Sometimes I wonder if I’m just a complete slave to marketing. I’ve said over and over again that the films being produced by Marvel are overly safe, formulaic, and empty… and yet I’ve seen every last one of them in theaters and have even sat through every last episode of their terrible “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” TV series. There are much better movies out there that I’ve been happy to wait to see on DVD, and there have also been movies with much bigger marketing budgets that I’ve been happy to skip, and yet there’s still something about the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” that I just can’t resist. It’s that same OCD completeism that makes kids feverishly insist on collecting every last Pokemon and makes true fans watch every game of their favorite sports team’s season even after its clear that they aren’t going to be good enough for the playoffs anytime soon. And so, like a dutiful little soldier I marched on down to see their latest film, Thor: The Dark World, even though I had a pretty good feeling that I could expect little more than mediocrity out of it.
This second installment of the Thor series picks up more or less where The Avengers left off and begins by showing Loki (Tom Hiddleston) being sentenced to the Asgard dungeon by Odin (Anthony Hopkins). From there we learn that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been spending the intervening months policing the various portions of the Asgard kingdom that had been in chaos ever since the magical bridge was destroyed at the end of the first Thor movie. Little does he know that for reasons which are largely coincidental his love interest from the first film, Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), has stumbled upon a magical doohickey called the Aether. This Aether was once sought by an evil Dark Elf named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and its discovery has awakened him from a very long hibernation. After learning about this, Thor rushes out to help Foster and brings her back to Asgard, only to soon learn that he will have to fight Malekith in order to save both Foster and the Aether.
The second the “aether” came up in this film I knew I was in for yet another Marvel film where people are chasing around a glowing McGuffin with ill-defined powers. It’s never exactly clear what the aether does, but it’s far from the only thing about the Thor world that isn’t overly clear. This film is full of science fiction gobbledygook, not the interesting kind, more like the kind that screenwriters fill their movies with in order to cover up how boring and formulaic their scripts actually are. The movie’s plot is also completely reliant upon a bunch of coincidences. Natalie Portman’s character only sets the plot in motion because she happens to be investigating the right anomaly in time for a planetary alignment that just happens to be centering on Earth at just the right time, and which just happens to be what will lure Malekith out of hiding after thousands of years in hiding. Speaking of Malekith, he’s a sorry excuse for a villain. He’s motivated almost entirely by revenge, there’s nothing novel about his scheme, and he has almost no personality to speak of. He’s basically just a half-assed ripoff of a similar and much better realized villain from Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
More than any of the previous Marvel films (with the possible exception of Iron Man 2) this just feels like it was made to advertise other Marvel movies and incrementally move forward the storyline leading up to The Avengers 2. That’s the problem a lot of these movies have, they dream up these elaborate overarching stories, but then realize they still need some sort of arc for each individual film and then half-assedly create threats like Malekith in order to justify each installment’s existence. It’s a problem that wasn’t as pronounced in the “phase one” films because they at least had origin story arcs to lean on and it also wasn’t as pronounced in Iron Man 3 because that had the benefit of Shane Black’s authorial voice, but this movie doesn’t.
In fact, most of the people involved in the film just don’t seem all that dedicated to it. Many of the actors from the first Thor movie like Anthony Hopkins and Edris Elba return in small capacities, but it feels like they’re only here in order to fulfil contractual obligations. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are doing their usual schticks and Natalie Portman remains over-qualified for her role as Thor’s girlfriend. The fish-out-of-water comedy from the first film is gone here, but there are some amusing moments, the actress Kat Dennings in particular seems too really liven up the movie and steals almost every scene she’s in. It’s not as funny as the Iron Man films though and while there are also some fairly decent CGI filled action scenes in the film there’s nothing in it that you haven’t already seen in other better superhero films.
Up until now, there’s been a pretty standard formula to my reviews of Marvel films. I explain why I think their soulless assembly line/fast food approach to filmmaking is unimpressive, but then reluctantly admit that whatever installment I’m reviewing is fun enough to draw a pass. That didn’t happen this time, Thor: The Dark World is just bad. It isn’t terrible, but it isn’t good enough by a long shot to really be worth the mountain of resources that were lavished upon it. If all Marvel is going to do is make sub-par efforts like this people are going to start losing interest fast and their superhero bubble is going to pop.
** out of Four