conviction and flirtation, while Hiddleston slinkily ups Loki’s signature moves – lolling and quipping – to make a Noël Coward character in Norse clothing. Comic relief comes care of returning players Stellan Skarsgård, all kooky scientist in saggy briefs, and Kat Dennings as the reliably snarky intern Darcy, with a notable assist from newcomer Chris O’Dowd. Another addition, British thesp Christopher Eccleston, zeroes out as the evil elf Malekith; he’s menacing enough, but unrecognizable under heavy makeup and what sounds an awful lot like Auto-Tune (a remix of his roisterous “Unleash the Aether!” presumably coming soon to a YouTube near you). Tagging in for Kenneth Branagh, new director Alan Taylor – who’s been around the block before with hairy longswordsmen, having directed a half-dozen Game of Thrones episodes – fares better with the film’s sprightlier second half, as does the script, when it finally unburdens itself from so much exposition. It’s credited to Marvel comics writer Christopher Yost and screenwriting team Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who worked on the Captain America movies; The Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon also reportedly did some pinch-hitting.
With such an inauspicious start, the climax surprises as a lowercase marvel of matinee-picture niftiness. Thriftiness, too: one hero, one villain, in an economical mano-a-mano that accommodates just enough space for comic cut-up asides and is admirably upfront about so much silliness. After the recent rash of superhero end-spectacles as long-winded and self-serious as a term paper, the limited ambition of The Dark World’s climax is a relief. It scuttles all term paper aspirations and instead humbly lobs a thesis statement-slash-open invitation: Let’s have some fun, shall we? And so we did.
Thor: The Dark World, Alan Taylor, Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Rene Russo, Chris O’Dowd