Despite mangled mythology, 'Thor: The Dark World' delivers the fun
With next year's Oscar race heating up on local screens, sometimes a critic just has to step away from the serious contenders and go have fun. Which for me this week meant slipping off to see Thor: The Dark World, a movie in little danger of snagging Academy gold, but which, after a rocky start, ratchets up the fun factor big time.
What elevates The Dark World above dozens of other noisy, overproduced comic book movies with Doomsday scenarios? For one thing, it's based on Norse mythology (very loosely based, I'll admit), so it has a more interesting pedigree than your typical guys-in-Spandex superhero movie. (At least the costumes are way more cool, so maybe I should rethink those Oscar chances.) For another, the script rises above mere jokiness to achieve a refreshing degree of humor and wit as it goes along. Chris Hemsworth's charismatic thunder god, Thor, delivers the eye candy, and Tom Hiddleston's utterly delicious performance as Thor's ne'er-do-well brother, the trickster god, Loki, seals the deal.
Directed by Alan Taylor, The Dark World begins with Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Father of the Gods of Asgard, explaining how the legions of Asgard defeated the evil Dark Elves centuries ago when the Elves tried to unleash a destructive force call Aether. Now, the Aether has been reawakened in its cosmic hiding place, and surviving Dark Elf, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), and his minions, want to use it to destroy the inhabitants of the Nine Realms (a corner of galactic real estate that includes Asgard and Earth) and rule in place of the gods.
Or something. Who cares? Meanwhile, Thor and his posse—warrior woman Sif (Jaimie Alexander), Chinese warlord Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), and Vikings Fandral (Zachary Levi) and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson)— have been troubleshooting around the Nine Realms, quelling rebellion and such, but Thor's heart isn't in it; he pines for American scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), whom he apparently loved and lost in the first Thor movie.
When Jane and her team in London (including the very funny Kat Dennings) stumble across a weird time/space anomaly where the Aether is hidden, the malicious, vaporous goo infuses itself into Jane's being. Learning from Heimdall (the excellent Idris Elba), gatekeeper of Asgard, that Jane has disappeared from the earthly realm, Thor finds her and carries her back to Asgard—where Malekith and his minions soon come looking for her to complete their diabolical plan.
What's not fun is Malekith (operating out of a gigantic stealth spaceship) laying waste to Asgard with dogfighting space jets and automatic weapons; not only does it rob the myth of romance, isn't Asgard the fortress of the gods? But in this installment they're not really gods; Thor flies through the galaxies with his magic hammer, Loki shapeshifts at will, they may live for five thousand years, but they're still mortal. A newfound mortality that sets the stage for Thor allying himself with the scheming Loki in a desperate act of revenge that will also (hopefully) save the world.
Things perk up once Loki joins the team. Hiddleston delivers sardonic lines with insinuating precision, while he and Hemsworth craft a credibly embattled yet compelling rapport that keeps us guessing as their mission plays out. (And watch for a funny shapeshifting sequence where Loki momentarily morphs into Chris Evans' Captain America.) It's Portman who fails to make much of an impression. Her Jane seems out of her depth among these more interesting Asgardians—including a commanding turn by the always enjoyable Rene Russo as Odin's beloved wife Frigga, mother (at least in this version) of both Thor and Loki.
Despite the amped-up effects and redundant battles, when the movie sticks to Asgard, it looks great. The golden orb-like portal with its purring clockwork gears from which guardian Heimdall observes all life in the Nine Realms is beautifully done. And there's a truly stirring Viking funeral at sea, complete with arrow-shot fireballs that illuminate the night sky and sea like a million fairy lights. It may be standard-issue Marvel comics movie plot-wise, but at least in its best moments, Thor: The Dark World reminds us how cool Norse mythology can be.
THOR: THE DARK WORLD ★ ★ ★ (out of four) With Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, and Anthony Hopkins. Written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely. Directed by Alan Taylor. A Walt Disney release. Rated PG-13. 112 minutes.
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