Thor: The Dark World
They need to start distributing glossaries alongside tickets for Marvel Universe movies at the box office. Watching "Thor: The Dark World," the second film in the series about the Norse God and the eighth film in the comic book publisher's "Universe," we find ourselves expected to nod in complete understanding as a character says, devoid of context, that "the bifrost was destroyed, and the nine realms were chaos." Seeing Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman forced to act naturally surrounded by all this piled-up continuity is like seeing a pair of majestic lions caged up by a money-grubbing carney; it's a colossal waste of their existence.
They've got new nonsense to act naturally around, too: There's a hell of a lot going on here in terms of plot, and none of it is worth remembering a day later. Anthony Hopkins, as Thor's father Odin, opens the film with an exposition-dump voiceover: Ages ago, before any of these characters existed, a fleet of "dark elves" did battle with the warriors of Asgard over the Aether, a powerful liquid that looks like the floating blob of a Windows 98 screensaver.
Many years later (and after many more unmentioned-by-me plot points), Natalie Portman's Jane Foster character, a scientist, comes upon a rift between universes, falls into the land of the last remaining dark elves, happens upon the Aether, gets it lodged inside her body, and instigates a new war between the people of Asgard and the last surviving aforementioned brooding elf people. That's the short version of the plot -- recounting it in full seems relatively useless, as all the film uses that narrative for is as a delivery system for cool shots of muscled up guys in comic book outfits hitting other people with weapons, and as a vessel to set up future Marvel movies.
This over-plotted, sequel-minded gobbledygook wouldn't be so bothersome if it actually made any sense. Yet, director Alan Taylor, along with his screenwriters and the 'continuity overseers' at Marvel (one of whom is Joss Whedon, of course,) clearly have no problem retconning their own stories to fit whatever needs they have on a scene-by-scene basis. I could roll with the punches of this half-myth-half-comic-book machismo nonsense, but this team, for example, can't even decide if their title character has the ability to travel back and forth from Earth. When "Thor" ended, he couldn't; in "Avengers," he could; and now he can't again -- except in the scenes where he can. Why should I care about all this stuff if the people making the film don't?
Even the script itself, in fact, seems to be aware of its own failings. There's a comedy of manners just itching to burst out of the outskirts of each sequence, and the film's heartiest laugh is one of its only low-key moments -- a gag that involves Thor, his hammer, and a coat rack. And during the all-the-side-characters-cross-paths moment in the action-climax, the characters actually consciously recognize the coincidence, and call out each other's names in a lyrical pitter-patter that approaches a downright screwball tone.
Yet these moments ---the fun ones -- are few and far between, breaths of calm during the commercialized storm. For the most part, "Thor: The Dark World" takes its battles between spaceships and dark elves and Norse gods and ice monsters all too seriously. That's made even more unfortunate by the fact that Taylor's eye for shooting action is nonexistent. His battles have no flow, no dynamism; they simply cut from one isolated shot of a good guy hitting a bad guy with a cool weapon to another slightly different shot of the same thing. You could chop and screw these action scenes into an entirely different order and not lose of an ounce of comprehension.
The problems with those sequences actually serve as a fitting metaphor for the Marvel series in general. There's a lot of focusing on "looking cool," and on establishing the brand, but not much on actually creating something that works on its own merits. "The Dark World" crashes and burns under the weight of its obligations to the series, packing in too many characters, too many plot points, and far too many action scenes pitched toward the sensibilities of eight-year-old boys.
The comedy of manners those lighter moments suggest could never break through all this worthless buildup about the state of the nine realms and the condition of the Bifrost and the power of the Aether. The picture wastes the charms of Hemsworth and Portman and co-star Tom Hiddleston, giving them a scant few moments where they can actually stretch as opposed to just using their voices to serve narrative purposes.
Taylor would rather have them running through expository dialogue than actually emoting and relating, likely so it can be referenced back to in some Marvel movie they're planning on making six years from now. These actors are overflowing with charisma and sex appeal, yet they've been given character arcs that could've been acted out by action figures. Marvel's managed to emphasize the worst aspects of serial storytelling while downplaying the fun their individual stories could offer.
When Idris Elba came on screen, as a buffed up Asgardian gatekeeper, the two young ladies next to me started giggling uncontrollably. Within moments, though, their excitement was drained. "The Dark World" doesn't even know what to do with a man as iconic and sexy as Elba. Like all its other potential strong points, it wastes him on an overcomplicated plot, one that has nothing to say. Who's got time for fun or substance? There are future "Avengers" movies to set up.