Film Review: ‘Thor: The Dark World’

Thor The Dark World

Disney/Marvel's latest slab of briskly amusing, elaborately inconsequential 3D entertainment is a buoyant if derivative ride.

Early on in “Thor: The Dark World,” the latest slab of briskly amusing, elaborately inconsequential 3D entertainment from the Disney/Marvel comicbook factory, an evil Dark Elf announces his sinister plan to “unleash the Aether.” What sounds at first like an arcane euphemism for breaking wind turns out to be just another way of stating what you probably already suspected: The megalomaniac of the month is about to activate the latest all-powerful weapon capable of triggering mass annihilation, necessitating yet another intervention by a popular superhero and his ragtag band of sidekicks. Still, as helmed by Alan Taylor, this robust, impersonal visual-effects showpiece proves buoyant and unpretentious enough to offset its stew of otherwise derivative fantasy/action elements.

The fact that much of the action plays out in Asgard and other far-flung dimensions makes for an enlivening change of scenery at the very least, even if the film’s formula of destructive mayhem plus tongue-in-cheek humor remains pure essence of Marvel. Already expected to outpace 2011’s Kenneth Branagh-helmed “Thor” when it begins its international rollout Oct. 30 (with a Stateside bow to follow Nov. 8), the Disney release should rep an even more conclusive test than “Iron Man 3” of “The Avengers” effect, revealing just how massively Marvel’s individual franchise properties stand to capitalize on spillover success from that 2012 worldwide smash.

An ancient prologue recalls the battle between the noble forces of Asgard and a wicked race known as the Dark Elves, named less for their pale complexions than for their love of all-consuming darkness. But their dastardly plans are thwarted when they failed to detonate the Aether, an “ancient force of infinite destruction” that resembles a mass of writhing red energy-tendrils, or perhaps a plate of radioactive spaghetti. The surviving Dark Elves, led by the supervillain Malekith (an unrecognizable Christopher Eccleston), are sentenced to centuries-long slumber, while the Aether is buried deep down in a place where nobody would ever find it.

Centuries later, of course, who should stumble upon it but Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Earth’s most beautiful astrophysicist and the mortal soul mate of everyone’s favorite hunk with a hammer, Thor (Chris Hemsworth). When her body unwittingly becomes the Aether’s host, making her the target of the newly revived Malekith, Jane is spirited away to Asgard by Thor, who is due to succeed his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), as king of the realm. But the coronation will have to wait, given that the Dark Elves’ plot to activate the Aether could have devastating consequences for all Nine Realms.

Earth, as it happens, is one of those Nine Realms, although if “Thor: The Dark World” is to be believed, it’s such a tedious planet that it’s hard to feel any sorrow at the prospect of its destruction. (If only it seemed like more than an idle threat at this point.) Things turn leaden almost every time the film cuts to terra firma, where Jane’s endlessly sarcastic friend/assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and new intern Ian (Jonathan Howard) try to figure out a scientific solution with the help of Jane’s old mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), who seems to have added crazed nudism to his list of eccentric hobbies.

Fortunately, the strained comedy and mundane visuals of the Earth scenes (all of them set in London, where the film was largely shot) are rarely in evidence in Asgard, and it’s largely a pleasure to spend time there with Thor and Jane, who looks especially charming clad in the finery of the realm (courtesy of versatile costume designer Wendy Partridge). It’s in this otherworldly kingdom — variously influenced by Norse mythology, brutalist architecture and Mandalay Bay — that director Taylor delivers his most compelling setpieces, starting with the Dark Elves’ deadly assault on Odin’s palace and culminating in a rather stunningly beautiful mass funeral sequence.

Asgard, too, is where we again find Thor’s treacherous, power-mad brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), now languishing in an underground prison after his role in the events of “The Avengers.” Loki may be a known quantity by now for Marvel fans, but he’s rarely been more delectable company than he is here — defeated, bitterly sarcastic and utterly indifferent to either his own fate or Asgard’s imminent destruction. The brotherly enmity between him and Thor takes a genuinely intriguing turn when it becomes clear the two will have to join forces in order to stop Malekith, a development that is wisely played for laughs as well as tense character drama.

In the end, that humorous approach is largely the film’s saving grace, keeping the action sufficiently lively and diverting that audiences won’t recognize how recycled the material is, or how low the stakes feel. Disposable as it may feel at the end of the day, “Thor: The Dark World” is not without a certain pleasing deftness, from its goofily offhand way of finding scientific explanations for blatantly supernatural phenomena, to the blithe ease with which it sends its characters hopscotching from one dimension to the next. This latter motif succeeds in turning film’s climactic showdown into a playful exercise in physical displacement, shot and edited with a bit more coherence than the typical f/x orgy of exploding buildings. And a few neat twists throughout hinge on the Asgardians’ talent for shapeshifting, which functions here like the magical equivalent of characters peeling off latex masks a la “Mission: Impossible.”

