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thor2-featuretteMarvel’s version of the God of Thunder is back in theaters. “Thor: The Dark World” picks up shortly after the events of 2012’s blockbuster, “The Avengers,” which ended with the hammer-wielding hero bringing his devious brother, Loki, to the Asgardian authorities for his crimes committed against earth. The opening segments of the film move quite briskly to establish several things- With Odin explaining, via narration, the history of the film’s antagonist, seeing Loki get incarcerated after confronting his adoptive parents, showing that Thor has grown into his role as the responsible future king of Asgard, and establishing a dynamic where the story zips back-and-forth between mystical realms and earth. It becomes quite clear early on that, more so than any of the other standalone Marvel films, this one will be more of an ensemble piece. Thor’s supporting cast is rather enormous at this point, with bits of screen time given to ten other characters to really expand the scope of the story.

Director Alan Taylor is clearly right at home with a large cast, a fantastical setting, and a ton of battles to shoot, thanks to his previous work on “Game of Thrones,” and you get the sense throughout that he takes the subject matter more seriously than the director of the last film, Kenneth Branagh. While Branagh made a safe, peppy studio feature out of the first film that fit right into Marvel’s heavy-handed “Phase One” plans, Taylor was seemingly given more freedom to explore and expand. While not as blatant about it as “Iron Man 3,” this film works hard to say “These stories aren’t just about the Avengers.” One thing the film definitely does have in common with IM3, though, is the lack of a S.H.I.E.L.D. presence- which I’ll get into more later.

So how does the film fare, with all these moving parts? It’s hit or miss.

Taylor’s movie is at its best when its on the ground, being driven by its charming characters, and I wish they would’ve chopped maybe 10 minutes total off of the myriad of action sequences and put them into developing the characters and plot some more. Rene Russo does some really nice work with extremely limited screen time, but one of the film’s pivotal moments involving her falls slightly flat because of how little time we get with her character. Thor’s warrior comrades aren’t given much to do, despite the added star power with Zachary Levi (Chuck) stepping into the role Fandral. An implied romantic subplot that involves Sif (Jaimie Alexander) never really comes to a head. A little more time dedicated to Heimdall (Idris Elba) might’ve given us a greater understanding for his role, his flaws, and how he could be challenged because, as it is, he just seems like the most inept gatekeeper ever with all the breeches over these first two films. And yet, despite all these examples of characters getting short-chained, it’s the interplay between the film’s characters that really carries the film- as well as provide its best surprises. It goes without saying that Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is a delight to watch, but every scene he shares with everyone he comes across is truly alive with energy, mischief, and intrigue. Jane Foster’s (Natalie Portman) earthbound friends, played by Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, Chris O’Dowd, and Jonathan Howard, practically get their own movie-within-a-movie with their snappy dialogue and interwoven subplots. O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, HBO’s The Family Tree), in particular, is able to squeeze an awful lot out of an awful little.

Which brings us to Thor himself. In his third outing as Thor, Chris Hemsworth seems more comfortable than ever as the Norse god. It’s sad to say that Hemsworth has been an unsung hero in all of the films so far. The actors with the more showy parts always get most of the attention in these Marvel films, as the endless praise for Hiddleston shows, and how Thor was probably the least spoken of aspect of “The Avengers” with Hulk stealing the show and Robert Downey Jr. chewing the scenery. But the mere fact that Thor can be an afterthought is a testament to how well Hemsworth plays the part. That’s a tough character to make seem natural, and an even tougher one to just seamlessly weave into the tapestry. He’s a God of Thunder with long blonde hair, a giant bright red cape, an other-worldly costume with massive metal plates on it, and he wield’s a big clunky hammer. There’s nothing sleek, nothing modern, and nothing subtle about Thor’s appearance. A lesser actor would look downright goofy, and the character would seem like an out-of-place oaf. But in Hemsworth’s capable hands, Thor comes to life as a real character. He’s able to convey the joy, the weight of the world, the longing, the passion, the anger, and the determination that lives within without ever being weighed down by the outlandish costumes and circumstances. It’s a shame that he continues to get overlooked, but if he keeps this up, I’m sure his day will come.

