In the wake of Marvel’s “Phase One” movies, Thor has returned to Asgard on cleanup duty, giving us a chance to see more of this fabled land of gleaming towers, expensive architecture that would take centuries to build, and laser-cannon defenses that falter at the slightest provocation. Basically it’s Naboo minus Gungans. Thor’s half-brother Loki (movie winner Tom Hiddleston) is consigned to Asgardian prison for his crimes against everyone and everything, alternating between bemusement and outrage so that neither characters nor viewers have the slightest idea how he’s ever really feeling. Either way he remains the captivating showman and an exemplary reason as always for a Marvel film to exist.
Meanwhile back on Earth, our human cast fails to cope with the mind-blowing events they witnessed last time around. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, not happy to be here) is the stern professional who’s angry that her boyfriend hasn’t called in months. Her mentor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård, really letting his hair down) has had a mental breakdown after spending too much time as Loki’s puppet. Her intern Darcy (Kat Dennings, with twice the punchlines thanks to her rising 2 Broke Girls clout) is wackier than ever, and has even adopted her own unpaid intern (Jonathan Howard) who’s curiously named after Simpsons Comics writer Ian Boothby. Together they’re a sitcom cast waiting for a premise to strike.
Worlds collide and all of existence is threatened by the complicated machinations of a white-skinned Dark Elf named Malekith played by Christopher Eccleston, buried under so much makeup and distorted overdubbing that we may never have noticed a difference if he had been replaced with Paul Reubens. Malekith has awakened from millennia of imprisonment with a hunger for revenge, and kicks off his sinister scheme by converting his right-hand man into the monster called Kurse — played in human form by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Lost, Oz), but, once transformed, no longer speaks and is henceforth indistinguishable from any random, tall stuntman. Malekith needs a MacGuffin called the Aether to grant him the power to destroy Odin, or Asgard, or all Nine Worlds, or the entire Universe, depending on how far along the movie is.
Feeling overwhelmed and outnumbers, our muscular hero realizes that he cannot save the day alone merely by swinging his mighty hammer and taking off his shirt for the ladies. Thus he turns to the entire cast from his previous film — first to his fellow Asgardian warriors, who collectively have a total of ten or fifteen lines in the film; then to his Earthbound team of intrepid Science Scoobies; and finally, reluctantly, to Loki, proud wielder and hoarder of all the best lines. Can one man and his entertaining entourage once again disregard the Allfather’s explicit instructions and save all the things?
While much of the action is once again in this mortal realm and moved forward largely through silly human hijinks, most of the returning Asgardians have memorable moments doled out to them sparingly. Sif (Jaimie Alexander) has her share of battle scenes, along with a moment of two of suppressed, slightly demeaning pining for the hero who only has eyes for a mortal. Odin’s wife/Thor’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo) enjoys exactly one (1) intricate swordfight. Zachary Levi, TV’s Chuck, fills in as Fandral for an absent Josh Dallas (due to Once Upon a Time scheduling conflicts) and isn’t asked to reuse his Tangled accent too many times. Academy Award Winner Sir Anthony Hopkins thankfully does not sleep the movie away this time — instead he settles in as the bold, ineffective father figure whose every barked command is redundant or counterproductive. As the gatekeeper Heimdall, leading man Idris Elba is allowed one furious attack in which to do his part in canceling the apocalypse, then doffs his helmet and engages in deep conversation as only he can, possibly for the last time before his career permanently switches to Serious Leading Roles Only.
Sandwiched between thirteen other characters, and subject to a screenplay credited to five different writers (not including any uncredited Joss Whedon doctoring), is the titular quote-unquote “god” himself, the super-hero whose name we should be cheering, whose presence should be at the forefront, whose action figures we’re meant to buy. Somewhere in there Chris Hemsworth earns himself a few reassuring expressions, one or two memorable lines (which will come back to me any second now), and numerous ripped-from-comics battle poses and welcome displays of massive, senses-shattering power. Unfortunately, I’d be greatly surprised if his greatest-hits edit-reel from this movie would clear the three-minute mark.
I suppose I should be grateful, really. When I was a kid, The Mighty Thor was one of the few Marvel heroes I never collected for more than a few issues. As an adult I bought the first two Thor Visionaries: Walt Simonson collections, but that was more for Simonson’s unique art than for the Son of Odin. I never warmed to his faux-Shakespearean dialect, his shiny winged helmet, his Superman power levels, or his penchant for being either Loki’s sucker or Odin’s scapegoat in nine out of every ten issues. You’d think, then, that The Dark World would be the perfect vehicle for someone like me who enjoys most Marvel movies but very few Thor solo comics.
Quite the contrary: I was looking forward to Hemsworth and notable TV director Alan Taylor convincing me why I should like Thor for who and what he is, not for who and what surrounds him. Sure, Thor wrestles giant-sized things, successfully hammers in the morning and in the evening, immerses himself in yet another Lord of the Rings wartime skirmish, and reminds me of Jack Kirby’s essential part in the creation of the Marvel universe. But I couldn’t help notice that the first half of the film dragged while mining the same territory as last time, only really revving into high gear in the second half when Loki’s wit improves every dialogue exchange, his Asgardian friends band together in clever heist-style, Jane and Eric orchestrate most of Our Heroes’ master plan, and the visual effects team goes berserk in an all-out showdown that transcends simple fisticuffs and invites us to laugh at physics in a good way.
It goes without saying that Loki steals every scene he’s in and refuses to give them back, but the movie’s not called Loki 2: Through the Loki-Glass. Thor: the Dark World eventually builds up enough momentum to cross the finish line as a Marvel movie with moments that do it proud, but it’s a shame to see Thor the super-hero lost in the crowd and forced to settle for a measly “Participant” ribbon.
And to answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene during the end credits, and not one but two scenes after the end credits. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy mild spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…DURING THE END CREDITS:
Sif and Volstagg pay a visit to the Elder of the Universe known as the Collector (Benicio Del Toro, adding another bizarre accent to his repertoire) to drop off the Tesseract for safe keeping, since Asgard is apparently no longer a good place to store one’s magical, world-changing valuables, even thought the Tesseract’s presence in all of The Dark World was in name-checking only. The Collector’s lair has numerous unhappy aliens in cages, some humanoid, but this bothers the Asgardians not one bit. We learn the Tesseract is one of six “Infinity Stones” — not “Gems” as in the comics, which would explain the lack of jeweler’s handiwork on its unrefined shape.
(Short definitions for non-comics readers: the Elders of the Universe are a group of space-spanning immortals with peculiar obsessions. The Collector’s fellows include such luminaries as the Gamesmaster, the Gardener, and a boxing freak calling himself the Champion. And the Infinity Gems/Stones are a group of matching MacGuffins that, when brought together, endow the possessor the powers to rearrange or end reality as they see fit.)
After the pair departs, the Collector is a little too happy to have this powerful item in his grasp. Perhaps they should’ve contacted someone named “the Storage Master” instead of “the Collector”.
To be continued in other Marvel movies!
…AFTER THE END CREDITS, #1:
Thor keeps his word, warps back to Earth, and gives Jane the big hug ‘n’ kiss she’s been yearning for all film long. And they all live happily ever after. It seems mean to withhold this simple moment of happy closure from the average moviegoers who haven’t learned or don’t care that Marvel movies aren’t over until they say they’re over.
…AFTER THE END CREDITS, #2:
A forgotten, dimensionally displaced Jotunheim beastie frolics in an empty parking lot in now-deserted Greenwich. Poor, lonely, giant killer critter.