by Tony Dayoub
The superhero fan in me often gets excited about sequels because they aren't restricted by the initial film's overrated need to spell out their characters' origins. Though the first Thor took a bit of a drubbing by critics for this, director Kenneth Branagh actually did a really nice job of weaving in the dense Norse mythology and Marvel Comics lore into the god of thunder's introduction. It was the actual story on Earth and the romance between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) which was tedious. But considering the copious amount of world-building the sequel still has to do, Thor: The Dark World should really be called Thor: The Exposition Continues. In fact, The Dark World almost feels like a reintroduction, a Thor 1.5 rather than a Thor 2.
Now helmed by Alan Taylor, one of Game of Thrones' most prolific directors, The Dark World at first feels like it's trying to bring some of the HBO series' grimy splendor to the once spotless Asgard. Thor's imposing warrior friends—Heimdall (Idris Elba), Sif (Jamie Alexander), and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson)—return, only now they're often caked with dirt and sweat. Thor's hair looks oily and has some braids in it. Asgard is more textured. Only Thor's parents Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Frigga (Rene Russo) seem to carry the measure of regality one associates with the first movie, as if to recall a bygone Golden Age disrupted by their stepson Loki (Tom Hiddleston) after his failed attempts to usurp the throne destined for his stepbrother.
Considerably more time is spent in Asgard than on boring old Earth, a step in the right direction for The Dark World. But again the majesty of the movie and its quite unique Marvel Comics characters is undermined by the unnecessary requirement to try to cram a conventional god-mortal romance subplot into the film. It made sense for the first movie, with Foster serving as a motivating factor for Thor to develop a sense of protectiveness for Earth and its humans. But now that it's been established by his appearance in The Avengers that Thor is all in regardless of whether Foster is in the picture or not, I'm not sure she's so necessary anymore.
Certainly her presence in Asgard during the first half of The Dark World plays well enough as she stands in for the audience, taking in all of the wondrous details that make up the heavenly realm. But whenever The Dark World returns to Earth it lands less with the crackling boom of thunder and more with a resounding thud. That Foster's supporting cast of geeks—played by Kat Dennings, Jonathan Howard and Stellan Skarsgård—come off as sort of the Keystone Physicists doesn't help. It's as if a substandard romantic comedy is struggling to compete for your attention over the more satisfying tale of courtly intrigue and sibling rivalry (given a strong boost by the wily Hiddleston and an eclectic list of Shakespearean actors).
Admittedly there are some missteps on Asgard too. Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), the Dark Elf fomenting a new war between Asgard and his native Svartalfheim is a curiously thin villain, both in appearance and otherwise. His goal of bringing darkness to the universe never strikes one as nearly a robust a threat as Loki's simpler desire to sow the seeds of discord within his adopted family. And Malekith never seems remotely as physically intimidating as his fearsome sidekick Kurse (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who can snuff the life out of even a god with one burning touch. The reduction of Malekith's attacks on Asgard to a series of Star Wars-like dogfights also serves as an unwitting reminder that Marvel Films is always more distracted by the movies it's planning for rather than the one unspooling right in front of you. A quirky post-credit tag setting up 2015's Guardians of the Galaxy film demonstrates that the link Marvel is trying to create between an Asgardian brand of cosmic and an intergalactic one is tenuous at best.
Thor: The Dark World is an improvement on its predecessor, simply because it spends more time in its hero's decidedly spectacular birthplace. But there is considerable room for reworking and improvement. Jettisoning Foster as a love interest in future installments is a good start. Simplifying any potential plots by resisting bringing on any new villains is another. The solution to both of these is in the franchise's strongest asset, Tom Hiddleston's performance as the wolfish Loki. After all, the most interesting love-hate relationship in the Thor movies doesn't include either Foster or a malevolent invader from other dimensions; it's the one between Thor and his brother Loki.