With no sins of hubris to overcome this time around, Thor himself is a somewhat duller presence this time around, through no fault of Hemsworth’s solid, likable performance and stereoscopically enhanced pectorals. Portman makes a fine damsel in distress, pausing every so often to frown down at meteorological gadgets or to flash her color-tinted contact lenses as the Aether burrows its way into her system. Rene Russo’s touching turn as Odin’s brave wife, Frigga, offers a welcome respite from all the brooding male tempers on display, while Idris Elba somehow animates his largely inexpressive role as Heimdall, the all-seeing guardian of Asgard.

That there are not one but two obligatory teasers buried in the closing credits merely underscores the merrily-we-roll-along assembly line that Marvel’s movie output has become. Up next, for the record: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” in 2014, followed by “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” in 2015.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this review supplied details about the film’s coda. They have been removed.)

Film Review: 'Thor: The Dark World'

Reviewed at Disney Studios, Burbank, Calif., Oct. 21, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production

A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Marvel Studios presentation. Produced by Kevin Feige. Executive producers, Louis D'Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Craig Kyle, Alan Fine, Nigel Gostelow, Stan Lee.

Crew

Directed by Alan Taylor. Screenplay, Christopher L. Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, from a story by Don Payne, Robert Rodat, based on the Marvel comicbook by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby. Camera (color, Panavision widescreen, 3D), Kramer Morgenthau; editors, Dan Lebental, Wyatt Smith; music, Brian Tyler; music supervisor, Dave Jordan; production designer, Charles Wood; supervising art director, Ray Chan; art directors, Hayley Easton-Street (digital sets), Gregory Fangeaux (3D); costume designer, Wendy Partridge; sound (Datasat/Dolby Digital/Dolby Atmos), David Stephenson; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Shannon Mills; re-recording mixers, Lora Hirschberg, Juan Peralta; special effects supervisor, Paul Corbould; visual effects supervisor, Jake Morrison; visual effects, Double Negative, Luma Pictures, Method Studios; stunt coordinator, Steve Dent; 3D conversion, Stereo D; assistant director, Jamie Christopher; second unit director, John Mahaffie; casting, Sarah Halley Finn.

With

Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins, Chris O'Dowd.

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  1. Critics hate the genre. It is only when the genre offers up social commentary that meets their presupposed assumptions of what the world should be taught does any “critic” like anything from this genre. This movie will make money because, despite the rodent-like profession wannabe writers call haven that are critics, people like mythology, fantasy, and spectacle. If they didn’t, many milennia old writers would not still be remembered today……………..
    Ba­y95.c­OM

  2. Critics hate the genre. It is only when the genre offers up social commentary that meets their presupposed assumptions of what the world should be taught does any “critic” like anything from this genre. This movie will make money because, despite the rodent-like profession wannabe writers call haven that are critics, people like mythology, fantasy, and spectacle. If they didn’t, many milennia old writers would not still be remembered today

  3. Donald Watkins says:

    I enjoyed the way it opened with the epic scene of the Elves fighting in Mordor from the first Lord of the Rings movie (excellent reuse). I loved the scene at the Game of Thrones style Jedi training camp (energy swords and laser guns). Asgard was quite eye-catching with those brilliant changes that made it resemble a huge version of Rivendell. It really captured that new Star Wars look when those space ships zoomed through the city shooting everything with laser cannons. The inclusion of the Red Matter from JJ Abrams Star Trek was pretty cool as well. And I’ll never forget the brilliance of having Jane use those “quantum field generators” from Star Trek to save everyone at the end. …I actually did enjoy the movie and had a really good time.

  4. Names Have Power says:

    WHAT IN THE NINE HELLS?! I expect better from you people, you really think this is a good movie? Just look at the effin villains!! Dark elves!! I refer you to any book, movie, show, etc. dedicated to the drow elf race — these are not dark elves. They look like orc rejects from the Lord of the Rings series!!! ARRRGGGGHHH!!! This is why a Drizzt movie should not be made; it just wouldn’t be done right.

    Sorry for the ranting, this just really irritates me. Maybe I’ll watch it, maybe I won’t, but right now I’m thinking that the best thing to do is to just keep this movie as far away from me as possible. Fine by me; I have the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who to prepare for. Geronimo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. DC says:

    To me Thor is a corny ass character. Just another blonde hair blued eyed white guy here to save the day. He is way to easy to cast but thats Hollywood for you, just get any muscle bound white guy with no acting talent to play the leading role cuz all the white girls will love him. The only reason I gave this film a chance is cuz of loki. Hiddleston was superb, race aside, he is a talented actor. Now i know what your gonna say, Thor in the comics is a white. I know this but y be so stereotypical. Imagine if they casted a mexican or polynesian Thor, anybody that can act lmao. What if he was black? Come on Hollywood, I know there is a young, muscle bound, good looking black guy (thats not named Denzel or Will Smith) who can act that you could find. Give other people a shot at these leading roles in these big productions. But Hollywood would never let a black guy be the love interest of Natalie Portman so dont worry white people lol. I just want Hollywood to change it up and stop being so predictable

  6. Critics hate the genre. It is only when the genre offers up social commentary that meets their presupposed assumptions of what the world should be taught does any “critic” like anything from this genre. This movie will make money because, despite the rodent-like profession wannabe writers call haven that are critics, people like mythology, fantasy, and spectacle. If they didn’t, many milennia old writers would not still be remembered today.

