That latest comic book sequel from Marvel Studios, "Thor: The Dark World," is an easy film to recommend (or not), based on whether (or not) you liked the Kenneth Branagh-directed original, which introduced the Norse god-turned-comic-book-hero to the big screen.
In a nutshell, the new "Thor" is more of the same, with even greater emphasis on action and special effects. Plot and especially characterization are not the main order of the day.
A portentous prologue, which plays more like a video game preview than a movie, tells the story of the Dark Elves and the efforts of their nasty leader Malekith — an unrecognizable Christopher Eccleston — to destroy the Universe with some black goo called the Aether. Why he wants to perpetrate such cosmic Armageddon is unclear. He's just dark and mean. Luckily, he and his minions are defeated by the forces of Asgard, though Malekith and his head henchmen manage to escape and bide their time.
Eons later, Malekith is back in the game, thanks to the hapless intervention of Thor's Earth-time girlfriend Jane (Natalie Portman), who unwittingly becomes the carrier for the Aether. Don't ask how — it just happens. Fuming with revenge, the Dark Elves first attack Asgard before turning their sights on Earth and the remaining Eight Realms. Who you gonna call to save the day when there's nary another Avenger in sight? How about golden-tressed Thor and his trusty hammer!
With script and story credits spread out among six writers, there's not a lot of sophistication or coherence to the plot. That's been a problem for Thor as a comic book hero, because his origins are so extraterrestrial, combining Norse mythology and an alien world. The more appealing superheroes are understandably Earth-based, as are their stories. It's OK to go bonkers and cosmic on the comic book page, but doing so on the big screen tends to alienate the broader audience. That's one reason the film version of "Green Lantern" tanked disastrously.
Branagh played the mythological aspects of "Thor" as grand opera in the first film, emphasizing spectacle and aura in that phase before unleashing the conflict and action on Earth in a rather focused locale. Showing his Shakespearean roots and basic dramatic savvy, Branagh also delineated character development alongside the special effects mayhem.
For "The Dark World," director Alan Taylor with a primarily TV background ("Game of Thrones," "The Sopranos") sacrifices character to the sound and fury of special effects. To be fair, he's got a leaky script with which to work, but even so, the movie stumbles out of the gates, the dialogue creaking, the special effects mostly ho-hum. Chris Hemsworth and Portman struggle gamely at their roles, managing to look and sound just a bit less silly than Anthony Hopkins as one-eyed Odin.
In the second half, though, "The Dark World" comes to life, exuding some of the verve, playfulness and imagination that propelled "The Avengers." In large part, the revitalization is due to the supporting cast, first and foremost Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Thor's nefarious brother. Hiddleston commands nearly every scene he's in. For the first part of the movie, he's stuck in a cell on Asgard. When he gets loose, "The Dark World" kicks into gear.
Also noteworthy in largely comic roles are Kat Dennings (as Jane's assistant) and Stellan Skarsgard as the eccentric physicist Erik Selvig. Though largely bottled up as an actor for the first half, Hemsworth gets some good scenes, too, in the second half, many of them intentionally funny. Fans will especially enjoy an interlude featuring Thor, Loki and a surprise guest Avenger.
Perhaps it's the presence of Eccleston (who played Doctor Who in 2005), but "Thor: The Dark World" reminded me of an extended episode about TV's favorite Time Lord. Not that there's anything wrong with that.