Of all the superheroes in the current Marvel universe, the funniest is Thor. A Norse god armed with a Viking helmet, a stone hammer and the pectorals of a Eurasian elk, he's the walking embodiment of Wagner's "Ring" cycle remixed with Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." Transporting this long-haired brute into our sleek new millennium has great potential for comedy -- but Disney-Marvel seems to have other ideas.
"Thor" is turning out to be their least amusing franchise. The first film, 2011's "Thor," had glimmers of wit: Chris Hemsworth, in the title role, donned dirty denim and a flannel shirt to become a kind of Soundgarden superhero, while director Kenneth Branagh tried to keep the overall tone breezy (with mixed success). The sequel, however, barely cracks a smile. "Thor: The Dark World," unfortunately, makes good on its portentous title.
The returning cast members still seem willing to horse around, but several Marvel screenwriters and new director Alan Taylor (of HBO's "Game of Thrones") quickly beat the fun out of them. This "Thor" is a giant rock pile of backstory and exposition, told in flowery, Tolkien-esque language, about the alien Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who wants to destroy the universe. He plans to unleash the Aether, a mercurial substance of untold evil, during a rare planetary convergence.
It's about as dull as it sounds, and "Thor" compounds the problem by explaining the details at length. Thor argues about strategy with his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins, orating in King Lear mode), then joins forces with his devious brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston, again stealing what show there is). That leaves little time for Thor's would-be girlfriend, scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who mostly stands around looking pained. Kat Dennings and Chris O'Dowd contribute a bit of modern-day snark, and Stellan Skarsgård is the suddenly loony physicist Erik Selvig, a comic-relief role that ill suits the great actor.
The tiresome climax -- a race to close a wormhole, which Thor just did in last year's "The Avengers" -- is unforgivable, especially after such a long slog through so much interplanetary nonsense. The movie ends with an unfunny setup for a sequel, which makes Thor's next world look even darker.
PLOT The hammer-swinging superhero must stop an ancient villain from obliterating the universe.
RATING PG-13 (action, brief gruesome imagery)
CAST Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston
BOTTOM LINE Moldering dialogue and intergalactic nonsense add up to what feels like an interminable session of Dungeons & Dragons. Thor can't hammer his way out of this one.
CHRIS HEMSWORTH HAMMERS OUT LEADING MAN ROLES
Although it's been only two years since he first picked up Thor's hammer, Chris Hemsworth, who once again plays the god of thunder in "Thor: The Dark World," opening today, has become a sought-after leading man working with directors including Ron Howard (the racing biopic "Rush," which came out in September, and the upcoming whaling epic "Heart of the Sea") and Michael Mann (the computer-hacking drama "Cyber," due out next year).
The actor said that pursuing dramatic roles in other projects has helped him find renewed energy to bring to his Marvel alter ego, a character he could potentially reprise in a third "Thor" movie and two "Avengers" sequels. That energy and renewed commitment certainly appeared to be useful as Hemsworth, sporting a faux wound on his temple, picked up his hammer and prepared to head back to set.
"I started my career on TV -- I was on one show in particular for three years -- so I know what it's like to just exhaust a story or a character," he said. "I wouldn't want that to happen with this. So far, so good."
-- Los Angeles Times