  7. Tommy D says:

    Unsure as to how this Justin Chang fella (?) has been dubbed “Chief Film Critic” by Variety – his reviews are painfully flip, smug, annoying, self-absorbed and all over the board blind, deaf and dumb. At least the Hollywood Reporter usually tries to produce a genuinely honest review.

  8. cinemaville says:

    Be clear, should we watch the movie or not? Enough of this mixed bag.

  9. Mark says:

    All these comic book movies are starting to get a little old.

  10. ojack says:

    hey, sure a super hero movie can be MORE than just a super hero movie. and when THAT happens, like in the case of The Avengers and The Dark Knight..and (the non-comic book adaptation) pixar’s The Incredibles…they’re just the BEST kind of entertainment, NO DOUBT.
    but when that doesn’t happen and we just get A super hero movie, then what else dya expect other than a hero, a villain and a destructive/evil plan…??
    Derivative, unoriginal…heck! don’t go looking for that in this type of movies..look for FUN, which WB’s Man of Steel and the last Dark Knight flick FAILED to give…and you’ll have, well fun at the movies.
    Thor 2’s a fun and a better Thor movie than the first one…and way better than garbage like those Transformers movies…
    looking forward to MORE marvel movies.

  11. jj says:

    i’m ready for marvel movies to go away.

  12. Keith says:

    Aw you guys, he’s not one of us. But his opinions are pretty sound. Agree with y’all though, like Star Wars, you go to these movies for a certain kind of entertainment. Other kinds–well, heck, pop in “The English Patient” and revel.

  13. nan says:

    I never understand why someone who doesn’t like a certain genre would bother to write a review for that type of movie. Marvel movies aren’t great art and they don’t pretend to be. They make big bucks because they’re fun and people like to have fun. You can see other movies to get your culture fix.

  14. moviegoer says:

    Could this reviewer be any more pretentious? Its variety, not the new yorker.

  15. LOL says:

    This Chang guy always produces solid reviews. Zombies, superheroes, YA literature adaptations – America does love crap.

  16. kenmandu says:

    I thought the villain was the Dark Elvis–would be much more fun.

  17. Steve UK says:

    Justin liked it more than the Hollywood Reporter reviewer who gave it a ‘meh’ rating. I’m looking forward to seeing Thor 2 in the next few weeks, and all the other upcoming Marvel movies, keep em coming.

  18. Jim says:

    “briskly amusing, elaborately inconsequential, arcane euphemism, megalomaniac, annihilation, robust, impersonal buoyant, unpretentious derivative”…somebody likes their thesaurus a liiiiittle too much.

    • me says:

      Justin is always very impressed with himself (probably more so than any of his readers). As I felt compelled to tell him once, the great Roger Ebert, who won a Pulitzer, never resorted to such tactics. And he was a lot more fun to read.

    • Tom Snide-ier says:

      So I take it you never made it past 6th grade? Got ya.

  19. Nanny Mo says:

    I’m ready to be done with Superheroes for about 10 years. Then I’ll want to see them again. It’s getting dull. How many times can they have a personal strength-and-values crisis only to find themselves back in their respective cabal’s good graces again? It’s a lot of recycling. I think Marvel figured they were getting close to boredom so they sold to Disney just about the time Thor-ad-infinitim jumped his Aether, er… shark.

  20. E.V. says:

    They need to ease up on these comic book superhero movies, otherwise they’ll go the way of the Western like back in the 50’s

  21. Tom Snyder says:

    This review sounds a bit condescending. Maybe Justin should go back to giving over-the-top, rear-smooching reviews to the latest “edgy” and “avant garde,” but boring, indie that the vast majority of moviegoers will pay no mind to at all, both now and decades from now, and forget because they are uninspired AND uninspiring!

    • Tim says:

      Umm. Fanboy much? Get a life, dude. His reviews are almost always fair and on-target. I rely on him and Dargis almost solely now that Ebert’s gone.

    • Tom Snide-ier says:

      Yawn. Sorry guy, Justin reviews and loves/likes/hates films of all genres. Sounds like this is a “slightly above average to good” film. Get over yourself, watch the film and make up your own mind.

      P.S. I really hope you are under 15, to be so immature.

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