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Nobody gives good sneer like Tom Hiddleston, back once again in the pleather leggings and goat-horned helmet to play bad guy Loki in Thor: The Dark World and pretty much steal the whole show. Amiable hunk Chris Hemsworth may play the title character in this subset of Marvel’s meta-Avengers franchise, but this well-intentioned “witless oaf,” as his evil foster brother describes him at one point, is practically a guest at his own party here, as scads of new characters and millions of dollars worth of CGI crowd the screen. Most of it pales into insignificance when Loki takes the stage, which isn’t often enough given how wildly uneven the sections without him are. Although director Alan Taylor manages to get things going properly for the final battle in London, the long stretches before that on Asgard and the other branches of Yggdrasil are a drag, like filler episodes of Game of Thrones but without the narrative complexity, mythical heft or all-pervading sexiness.
PHOTOS: Exclusive Portraits of Chris Hemsworth
In a year when so many box-office sure bets, especially sequels, have been a bust, it’s harder than usual to predict how well Thor: The Dark World will do. Tracking numbers are predicting an opening weekend somewhere in the $75 million stratosphere. Meh word of mouth could diminish returns over the subsequent weeks, but who knows. There are a lot of die-hard fans out there, especially for the Marvel-verse, but then again they can also be a very discerning and exacting audience.
The opening sequence provides backstory on the Dark Elves, sharp-beaked, pointy-eared meanies from Alfheim who date back to before the beginning of time and claim a black, gaseous substance called Aether as their all-powerful weapon of mass destruction. They’re seen being vanquished (but, of course, not quite) by Thor’s grandfather. Thereafter, the story basically picks up where The Avengers left off, with Loki in manacles back on Thor’s home planet — or “realm,” they call it — Asgard, after trying to take over our world and trashing New York in the process. His glass-walled, whited-out cell in the dungeon bears a striking resemblance to similar baddie-holding pens in films past, from the X-Men franchise to Skyfall; there he reads books and has heart-to-black-heart chats with his adopted mother, Frigga (Rene Russo, finally getting more to do in this installment than just standing around smiling).
In uppity other realms, Thor has been putting down insurgents alongside his warrior buddies — the Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), and the “Warriors Three,” Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) and Fandral (Zachary Levi, stepping in for Josh Dallas) — and preparing to take over from dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as king. Since the Bifrost bridge that connects Asgard to Earth was destroyed two films back, Thor has no means to travel to our world to see Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the fetching lady scientist he became smitten with in the first movie but barely mentioned in The Avengers.
Luckily, omnipotent bridge-keeper Heimdall (Idris Elba) can see she’s basically fine, albeit mightily annoyed with Thor for not staying in touch. Based in London now, she’s trying to heal her wounded pride by having a blind date with nice but decidedly non-godly Richard (Chris O’Dowd, criminally underused). She dumps him unceremoniously as soon as her intern Darcy (Kat Dennings), who now has her own intern (Jonathan Howard), interrupts their meal with evidence of a space-fabric disturbance that seems familiar. While investigating the weird phenomenon, Jane is sucked into another realm and infected with Aether, which sometimes give her scary white-free eyes, evoking happy memories of Black Swan.
PHOTOS: Behind the Scenes of ‘Thor’
It turns out that The Convergence, the incredibly rare astronomical alignment of all nine realms, is beginning, hence the possibility of Bifrost-free travel between Earth and Asgard. Thor comes to collect Jane, gets slapped a few times for not calling her, and they commute back to Asgard to see its intricate landscape of cavernous assembly halls and gleaming golden towers, fashioned in the forge of many a mainframe, all impressively conceived and executed by production designer Charles Wood and visual effects supervisor Jake Morrison. That said, some of the more barren landscapes look decidedly less convincing with their papier-mache boulders and screen-like backdrops when Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), the leader of the surviving Dark Elves and his crew, come to try and collect their Aether.
The middle section is mostly a muddle, with endless cross-cutting between the Dark Elves plotting, attacking and then retreating to plot some more, earthlings Darcy and Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) worrying, and the Asgardians bickering over what they should do. The latter finally decide — despite manifest evidence provided by two previous films that it would be a very bad idea — to release Loki from jail so that he can fight on their side. Once Loki is back in play, magisterially sneering and loftily dispensing one-liners, the whole thing perks up again. Until, that is, he’s off the scene again for reasons which can’t be revealed.
The final showdown in Greenwich, London, squares off the Dark Elves and their unleashed Aether against the Asgardians and humans, managing in the process to grind most of Sir Christopher Wren‘s exquisite 17th century Royal Naval College buildings into a fine, powdery digitally rendered pixel dust. It’s here, in this stretch, that the film finally gets its mojo back, finding the requisite balance between bombast and wise-cracks that made the first Thor work in its finest moments. Admittedly, nothing Loki-unrelated in Thor: The Dark World quite matches the hilarity of the scene in the first film where Thor strides into a pet shop and demands a horse, but the finale pleasingly gives the hardworking supports a chance to josh around, the stereoscopy comes into its own, and the editing, credited to Dan Lebental and Wyatt Smith, finds its groove. What a shame the script up until this point is too often so ramshackle and plodding, like the writers were finishing off the dialogue in between catering breaks.
With a project so firmly supervised by its studio, it’s hard to tell how much director Alan Taylor should be credited or blamed for the finished result. The Dark World is certainly a far cry from the jaunty little indie crime caper Palookaville (1995) he started his career with. Since then, he’s directed some great episodes on some of the very best TV series, including The Sopranos, Mad Men, and, most germane of all in this context, Game of Thrones, on which he also serves as a co-executive producer. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Thrones with The Dark World given the former has so much more scope to build its world over hours of programming, but for all the budget spent on lavish visual effects in The Dark World nothing in it quite compares to the White Walkers marching relentlessly through the snowy Northern wastes at the end of the Taylor-directed episode “Valar Morghulis.”
Viewers are advised to not make for the exit as soon as the end credits start rolling and stick it out until the very end if they want to see a postscript that reveals a character who may prove central to the next film. Indeed, the end credits have two Easter-egg scenes, in keeping with the trickle of in-jokes aimed at Marvel aficionados that provides a flash-quick cameo for one of Thor’s superhero companions from The Avengers.
Production: Marvel Studios
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Kat Dennings
Director: Alan Taylor
Screenwriter: Christopher L. Yost, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, based on a story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat
Producers: Kevin Feige
Executive producers: Nigel Gostelow, Stan Lee, Victoria Alonso, Craig Kyle, Alan Fine, Louis D’Esposito
Director of photography: Kramer Morgenthau
Production designer: Charles Wood
Costume designer: Wendy Partridge
Editors: Dan Lebental, Wyatt Smith
Music: Brian Tyler
Not yet rated, 112 minutes
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