Imminent universal destruction. Intergalactic love. Snarky Kat Dennings one-liners. Portal-esque dimension-hopping. Stellan Skarsgård running around Stonehenge in his birthday suit. Thor: The Dark World tries to tie all these fragmented elements together for another hit installment in Marvel's ongoing Avengers saga. The key word being tries.
After the events of The Avengers, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) battles and brings peace to the ethereal nine realms. Back on Earth, his love, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), waits and continues to research with her quip-happy assistant Darcy Lewis (Dennings). Unfortunately, the nine realms are coming into alignment for the first time in millennia, causing invisible interdimensional portals to appear. Jane accidentally is sucked into one that leads directly to long-buried Aether, the power source for the ancient dark elves — led by the evil Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) — who millennia ago were defeated by the Asgardians. She accidentally triggers it and it enters her body, awakening the dark elves and starting their plot to find her and use the power to destroy the universe. Thor must pull out all the stops, including trusting the antagonistic Loki (Tom Hiddleston), in the hopes of thwarting the elves.
The characters spend most of the movie's first half delivering dialogue that attempts to explain the plot, but it remains a jumbled mess throughout. At one point, after one of Thor's informative monologues about Asgard, Jane, batting her lashes and caressing his hand, says, "I like the way you explain things." The sheer stupidity of the allegedly romantic line, set against a scenic, space-planet CGI backdrop, immediately triggered flashbacks to Portman's abysmal performance opposite Hayden Christensen in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
The first Thor movie succeeded largely because Asgard's complexity wasn't the focus. All that needed to be understood was that Thor had been banished to a small New Mexico town. Thor became likable via archetypical, fish-out-of-water humor. But with the majority of The Dark World taking place on Thor's otherworldly turf, Hemsworth has to play the character in a cocksure way that detracts from his endearing-galoot dynamic. Try as he might, Thor is no Asgardian Tony Stark.
It's apt that The Dark World centers on quickly switching between realms; the film's tone switches at an even more breakneck speed, compounding the confusion. It's almost more of a comedy than an action film, with characters slinging witty retorts more often than Thor slings his hammer. But the constant comic relief undercuts the emotional weight of the dramatic moments. It's not that the jokes aren't amusing, but instead of giving characters depth, they become two-dimensional joke delivery machines. The screenwriting team clearly took cues from the wit of Joss Whedon's Avengers script, but forgot its heart. At one point, a sacrificial death that's meant to ring tragic is immediately followed by Dr. Erik Selvig (Skarsgård) giving a speech packed with loony scientific jargon in what's revealed to be a mental institute.
For all its shortcomings, Thor: The Dark World employs some creative, unexpected plot turns, keeping viewers on their toes. And in terms of keeping up with the narrative story line leading to the next Avengers film, The Dark World is essential viewing.
Those willing to just give into the simplicity of "Thor's the good guy. The dark elves are bad. Let's watch Thor beat the dark elves," could leave satisfied with a large-scale action film that's surprisingly funny. But it requires a commitment to shutting one's brain off. Perhaps that should be the movie's tagline. Thor: The Dark World: "Shhh... just go with it. Avengers 2 will be here soon enough." ♦