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Thor: The Dark World is entertaining to a point and pointless for the balance. At least it’s good to see Natalie Portman back on the big screen.

Into the Dark

Thor (Chris Hemsworth)
Thor (Chris Hemsworth)

It’s colorful, has loads of fantastical action sequences, goofy humor and moments of heightened drama carried by pretentious dialogue and a sweeping musical score. In short, Thor: The Dark World is just like a comic book set to music, which is fitting enough, but it’s also a hollow, cold movie-going experience (with utterly worthless 3D) that will likely find greater popularity with the comic book crowd than mainstream audiences. While the first Thor adventure had the added curiosity appeal of Kenneth Branagh directing, this one is a by-the-(comic)-books machine that keeps a safe distance from any emotional resonance.

Some of the movie’s problems stem from the primary villain, or breed of villain, the Dark Elves, who look like something out of the Venice Carnevale. They are pure evil, which is absolutely perfect for this type of fare, but they are also absolutely, completely and utterly undefined as characters beyond the stereotypical “E-vil, pure and simple.”  Their nefarious plan is to send the universe into eternal darkness. The ramifications aren’t clear, but it sure sounds bad. The elves’ menace is so ill-defined, it’s a 99.9% certainty that light will triumph over dark. After all, if not enough time is invested in creating a convincing, scary villain, then what the heck does the universe have to fear?

Digging under the hood a little further, maybe the bigger problem is the overwhelming sense that Thor: The Dark World is – beyond its readily identifiable title character – a fairly generic exercise in comic book mayhem that feels an awful lot like something out of the ‘80s when taken as a total package of storytelling sensibilities, production design, sound design and overall attitude. On display are elements from The Dark Crystal, Star Trek, Krull, Flash Gordon and Superman II. And there’s something about the overall experience – the CGI-heavy world of Asgard in particular – that feels a lot like Star Wars Episode II.V (yes, earthlings, read that as Episode 2.5). Maybe it’s the injection of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) into the world of Asgard that triggers heavy visual connections to Star Wars: The Portman Trilogy.

Unleash the Aether

“At my signal, unleash Hell.” That’s a classic line from Gladiator.

Here, the line’s been altered to something that’s supposed to be even more cataclysmic: “Unleash the Aether.” Pronounced like “ether,” it’s a red, quasi-blood-like substance that’s viral and mighty destructive. It’s also an excuse to break rules, which is another problem here. Things change on a whim in ways that feel like really bad editing or pure narrative laziness rather than creative genius; narrative elements are raised then dropped without another mention.

Director Alan Taylor directed William Forsythe in Palookaville back in 1995 but he’s spent the bulk of the past 18 years nursing content on the boob tube – episodes of Nurse Jackie, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire – and he’s in the on-deck circle for the next reboot of The Terminator. He’s certainly a competent enough director, but he doesn’t convey a shred of identifiable personality. With Thor, Branagh suitably lent a Shakespearean bent to the family drama of the royals of Asgard. In other comic book movies, directors such as Ang Lee, Christopher Nolan, Shane Black, James Mangold, Joss Whedon and Zac Snyder have all put their stamp – for good or ill – on their superhero product. Here, the director takes a back seat to the mighty Marvel machinery. Instead of that Shakespeare vibe, this time it’s more like a fairy tale. At least during the first half, which is a bit of slog to wade through; the second half amps up the fun quotient considerably.

It took a battalion of five writers to concoct the story and complete the screenplay and they all have roots in comic book lore, including the first Thor installment as well as Captain America and that movie’s upcoming spring sequel, The Winter Soldier. The writers could be exhibiting symptoms similar to what’s plagued the Kurtzman and Orci sci-fi spectacle writing duo – too much exposure too quickly leads to increasingly off-kilter, outlandish and ineffective storytelling all wrapped up in a sense of been there, done that.

The Convergence

The Dark Elves
The Dark Elves

Very briefly there’s the possibility of an interstellar love triangle between Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Snow White and the Huntsman), Jane and Sif (Jaimie Alexander, The Last Stand) but it’s never exploited. Instead, the heart strings are tugged as various key characters are killed off (or maybe not, this is a comic book movie which has one well-established rule: there are no rules).

Given the action is frenetic but emotionally vacant and the drama is stoic, the movie’s best bits come from the humor. Jane struggles with dating mere mortals and her intern, Darcy (Kat Dennings, TV’s 2 Broke Girls), hires her own intern which leads to a couple different humorous bits. There’s also a cool crossover cameo for a huge wave of geek goodwill. Similar to Iron Man 3, The Dark World also makes references to the action of The Avengers to tie things together in a broader Marvel tapestry.

The humor, though, isn’t quite enough to make Thor: The Dark World a satisfying addition to the Marvel cinematic canon, which is growing at an unsustainable pace.

Piling on the geek goodwill, this one boasts not only one, but two end teasers. One follows on the heels of the closing title credits and is a setup for the next sequel while the other is the traditional post-credits roll add-on. The only other teasers-related comment that’ll be made here, in order to remain spoiler-free, is the tone seems to be creaking and slowly shifting toward something akin to what Joel Schumacher did to the Batman series in the 1990s: colorful comic book mayhem devoid of relevance. Maybe it’s too harsh of a judgment right now; the next chapter very well might prove to be awesome with the introduction of this next villain. But it seems almost inevitable that the effort required to keep things thematically interesting, as with Iron Man 3 and The Dark Knight trilogy, simply requires too much effort for long-term quality to endure.