Despite a fine cast, ‘Thor: The Dark World’ is crippled by dull, derivative storytelling

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The phrase “Bigger isn’t always better” tends to be thrown about whenever sequels are up for discussion. But in the case of Thor: The Dark World, the latest CGI-romp from the Marvel/Disney merchandizing factory, it’s both, a compliment and a criticism. This is a rare film that is simultaneously stronger and weaker than its predecessor.

With general audiences more familiar with the God of Thunder and his mischievous brother, thanks to the uber-success of Thor and The Avengers, The Dark World benefits from a wider scope, larger budget, titanic set pieces, and of course, more Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) bonding time. It’s also a much funnier film than the first. It’s unfortunate then that these humorous moments are few and far between, and separated by long stretches of bland, convoluted and frankly, derivative storytelling.

The Dark World opens with a prologue that could have been lifted directly from The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the Asgardians waged a war against a race of evil elves – probably pissed because they look like crosses between the Middle Earth elves and the Necromongers from The Chronicles of Riddick. These evil elves wanted to harness the power of a gooey symbiote-like substance called the Aether so they could return the universe back to a period of “darkness” for reasons unknown. After they are anhialated by the Asgardians, and the Aether lost, peace was restored in the galaxy, or at least as far as Asgard was concerned.

Cut to present day, and immediately after the events of The Avengers. Thor (Hemsworth) brings Loki (Hiddleston) back to Asgard, and as punishment for being the most interesting character in the series, is swiftly banished by Odin (Anthony Hopkins, collecting that fat paycheck) to live the next 45 minutes of the movie in a glass box. With the life of the film bottled up, we’re re-introduced to the least interesting character of the series – Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) a.k.a. Miss Plot Device – and her comic relief earthling friends (Kat Dennings, Stellen Starsgaard, Jonathan Howard).

In one of the year’s biggest contrivances, Jane somehow finds the Aether, gets infected by it, and reawakens Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, barely recognizable), the leader of the evil elves. Swearing revenge on Asgard, Thor, Jane, and anyone he can think of, Malekith swiftly puts his world-domination plans into motion, not realizing that everything he has in mind has already been concocted before by smarter villains in better movies.

And therein lies the problem. Nothing about the plot of The Dark World is remotely absorbing or well-executed. The crux of it – the vengeful, world-domination shtick – is old hat whereas Malekith and his lackey Kurse (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) are simply the lamest villains to ever appear in a Marvel movie to date. Knowing Marvel’s track record of villains, that’s saying something. No one expects breakthrough cinema from the likes of Marvel but it would have been nice to see something that wasn’t derivative of everything from Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings to Monsters Inc. to even Tangled for a change.

Alan Taylor, who took over directorial duties from Kenneth Branagh, is a veteran television director, renowned for his work on television series Game of Thrones. Although he proves adept at executing large-scale action sequences, it’s evident early on that he’s simply not as invested in the illogical plot. The result is a soulless movie that reeks of being pasted together from the discarded parts of other franchises bought by Disney.

Thankfully The Dark World works when it isn’t paying too much attention to the plot. Humor has always been an integral aspect of the Marvel universe and clever visual gags, like the sight of a fully dressed Thor awkwardly trying to make conversation on the London underground, help resuscitate the picture from being derivative drivel. This is particularly true whenever Loki is involved.

And thank heavens for Loki! Every time Hiddleston is on-screen, The Dark World roars to life. The actor is clearly having a blast and he shares that fun with us. Hemsworth, fantastic in this fall’s racing drama Rush, continues to be an appealing presence. Thor isn’t exactly the deepest of heroes but the charming Aussie lends gravitas to the lug, especially during his scenes with Hiddleston.  Thor’s relationship with Loki is the heart and soul of this series and I’m glad Marvel had the good sense to cast two dynamic actors to carry it through. I just wish they’d learn how to craft a decent movie around them.

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