There is exactly one reason to see Thor: The Dark World, and his name is Tom Hiddleston. Save for his too-brief supporting turn, this is mighty forgettable stuff, a by-the-numbers sequel to what was already the slightest and least entertaining of the Avengers components (sorry, Iron Man 2 haters). But Hiddleston, whose Loki was enjoyable in the initial outing and even better in The Avengers, is on fire here. From his first appearance, standing before his parents in chains and purring, “Hello mother, have I made you proud?,” he demands your attention, flashing his wickedly playful eyes and that distinctive grin/sneer hybrid. He’s stealing the picture — and he knows it.
It’s a shame that the rest of the movie is such a drag, so bereft of the actor’s seemingly contagious sense of play. It opens with a particularly drab prologue, in which Anthony Hopkins (in yet another of his dispirited paycheck performances) mouths inanities about “the power of the ether” and “the noble armies of Asgard,” and never really recovers; after the fast pace and chewy wit of The Avengers and Iron Man 3, it’s a lumbering showcase for empty spectacle (albeit damaged by the mere bad luck of following a summer of particularly exhausting punch-punchy-boom-boom).
To be sure, some attempt is made at characterization and narrative. We initially find poor Thor (Chris Hemsworth) about as emo as he gets, burdened by “a confused and distracted heart” that is still set on Jane Foster — and that’s weirdly how she’s always referenced, as “Jane Foster.” Jane Foster is played by Natalie Portman, who reportedly tried to exit the film with its initial director, Patty Jenkins, but was obliged by her contract to return. It’s not that she looks like a hostage in it or anything, but you can only imagine how thrilled she must’ve been to again play such a bland Pretty Ingénue role and deliver lines like “You told your dad about me?” (Ladies, am I right?)
The plot finds Jane Foster discovering a wormhole and rather inexplicably ending up with a long-buried dark force within her, or something. In order to save her and pull the force from her, Thor must bring her back to his world, so this time the fish-out-of-water formula is reversed, making Thor: The Dark World the Marvel equivalent of “Crocodile” Dundee II.
To its credit (and as was the case with Kenneth Branagh’s original), the picture is a triumph of production design, its giant sets and mythical creatures impressive and convincing, and if it’s going to conclude with yet another sequence of massive metropolitan destruction, at least they’re inventive enough to do it within shifting dimensions. But it’s almost entirely a film to look at, rather than one to engage with. And seldom have so many charismatic actors been given so little of interest to do, from Idris Elba’s glowering Heimdall to Rene Russo’s boilerplate caring-mother to the personality-minus villain, whom I’d have never placed as Christopher Eccleston were it not for the closing credits.
But one mustn’t undervalue the Hiddleston. Thor and Loki’s complicated sibling rivalry dynamic remains fertile ground, and there’s a real sense of spontaneity and danger — sorely lacking elsewhere — when they team up (“You must be truly desperate to come to me for help,” Loki chuckles), since we don’t actually know which way he’ll go. And there is one wonderful shot, in which Loki reacts to a tragedy, which is understated and marvelously effective. But his is decidedly a supporting role, and when he exits the film, our interest follows. For the remainder of its running time, Thor: The Dark World is a throwaway summer movie out three months too late.