There’s a fleet and funny comic-book movie buried inside “Thor: The Dark World.” You catch glimpses of it here and there, like a shot in which the Asgardian muscle-bound hero (Chris Hemsworth) enters a London flat and hangs his hammer on a coat rack as if it were an umbrella, or a clever sequence in which Thor’s villainous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who wreaked all kinds of evil in “The Avengers,” relishes the fact his older sibling is now asking for his help (how convenient). That scene gets the biggest laugh in the entire film.
But moments like those are rare. The bulk of this bloated, plodding sequel, which was written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the latter two wrote “Pain and Gain” and “Captain America: The First Avenger”) is just another riff about an ancient being, this one named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, unrecognizable under makeup), who wants to destroy the universe — all known universes, actually — as payback as for an ancient slight against his people. Wasn’t this stuff already old hat during the “Masters of the Universe” days?
The inherent problem in setting the stakes so high is that you know there is absolutely zero chance the bad guy will triumph. There’s no suspense, no stakes, no gravity. Sure, he may kill a few supporting characters along the way. But Marvel Studios is minting so much money off this fresh batch of superhero pictures, the annihilation of all existence as we know it is off the table, so Malekith’s villainy is essentially neutered.
Thor, both on the screen and on the page, has never been much for plausible physics, but “Thor: The Dark World” turns the series into a mish-mash of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” and “Lord of the Rings” and “Flash Gordon.” Is this science-fiction? Mythology? Pure nonsense? The only times we’re reminded we are dealing with supreme beings (not gods, as the movie makes clear) is whenever Odin (Anthony Hopkins, rocking that cool gold eye-patch) makes a long-winded speech while standing before his throne or striking a heroic pose. He does this a lot throughout the movie. Even the great Hopkins comes off as apologetic in those scenes.
The first “Thor” movie, directed in 2011 by Kenneth Branagh, managed to tie the realm of Asgard and its godly beings with ordinary people: Thor’s romance with the scientist Jane (Natalie Portman), was hokey but believable, because the movie found the perfect balance between the mythological and reality. You bought them as the most mismatched couple in the history of movies. The new picture, the feature-film debut of Alan Taylor (who directed some of your favorite episodes of “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos”), only comes to life when Taylor is allowed to do the absurdist humor he does best, like a scene in which Thor is forced to take the London subway. But the grandness of intergalactic war is beyond his reach: The film’s big action setpieces are generic and impersonal.
Hemsworth continues to pull off the impossible, investing a larger-than-life character with humanity and warmth — Thor is an immensely likable and relatable hero, which wasn’t always true in the comics — but he’s stranded in a story that has next to zero use of his innate likability. Portman and her kooky scientist friends (Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) come off as clowns — cheap comic reliefs to keep this oversized picture grounded in reality. But where in the first film they felt like real, quirky people, “Thor: The Dark World” turns them into buffoons.
“Thor: The Dark World” amounts to so little, even Marvel diehards could skip it altogether if it wasn’t for the last scene — the only truly surprising moment in the entire movie. At a time when Marvel Studios should be building on their previous successes and embarking on more challenging, complex narratives, “Thor: The Dark World” takes three steps back. The movie looks wonderful — the 3-D effects are remarkable — and Idris Elba remains strangely commanding as Heimdall, the gatekeeper of the Rainbow Bridge leading to Asgard. But the fact that the most interesting character in the entire film (Loki) plays a supporting role is proof there is trouble afoot.
“Thor: The Dark World” tries hard to give you something different than the first film. But all the movie accomplishes is to remind you how well the previous picture worked. This is a lot of state-of-the-art sound and fury, signifying nothing.