By Alan Mattli
If the production of a successful blockbuster is the art of making a crowd-pleaser, then Marvel Studios has mastered the art in its ongoing string of comic book adaptations associated with the overarching Avengers narrative, focusing on characters by the likes of Captain America, Iron Man, or Hulk. Not only is the series currently one of cinema’s most profitable (and durable) cashcows; it has yet to produce an outstanding critical and commercial failure – even Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, arguably the “worst” entry into the canon, qualifies as being at least passable, not least because Black repeatedly drew on the franchise’s most popular features, most notably the self-deprecating screen persona of Robert Downey Jr.
In terms of pleasing crowds, Thor is, on the other hand, probably Marvel’s most challenging movie franchise because its breakout element is not the titular hero – reckless yet honourable Norse god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – but rather his snarky, villainous adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who made his first appearance in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011) and who went on to become the primary antagonist of Joss Whedon’s hugely successful The Avengers (2012). Hence, it seems, the popularity of any film focusing on Thor is dependent on how much it manages to incorporate Loki into the action.
One would imagine that such deliberations hogtie any form of legitimate storytelling – and indeed, one wonders how much longer Marvel can sustain its love affair with the beloved villain – but surprisingly, it is Loki’s involvement in The Dark World, Alan Taylor’s sequel to Branagh’s sufficiently diverting Thor, that proves to be the film’s most effortless aspect. The rest of the movie, while not exactly a stodgy affair, is hampered by similar shortcomings as its predecessor; a rather messy and convoluted narrative awkwardly juggling exposition, fast-paced action, and a cardboard love story.
The Dark World finds Thor, prince of Asgard (a realm existing in parallel with eight other universes, including Earth’s), reuniting with his terrestrial girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who accidentally ingests an evil power called “Aether”, which would allow a band of rogue elves to revert all nine worlds to a state of eternal darkness. As is all too often the case with Marvel’s nonetheless likeable cinematic yarns (The Avengers being the welcome exception), the actual plot rarely adds up to all that much, resting on largely incomprehensible pseudo-scientific expository dialogue and stupendously inconsistent in-universe rules that regularly choose to leave glaring questions unanswered. (Why, for instance, do ancient temple sites converge in Greenwich, a place that has been significant for little more than 150 years?)
Of course, one does not watch a Marvel adaptation for the plot, but for the playful interaction between the iconic characters and the visual feats on display. With regard to the latter, the film offers standard fare: the effects, in spite of having been subjected to a fruitless 3-D treatment, are without flaw; the set pieces, even though relatively few in number, are efficiently staged (the elves’ attack on Asgard echoing 9/11 imagery) and appropriately dynamic. Their impact, however, is weakened by Christopher Yost’s, Stephen McFeely’s, and Christopher Markus’s unremarkable, if fitfully funny, script, whose speech bubble dialogue often feels more hokey than endearing, especially when uttered by the curiously unengaged Chris Hemsworth or Anthony Hopkins (Thor’s father Odin), whose erratic speech patterns at times recall the line readings of Christopher Walken.
Ultimately, and perhaps tellingly, it actually does fall to Tom Hiddleston to elevate The Dark World beyond mere mediocrity. His Loki is by far the most engaged – and engaging – figure on screen, cracking jokes, taunting Thor, and managing to be the most convincingly developed character of the whole affair. Hiddleston’s energetic performance serves as a refreshing counterbalance to Hemsworth’s grumpily unaffected, headlining he-man, who in hindsight is reduced to being a hero by name only, whereas Loki, albeit being just an occasionally featured tertiary character, gives the (consistently entertaining) film some soul. Whether this bodes well for the series in the long run is another question.
★★★½ (out of six)
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.