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WATCHING THE MOVIES: Thor: The Dark World

My series on the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues.

Glass is in theaters this weekend, but due to travel plans I won’t be able to see it in time. Given its catastrophically bad reviews and what I know of its plot, I doubt I ever will. Instead, I’ll be continuing my series on the Marvel movies this week with Thor: The Dark World.

First though, some housekeeping from last week’s column. An intrepid commenter helpfully reminds me that I forgot to discuss Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s “issues,” as promised. The only major problem I have with Raiders is its pacing. It seriously drags in the middle, even though the story continues to progress. But this is a common problem in action-adventure movies with slowly-building quests, and doesn’t annoy me too much.

On to the review. Brace yourselves.

THOR: THE DARK WORLD

Well, that’s different.

I kept hearing this phrase over and over in my head as I watched The Dark World. When it comes to sequels there’s two kinds of “different.”  Some differences change a character’s motivation or action in a way that’s helpful or leads to a needed evolution. Eventually we’ll get to Thor: Ragnarok, and that film’s progression of Thor and the Hulk is a great example of “good different.”

Oddly, The Dark World goes in the opposite direction. Its differences with both Thor and The Avengers compound the problems with Thor’s character and regress him beyond square one – and that’s just one character. We’ll talk about the others, but let’s start with Thor.

Chris Hemsworth’s performance here is uninspired at best and bored at worst. Of course, the script gives him little to work with, and the direction’s of no help – Alan Taylor lends nothing special to this film – but those excuses don’t quite cover it. There’s something missing, a “bad difference” that I need to explain.

The very best characters in fiction or history continuously make meaningful decisions. Yes, it’s the job of the narrative to lend meaning to both sides of the choice, but ultimately it’s the character that makes it, and it tells us something about the character when they do. It’s the difference between a static and a dynamic character: the former has things happen to him (or her), and the latter makes things happen.

Thor makes a grand total of two impactful choices in this movie. The first is returning across the Rainbow Bridge to see Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster, the apparent love of his life. He spends much of the first several scenes pining for her, yet the Bifrost’s destruction was what prevented him from visiting her and it’s completely repaired when our story begins. Why in the world didn’t he go back, even for a few seconds, the instant it was made whole again? The second choice Thor makes tells us nothing we didn’t already know about his character. It occurs at the film’s anticlimactic climax, but as I said, no spoilers. In every other situation, Thor just reacts to a thing that happens.

Then there’s the other characters stumbling through the bland story. Darcy, played acceptably by Kat Dennings, is wacky and goofy and profoundly annoying. And poor Stellan Skarsgard. He’s worthy of far better material than he was given as Dr. Eric Selvig, who’s become a comedy punchline.
The only character who delivers a pitch-perfect, heartbreaking, inspiring performance in this movie is Loki. Tom Hiddleston nails every expression, every line. I submit that this is the film that gave him his fan-favorite status, because he stands out so much amongst this muck.

Malekith’s villainy is the most simplistic, unintimidating dreck of all. Halfway through the film he was bested by Queen Freya (Frigga?) with a sword. I never once felt intimidated by him or interested in him, because his motivations are completely uninteresting: plunge worlds into darkness because I am dark creature, yadda yadda.

A ton of this plot occurs because of needless change to the universe or characters. Odin is suddenly a stubborn and even hateful flatline of a king. The Nine Realms are in chaos for reasons that just do not make sense. The Aether, a force of unimaginable power, is hidden somewhere with a back door on Earth. Countless things happen in unexplainable ways because the story demands it.

The film displays little effort and less innovation. It’s not good. Yet Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Loki and a competent slate of visual effects save it from utter disgrace.

RATING: 3/10

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