If there’s a difference between a film that deliberately rips off – ahem, “takes inspiration from” — countless movies that preceded it and one that accidentally duplicates their thrills, Thor: The Dark World defines that divide. Director Alan Taylor’s sequel is superior to its predecessor in virtually every way – a broader scope, more aggressive action, and much greater comfort with the source material’s mythic theatricality. But even with almost absolute certainty that Taylor and his collaborators did not intentionally borrow from films including Man of Steel, Prometheus, the Star Wars prequels and even the original TRON, Thor: The Dark World feels hopelessly derivative, a follow-up whose grandiose scale fails to conceal its lack of original ideas, not to mention flagrant logical problems.
Chris Hemsworth (Rush) returns as Thor, one of Earth’s Avengers now returned to Asgard as a warrior in the civil wars that stand between him and his father Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) throne. After his two-year absence from Earth, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has mostly given up hope of seeing Thor again, but they are reunited when she stumbles across a vortex that marks the boundary between realms. Infected by an alien force called the Aesther whose reappearance signals a cataclysm 5000 years in the making, Jane soon comes under protection in Asgard, as the leader of the Dark Elves, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), tries to reclaim the Aesther.
When Malekith lays waste to soldiers and civilians alike in his siege of Asgard, Odin locks down the realm and prepares for a massive battle that seems certain to destroy millions of lives. Defying his father’s orders, Thor strikes a tenuous pact with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in order to escape Asgard and stage a pre-emptive attack on the Dark Elves that he hopes will preserve lives. But after the alignment of the nine realms allows Malekith to launch his invasion, Thor finds himself racing between worlds to save not just Asgard or Earth but the entire universe.
When Thor was released in 2011, Marvel faced the challenge of introducing a bona fide god – a pure fantasy character – into the hardware and “science” of characters like Iron Man and Hulk. Much to the studio’s credit, it roundly succeeded, giving the character an anachronistic charm even as the hero’s abilities unlocked a supernatural arsenal that seemed limitless. But two years later, screenwriters Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely construct a backstory for the nine realms that Thor is meant to rule that effectively abandons all of that promising creativity in favor of action-figure showdowns with laser blasters and odd-shaped but otherwise completely conventional spaceships.
A prologue to the film details the history of the Dark Elves and their battle against the Asgardians, and the two factions square off in antiquity with the most stupidly cartoonish weaponry, unless of course one’s intention is not to tell the best story but sell the most toys. Is this or isn’t this a world where some people possess the power to manipulate the weather? In Asgard, Thor shouldn’t be the exception, he should be the rule – or at least a few other of its inhabitants should have cool powers that defy even the most skilled machinist’s efforts. And by extension, the rest of the realms should operate under their own laws, some of which will inevitably defy science or logic, rather than simply offering an army of faceless drones. In other words, where is the true magic – much less imagination — of the universe that Thor inhabits?
The answer appears to be “buried in movie conventions that audiences already safely endorsed.” Again, I’m not suggesting that Taylor and his collaborators stole from or even saw these films prior to or during the production, but to cite just a few examples, the Dark Elves look a whole lot like Prometheus’ Engineers. Odin’s Big Book offers two-dimensional moving images like Man of Steel’s hologram history lesson. Not one but two spaceship chases, not to mention the entire close-up locale of Asgard, resemble a more sharply-rendered version of Star Wars’ Naboo. And Thor’s clumsy discovery of an alien vessel reminds one of Flynn and the Recognizer from TRON. [Editor’s note: Not to mention the visual similarities in character design to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.]
But regardless whether or not you notice these similarities, there’s simply nothing in the film to care deeply about – and it’s a story about the destruction of the entire universe. The first hour drags along, bouncing between Earth and Asgard, as Odin chides Thor for liking a mortal and Jane’s colleague Darcy (Kat Dennings) wields obnoxious charm with the subtlety of Thor’s hammer. People are fighting, Thor is victorious, but so what? The villain, Malekith, is a complete non-starter, a monotonous menace with no discernible personality and nothing to make him interesting. Meanwhile Loki, the only character actually experiencing some sort of emotional quandary, is locked up in a prison, coming to terms with his relationship with adoptive parents Odin and Frigga (Rene Russo), the latter of whom holds out some hope for her would-be son.
Admittedly, the film’s third act is a real doozy, and finally captures some of the sweep that the rest of the film (and its underlying mythology) hints at. But without taking anything away from that sequence’s inventive, thrilling staging, what surrounds it is spectacularly underwhelming, particularly since so little of it carries any real dramatic weight. Without spoiling anything with specifics, none of its danger – including the potential death of multiple characters – seems authentic, and in fact stakes that are underlined, highlighted and bolded are effectively ignored, or insufficiently explained away later. And perhaps most critically, the film’s resolution depends on not one but two incredibly significant events occurring, neither of which are explained or even shown on screen.
Again, however, Taylor’s direction is in all ways superior to Kenneth Branagh’s dingy work on Thor, and he makes the action brisk and attractive even in sequences where spaceships carry not a single person we know or care about. But saying that this sequel is better than its predecessor is the very definition of damning something with faint praise, because the threshold for “success” was so low after the first film’s provincial, cardboard-backlot drama that to surpass it requires only a climb from mediocre to average. The irony is that in spite of that film being much worse, this one’s shortcomings are considerably more frustrating, because they feel like a missed opportunity rather than an outright failure. But ultimately, Thor: The Dark World’s bland proficiency offers precisely the level of moreness suggested by its title – expansion without depth or meaning, and drama without investment or resonance.
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