I miss Kenneth Branagh. His directorial turn on "Thor" (2011) was a deft exploration of generational dysfunction and sibling rivalry dressed up in pseudo-Shakespearean pageantry.
There was a palpable sense of wonder in Mr. Branagh's depiction of arrogant Thor (Chris Hemsworth), imperious Odin (Anthony Hopkins), scheming Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the pantheon of Norse gods as they sorted out their conflicting loyalties and daddy issues. The disconnect between the gods of Asgard and the humans who once worshipped them was a source of genuine tension and humor throughout the film.
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman.
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content.
Everything from Asgard's celestial palaces to the icy plains of Jotunheim provided Mr. Branagh with a grand canvas with which to explore the human (and superhuman) condition.
Astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a human for whom Thor displayed an intense and inexplicable attraction was that movie's biggest false note last time out. Fortunately, her character had a relatively small role in a story that included a subplot involving S.H.I.E.L.D and cameos by several of Thor's future colleagues in the Avengers. She was completely missing from "Marvel's The Avengers," the biggest movie of 2012.
"The Avengers" served as a bridge between "Thor" and its far less satisfying sequel "Thor: The Dark World." Alan Taylor has replaced Mr. Branagh in the director's chair, but he lacks his predecessor's ease in balancing the humor, violence and otherworldliness that constantly threatens to break through into ordinary reality.
"Thor: The Dark World" opens with an ancient war between the original gods -- including Thor's grandfather -- and the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim led by the sinister Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). The Elves are defeated, but a contingent retreats with Malekith into a mystical state of hibernation that lasts thousands of years.
Fast forward to present day Asgard where Loki, in manacles because of his crimes against the throne of Odin and his complicity in the alien invasion of Earth in "The Avengers," continues to mock his brother and his foster father. Mr. Hiddleston supplies "Thor: The Dark World" with what little fun and surprise that it has by playing Loki as an incorrigible trickster who is one scheme away from claiming Odin's throne and Thor's birthright.
When Malekith and his henchman Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) re-emerge from their millennia-long nap refreshed and ready for Round II of their epic battle against Earth and Asgard, Thor recruits Loki to help defeat an enemy who wields a dark energy that somehow predates the birth of the universe.
Loki obliges, of course. As the most popular character in every Thor movie so far, the franchise wouldn't be possible without him, so leaving him in prison to pay for his various acts of treason and mass murder wouldn't make sense.
When Thor is reunited with Jane Foster after a two-year absence, the first thing she does is slap him for abandoning her to save the world. He then takes her to Asgard via an inter-dimensional flight through constantly shifting realities.
Instead of having her mind appropriately blown by the experience, Jane meets Loki and slaps him for his part in the invasion of New York. I was waiting for her to slap Odin, too, given his skepticism about the viability of her relationship with his son.
As in the first movie, audiences are left to wonder why Thor or anyone would prefer the barely 100-pound Jane to the statuesque and beautiful Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), a fellow Asgardian who wields her sword as well as he wields his hammer.
As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that as the noble young prince of Asgard, Thor's muscles are clearly bigger than his brain. We learn that even the Asgardians understand that they're basically super-powered mortals with 5,000-year life spans.
Why anyone who expects to live that long would want a lover with a mortal's normal life span is a mystery. Add it to this logistical conundrum: Why is Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge that connects Earth to Asgard, still out of commission two years after Thor destroyed it? Given that it is made out of light and energy, shouldn't it be easy for the Asgardians to reassemble?
Idris Elba returns as Heimdall, Asgard's eternally vigilant sentry who is able to see grass growing anywhere in the universe but unable to see the illogic embedded deeply in this movie's script. Rene Russo is also back in the thankless role as Odin's wife and Thor's mother, Frigga.
The battle scenes in "Thor: The Dark World" are interminable and muddy, thanks to the 3-D technology that makes everything look darker than it should. The subplot involving Stellan Skarsgard as Dr. Erik Selvig and Kat Dennings as Darcy is played mostly for laughs, but the funniest scene in the film involves a semi-cameo by an Avenger early on.
Although many in the audience will want to dash for the exits as the credits roll, they will be depriving themselves of two extra scenes that follow the closing credits. Still, even these scenes aren't enough to make up for what feels like a hammer dropped on our collective toes.