Thursday, December 19, 2013

Thor: The Dark World - **1/2

Just when I thought I was out, done with dull superhero movies, they pull me back in, with Thor: The Dark World. This recent brood of superhero films have tread the line between dismal and mediocre, but I actually really enjoyed Kenneth Branaugh's almost quaint depiction of the Norse god, and the choice to set that film in small-town New Mexico rather than a metropolis like, well, Metropolis. Unfortunately, Alan Taylor's sequel, either through Marvel Studios' preference to use all of its properties as cross-promotion for the rest of them, focusing on the universe as a whole, rather than the individual titular characters, or through Disney's recent acquisition of said properties, forcing more hands in to stir the pot, or perhaps simply through Taylor's lack of gusto, Thor: The Dark World lands somewhere in the realm of... Adequate.

A prologue opens the film, introducing Malekith, the leader of the Dark Elves, an ancient race that went into some kind of disappointment-hibernation after failing to capture "The Ether," a mystical evil energy force as old as time itself, or something like that. This sequence elicits the first in a series of groans that last through to each of the films three endings (depending on how soon after the credits one chooses to saunter out of the theater) as we're subjected to a heap of lofty exposition like this, all so that we can understand a very simple premise. The plot turns, and turns again, and an anti-gravity warp zone opens up because every x-amount of time the Nine Realms line up, and something and something, and so love interest Jane Foster ends up with the magic Ether inside of her blood-stream, a sad turn which relegates her character simply to Vessel for Plot Progression as she becomes the target of Malekith, somehow awakened by Ether activity.

Fortunately Taylor inherits the well-drawn characters for Branaugh's film, whose likability acts as The Dark World's saving grace, filtering all of this nonsense through the levity-inducing sensibility of its ragtag group of Earth scientists and their side-kicks... And their sidekicks' side-kicks. Chris Hemsworth reprises his role as Thor, again providing the right balance of snarky arrogance and endearing tenderness. Tom Hiddleston's back as Loki, too, and thank Odin for that, because without him there would be no edge to the film, very troubling considering there's barely any with him.

Where a great sequel builds on the world introduced in prior films, further developing its characters and ideas, Thor: The Dark World simply gives us bigger, and more. We see more of Asgard, but still don't really get a sense of what it's actually like there, beyond home of Odin's palace, where most of Asgardian screen-time is concentrated. It seems as though great opportunities are squandered at every plot turn, with Taylor often holding back from the audience vital information that all of the characters know, in order to manufacture cheap suspense which will never hold up on a second viewing. One such episode involves Loki, finally free of the shackles he's been under for most of the film, immediately betraying Thor when we've all (thought we've) been fooled into trusting him, but it turns out that it was just part of a plan they hatched up off-screen to fool the Dark Elves.

And that's pretty much how the film goes: just when something might happen that will set the film apart from others and make it at all unique, it turns out it's just part of a bland plot twists that negates whatever was interesting. What's left is still a serviceable piece of ephemeral popcorn entertainment, which hits all of the expected beats, but what's most memorable about it is how much potential it leaves unrealized. Rather than taking the opportunity to further develop Thor and co., Marvel uses it to boost their brand, and The Dark World is instead yet another largely generic feature-length trailer for whatever comes next with the Avengers.

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