On the opposite end of the spectrum we have Thor’s antagonist, Malekith, who’s a vacuum of charisma. The film’s central villain, played by Christopher Eccleston, is just plain dull. I won’t blame Eccleston, who is buried under makeup- including the most NOT frightening elf ears ever- because the script clearly gave him very little to work with. It’s a thankless role, and it couldn’t have been easy stage his scenes either, since he’s all about darkness and the absence of light. So when you have a character written this uninterestingly, and you have to show him in bleak, dark, colorless backdrops, spouting Villain 101 dialogue, there’s really not much you can do to make his scenes pop, and the film suffers because of it. Great superhero tales, and action films in general, thrive on having credible, intriguing villains, and this one simply doesn’t have one. The alternative, if you have a weak villain, would be to have a very well-written plot, which is another place where the film falters.

There’s a lot going on in this movie, and it’s all supposed to come together in the end for the climactic finale. Unfortunately, despite all the dialogue dedicated to it, CG thrown at it, and characters shown scrambling towards it, things don’t seem to fully come together in the earthbound portion of the plot. It becomes just another loud, blow’em up comic book movie sequence with demigods that seemingly can’t hurt one another repeatedly hitting each other while destroying large amounts of property. Does it look cool? Sure. Is all the action staged well by Taylor, throughout the movie? Absolutely. But when the plot becomes very convoluted, the characters are invulnerable, and not enough time is devoted to developing the heart of the story, it has the effect of making you numb to the action.

Speaking of heart, Natalie Portman gives a sweet performance once again as Thor’s love interest, but there are times when I can’t help but wonder if she got a memo that no one else in the production got. Some of her lines are delivered in such stilted ways, with facial expressions that are so “soap opera” that I can’t help but feel she’s playing to the 10-12 year olds in the audience- like she thinks this is a movie aimed at kids. And hey, maybe it is. It’s based on a comic book, after all, and there will be loads of action figures sold here, but no one else seems to be doing what she’s doing. She’s an actress that’s shown she can do great, naturalistic work in adult dramas, but in her two “Thor” efforts, she seems to dumb things down and play singular notes so that little kids can follow what’s going on.

As I touched on before, this film sets itself apart from the greater Avengers universe, which is fine when they’re in other realms such as Asgard and Svartelfheim, because Nick Fury probably doesn’t have jurisdiction out there. However, when they’re on earth, which is where the final half hour takes place with a cosmic battle that spans large portions of a populated city, you’d think S.H.I.E.L.D. might want to intervene somehow. Now, I know they can’t always be around, and that the films must be able to stand on their own, but when you made Fury/Coulson and company so integral throughout the “Phase One” films, it really calls attention to their absence in IM3 and T:TDW. In this way, Marvel has painted itself into a corner. On the one hand, they needed a heavy S.H.I.E.L.D. influence in the first films to create a through line and plant seeds for the eventual team-up, but on the other, they want these characters to be able to stand alone now that they’ve been established. The answer to this problem, seemingly, would be to have the characters face issues that are either much more personal and localized, or off-world. Yet both times, so far, they’ve placed Tony Stark and Thor in these situations with global significance where it’s inconceivable that Fury wouldn’t at least pick up a phone and say, “Hey, need a hand?” But I won’t dwell on this any longer. Much like S.H.I.E.L.D. was barely touched on in T:TDW, I’ll also treat them as an afterthought.

Despite the film’s flaws, though, it’s still an enjoyable couple of hours at the cinema, thanks to the considerable charms of its cast. A lot of the dialogue is really snappy and sparks with that Joss Whedon-esque vibrancy. There are genuine surprises sprinkled throughout the character-driven scenes- moments that made the audience I saw it with shout and cheer. And finally, we get to see Loki the trickster! In his third MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) appearance, finally not burdened with being a primary antagonist, Loki is at last allowed to be funny, mischievous, and play devious tricks on those around him. You’re going to see this movie no matter what I say, so my advice is just check your brain at the door, let yourself laugh, and dazzle at the eye candy, but be sure to arrive caffeinated so that you can sit through the long, sometimes monotonous action scenes.

Rating: B-