Thor: The Dark World

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Directed by: Alan Taylor
Starring:  Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings
Review: 2.5 stars (of five)

Watch me struggle publicly with my arbitrary need to assign a “rating” to this flick:  For a fan of the Thor comics by the likes of Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson, the second Thor film is worth three stars out of five.  It delivers a lot of pleasures for fans of this stuff.  Fans of the first movie, or the greater Avengers movieverse, will find that it scratches the same itches with less lag, but also less coherence; three stars from that perspective, too.  On the other hand, if you just look at it as a movie, as a piece of narrative entertainment that should appeal to audience of people merely open to a cosmic action thriller, Thor: The Dark World fails to a degree that barely earns it two stars.

Thor212I hesitate to call it an artistic flop, but its script is incoherent, slapdash and the product of five credited writers.  It’s directed with a strange detachment–as though perfectly good storyboards for the action scenes were executed by rote, rather than with any inspiration.  Alan Taylor is mostly a TV director, recently for a handful of Game of Thrones episodes, and this movie (despite unnecessary 3D) feels like it doesn’t quite scale up from a small-screen vision.  The cast is game, and as in the first movie, Chris Hemsworth’s godly Thor, and Tom Hiddleston’s gleefully dark Loki, elevate the proceedings and maintain audience enthusiasm even when the rest of the film kinda works against it.

The story is appealingly ambitious.  While the first Thor film dragged when it moved from cosmic Asgard to confine its concerns to a New Mexico town that looked like a back-lot set, this one’s cosmic all the way, hitting several of the Nine Worlds of Norse cosmology, dealing with a villain who plans to destroy the entire universe by unleashing ancient energies that … will somehow accomplish this.  The bad guys consist of Dark Elves (denizens of Svartalfheim, which means “Where the dark elves hang out”) in creepy dark costumes that seem familiar but scary, and there’s lots of fighting, lots of high-tech and magical hullaballoo, and tons of superhuman-scale punching and swordplay.  Also, romantic tension, tragic familial tensions, and comic relief characters, scattered across complex, otherworldly environments and amid myths, legends and arcane weapons of doom.

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That is a ton of stuff, and maybe that’s why those unbearable Tolkein movies all have to be three freakin’ hours.  At maybe 2 hours, this Thor film is just disjointed and nonsensical.  Transitions happen on a schedule rather than with an organic progression.  The first half of the film just feels like set piece, set piece, rote character beat, set piece, until the bad guys attack Asgard and inflict damage of some emotional resonance.  From there, the film picks up a little momentum, but as our human and Asgardian heroes must stop the malevolent Malekith from destroying everything out of, I dunno, spite crossed with nihilistic worship of death, nothing makes a damned bit of sense.  The science/magic theories are so crackpot and inane that even the characters comment on it.  Someone in Natalie Portman’s little group of scientists exclaims that it’s odd that the made-up-science energy-field detectors they’ve got can now destroy/collapse the energy fields and save the universe(s).  But (spoiler) that’s what they do, without any reason.

(And when I say “reason,” I mean, like, the inane reason that “Kryptonite has special radiation that hurts Superman, because it comes from his home planet.”  Dumb, but easy to accept and move on.  I’m not asking someone to square Jack Kirby concepts with Einstein’s equations here …)

Thor209The cast seems also to be moving through its paces without real passion.  Natalie Portman is game and professional, but her character is just too out of her depth in this film.  Kat Dennings’ alleged comic relief is grating to the point of madness.  And as Odin, Anthony Hopkins seems a little … tired of all the silliness.  There’s no real fire there–though Rene Russo, as his wife Frigga, provides more passion, humor and pathos.  Thor208Both Idris Elba and Jaimie Alexander seem promising as two of Thor’s Asgardian allies, but they’re sidelined in favor of the Thor & Loki show, which is really the best thing going here, anyway.

The film ends on some high notes, setting up future conflicts (for a third Thor film and, less clearly, for an Avengers sequel).  And while it aims to blow your mind there, I’ll also say that the film’s mad rush through mad ideas did remind me of a lesser version of Jack Kirby’s comics, which would often move from one brilliant, insane idea to the next in the space of a page turn, discarding one brilliant concept for the next, because ideas were never in short supply for Jack.  Kids who are into this superhero nuttiness might love the giant worlds and want to dig into the comics, or actual legends, rather than share my sadly adult perspective on quality of execution.

Another plus is the design of the film.  While Taylor seems to move his camera through the world(s) without much passion, the artists who dreamed it all up did some fine work.  One of those coffee table books of the production designs and paintings and costume work would be a fine thing to look at, especially compared to the finished film.  I especially liked the handling of Asgardian/Svartalfheimian technology, which looks disturbingly inhuman rather than just another piece of Star Trek/Star Wars knockoff.

Thor206xSo there  you go.  A film for fans (particularly hardcore comic fans who will enjoy some cameos/hints for the future that will make no sense to the uninitiated) and completists, with some individual bits to really enjoy, but if you’re not into this stuff, this stuff isn’t going to make you a convert.