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If there's box office dollar out there, the chances are good that it's being gobbled up by a force in the universe that today seems unopposed: Marvel. The popular comic brand of the 1960s exploded into a huge range of characters and (often interlocking) storylines, but I remember a time when Marvel film rights went begging, or were tied up in legal wrangles. A Spiderman project ended up at of all places Cannon Films, which for years tried and failed to launch a movie. That three-decade battle seems to have paid off for the Mighty Marvel masked heroes -- the lesser-known creations of DC haven't fared nearly as well.
The first Thor feature ran the Steve Reeves/Hercules-like plot of a God who becomes mortal to find true love. He also meets the secret spy organization SHIELD. In a way, the mega-hit The Avengers is also an official part of the Thor series.
Having so much power and control allows Marvel to work out their shows five and six steps in advance, providing more continuity for their informed fans and making every attendee feel like an insider participant in the Marvel world. The only other franchise with this kind of continuity is the 007 James Bond series, and it never bothered to maintain actor/character consistency. In 2013's sequel Thor: The Dark World, all of the main characters return to the screen played by the same actors, as if both films were shot at the same time. The movie is a lightweight sword/sorcery/dimension warp epic. But Marvel's knack for amusing characters pays off with some surprisingly effective actor moments.
In the Thor storyline, rugged Thor (Chris Hemsworth) comes from the Scandinavian fantasy kingdom Asgaard where huge armies seem continually at battle. All are beefy bruisers carrying swords, but we also sample strange energy weapons. Carried over directly from the first film is Thor's charming but hissably treacherous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who is under house arrest after plotting against Thor (and in The Avengers, stretching his villainous ambitions to conquer the Earth. Now Thor and Loki's father Odin, a wise but elderly warrior king (Anthony Hopkins) must find a way to fight a Dark Elf named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who wishes to take back "the nine realms" and reestablish a reign of evil that existed before the time of Asgaard. (This all sounds like Tolkien with two pinches of H.P. Lovecraft.) Malekith wants to retrieve a long-lost source of 'dark power' called the Aether. The nasty Malekith needs the evil substance so he'll be able to take advantage of a cosmic alignment even coming up called The Convergence. The Aether has been locked away in a hidden cave for eons (aeons?) but through an uncanny coincidence Thor's mortal Earth girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Darcy (Kat Dennings) discover it first, through a dimension-portal-thingy they find in a disused factory. The problem is that the Aether invades Jane's body. Thor takes Jane back to Asgaard, but cannot rid her of the evil presence that can be seen swirling under her skin.
Hemsworth's Thor is a likeable straight man, more akin to a true-blue DC hero than the slightly neurotic super folk in the Marvel stable. We're surprised that one of his arms isn't longer than the other, from dragging that hammer Mjolnir with him wherever he goes. Thor can use the hammer to 'fly' via the patented Popeye method: he simply hurls it in the direction he wants to go and hangs on for dear life. As every five year-old kid doubtlessly knows by now, when tossed the hammer also returns like a magic boomerang. This leads to some nifty, hilarious scenes of the hammer flying between dimensions trying to catch up as Thor and Malekith bounce between London and the Never-neverland of Asgaard.
Natalie Portman is acceptable as the 'scientist' who somehow possesses a lot of nifty equipment allowing her to detect and track dimensional disturbances. Her somewhat comic scenes with another beau and her nervy assistant Darcy are no winners, but are perky enough to get by. Goofy professor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgaard) was made batty by Loki, and is still having difficulty keeping his eccentricities in check. He's around mostly to deliver exposition, so is also not particularly exciting.
Things pick up character-wise in Asgaard, where we soon realize that little appearances by Thor's-buddies from the first film have been shoehorned in, even when there's not much for them to do. Formidable female warrior Sif (Jamie Alexander) is deeply in love with Thor. Were this straight Norse mythology, Sif would be an Earth Goddess, and thunder god Thor's wife. Rene Russo is very effective as Thor's stalwart mother, and quite beautiful. I expected to see Anthony Hopkins coasting through the part of the gruff old monarch just to collect his paycheck, but the actor gives the role exceptional shadings and special touches. The old gent with the copper eye patch and sad face is a really decent character. Finally there's Tom Hiddleston's Loki, a marvelous part. Loki is to Asgaard what Mordred is to Camelot, only his facetious remarks and constant mocking humor mask a great disappointment. Loki is so untrustworthy that his parents keep him locked up in a high-tech prison cell. When he's given a chance to help Thor defeat the bad guys, the movie comes alive. We constantly wonder when Loki will revert to his rotten bad habits.
Thor: The Dark World is a big-scale Marvel production, which means that whole worlds, giant cities, fantastic flying machines and strange phenomena are never off the screen. The movie is one long CGI effect, which essentially means that it's an animated cartoon. It's obvious that 12-year-old boys will love all the sword battles (which come at regular 9-minute intervals) even though they're repetitious, optimized for zero credibility and devoid of nasty consequences. When a leading character gets wounded, the whole movie stops to notice, but hundreds of warriors die in these anonymous combat scenes. Being a Super Warrior means never having to say you're sorry... In a way this goes against the psychological bent of the best of Marvel -- the story takes us back to the (yawn) eternal struggle between good and evil, which can only be resolved through violent action.
When the fantasy elements kick in, Thor: The Dark World fares much better. The costumes are truly impressive. The swirly red Aether is arresting, and the sudden transportations between our world and Asgaard become a dizzy source of excitement. Various elements in the story remind me of parts of Buckaroo Banzai, such as the spaceship that launches by busting out of a building and a clear correlation between goofy scientists Stellan Skarsgaard and John Lithgow. One funny bit of business with some car keys takes us right back to Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. The finale isn't exactly world-class, but the character arcs work out very satisfactorily.
The movie finishes with a cliffhanger to set up the next sequel. And only those paying close attention to happenings in the Marvel universe will know what the 'surprise' scene at the end with Benecio del Toro is all about -- it's a teaser for Marvel's upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy.
Walt Disney Studios' Home Entertainment's Blu-ray of Thor: The Dark World is the expected flawless presentation of 2013's big Marvel attraction. A package with a 3-D disc is available as well.
The extras will not disappoint the fans. One of the featurettes concentrates on the brotherly antagonism, with appropriate remarks by the actors. About 7 deleted scenes show up in unfinished form, sometimes with supervisor or director notes at the bottom of shots ordering changes. People will also find giggles in the Gag Reel provided.
The Marvel One-Shot short film this time is All Hail the King, which finds our old friend The Mandarin from Iron Man 3 doing his best to get along in a high security prison. Ben Kingsley is always amusing. Marvel's policy of doing these (admittedly promotional) short subjects is noteworthy -- what other studio / filmmaker / franchise is so eager to keep its fan base guessing at what's coming next? It's wonder that the Marvel creations are top draws at all those comic conventions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Thor: The Dark World Blu-ray rates:
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.