The best moment in Thor: The Dark World is when one of his fellow Avengers makes an unexpected and amusing cameo. That isn’t necessarily to speak ill of Alan Taylor’s superhero sequel as much as to applaud the tenacity of Marvel’s cinematic empire: the cross-promotion and hype-building that goes on in every film is simply astounding. Remember to keep your bum on seat during the credits; as always, there’s a delicious little teaser of what’s to come in this universe’s future. The worldwide audience is exemplified in the Greenwich student who, during the film’s climactic battle scene, rebuffs Jane’s (Natalie Portman) warning to flee with, “Are you kidding? That’s Thor out there! Waving his hammer and everything!” Well, until the enormous windows shatter and rain glass down on all the excited observers.
Trouble with this sequel is, unlike how Kenneth Branagh’s original revelled in plonking the Asgardian prince down on Earth and mining the fish out of water comedy, The Dark World makes its main preoccupation the ‘Nine Realms’ of the universe which Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been tasked with safekeeping. While Taylor’s conception of Asgard is fuller and more coherent than Branagh’s, it also betrays the film’s defaulting to a more archetypal superhero film, one that reduces its characters to much more stereotypical roles than they were previously. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is as tauntingly fun as ever, but he’s not the main villain here, and for much of the film is locked moodily in a cell.
Instead, Thor has to combat Malekith (an unrecognisable Christopher Ecclestone), leader of the Dark Elves, who once tried to darken the universe with the power of the Aether, a liquid red energy source. In scenes eerily reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, Thor’s ancestor prevents that and buries the Aether ‘where it can never be found’. But, as the Convergence of the Nine Realms approaches, portals spring up across the universe. Jane, sucked into one of them, becomes the host body for the buried Aether, and when the elves emerge from their hibernation, they head straight for her.
As superhero plots go, it’s actually fairly straightforward: a game of cat-and-mouse ensues as Thor commits treason to take Jane to the Dark World and lure Malekith to those black deserts. Loki’s wildcard involvement makes for some clever bluffing in these sequences, but the film itself is never more visually dull that when on the dark, empty desert world. By planting himself firmly off Earth for most of the film, Taylor mires himself in a CGI world that’s too alien for an audience to be truly invested in – one surprisingly poignant scene aside.
That in turn makes the sequences on Earth seem rushed. Kat Dennings still sparks as Jane’s intern Darcy, though the script has supply her with her own intern just so she has someone to riff off in Jane’s absence. But the climax in Greenwich feels rather perfunctory, as if Taylor or the screenwriters felt bound to bring the action back to Earth, rather than thinking out a fuller expanse of the plot. There’s an inherent lack of detail and care; character is sacrificed for grandeur, charm for action. If this is the way Marvel are heading, the cinema will be even darker than usual.