Thor: The Dark World is what happens when a creative shake-up unfortunately fails to pay dividends. Kenneth Branagh, whose Shakespearean background as an actor and filmmaker made him the obvious choice to take on the eponymous character, has been replaced by director Alan Taylor, whose aesthetic is hewn closer to the kind of generic fantasy adventure from which the first film stood apart. The cinematography (by Kramer Morgenthau) takes on darker, less playful tones. Asgard, the place where the otherworldly characters in this story reside, now feels lived-in and familiar and less like a place to be explored in its every facet.
The screenwriters, too, have been replaced by Christopher L. Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, who have placed their hero against the backdrop of a plot that amounts to little more than a bunch of circular exposition. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has brought peace to the Nine Realms (whose names all end in "-heim" but are hard to remember beyond my favorite, "Svartalfheim," which is the setting of part of the climactic showdown) and awaits his place as king of Asgard following the eventual retirement of Odin (Anthony Hopkins). His brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) sits in a cell, incarcerated for trying to destroy Earth in 2012's The Avengers.
Curiously, through an act of unbelievable coincidence of proximity, the main thread of the plot is incited by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the human scientist Thor fell in love with in his last standalone movie. She was relocated to a conservatory and pines for the demi-god superhero, looking for traces of metaphysical activity that might hint at Thor's promised return. In the process, she stumbles across a blip in space-time at the center of a factory. It is a portal to a nether region of existence, where she uncovers the Aether, some floating red substance that has existed since before the universe and holds a lot of vaguely defined power.
The Aether attaches itself to Jane, the side effects being some visions, a darkening of the whites of the eyes, and a tendency of the substance to lash out those who it thinks might harm her. It also awakens Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), a pretty generic villain who wants to use the Aether for the usual circular reason of destroying the universe (You'd think these villains would cotton onto the fact that such an action is self-defeating, but nothing has happened to that end, it seems). Tragedy hits home for Odin and Thor: The former considers a response in kind, and the latter teams up with an unlikely ally to defeat Malekith.
What transpires is, indeed, a pretty generic fantasy adventure with stakes that are theoretically high but practically rather bland. There is, surprisingly, more talking than action here, and when the action comes, it's more competent than exciting, though the staging of the final battle as one that travels through various wormholes as the participants throw down is pretty neat. Those flashes of creativity and personality are not nearly as present as they should be, though. Thor: The Dark World tries, to be sure, but it ends up being a pale imitation of its predecessor.
Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Natalie Portman (Jane Foster), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Anthony Hopkins (Odin), Christopher Eccleston (Malekith), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Stellan Skarsgard (Erik Selvig), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Algrim/The Kursed), Kat Dennings (Darcy Lewis), Jonathan Howard (Ian Boothby), Jaimie Alexander (Sif), Ray Stevenson (Volstagg), Zachary Levi (Fandral), Tadanobu Asano (Hogun), Rene Russo (Frigga).
Directed by Alan Taylor and written by Christopher L. Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely.
Rated PG-13 (intense sci-fi action/violence, suggestive content).
Released on November 8, 2013.