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Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Kat Dennings, Christopher Eccleston, Chris O’Dowd, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi and Jaimie Alexander.
Writers: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.
Director: Alan Taylor

Rating: 3/5

For a franchise so defined by its hulking he-man central figure, there is very little meat on the bone in Thor: The Dark World. Some tepid family drama, a wan romance and cutesy humour are the only vaguely human components director Alan Taylor and his boardroom of writers offer up; in every other respect, Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth’s third hammer-wielding turn as Asgard’s man-mountain golden boy exists entirely as a spectacular effects showcase.  

In that regard, the latest adventure from the Marvel movie universe is an artful vision of otherworldly kingdoms, gripped by feuding denizens representing both the light and dark of iconic mythology. Taylor (who has only a handful of indie features to his credit, the last being the little-seen 2003 drama, Kill The Poor) may seem an odd choice as helmer of such a statuesque tentpole pic. But his impressive list of top-tier TV work (most tellingly, recent multiple episode arcs on Game of Thrones) reflects the vast, murky landscapes and imperial grandeur that are ever-present here.

Unfortunately, what is missing are the richly-drawn protagonists and compelling plotting that distinguish the best from the rest amongst these studio behemoths. Fans will turn out in droves and lap up the familiarity of their heroes and accompanying visuals (despite some occasionally blurry 3D work), but there is very little by way of fresh characterisations or involving action. In all fairness, nor was their in Kenneth Brannagh’s camp 2011 first go-round for the characters; one senses that the indestructible righteousness of the titular hero sucks the wriggle-room out of any nuanced narrative opportunities. 

Beneath a sculptured mass of make-up artistry is Christopher Eccleston as Malekith, the seething overseer of the demonic Dark Elves. From a noisy prologue we know they seek out a planet-engulfing power source called Aether, a swirling red/black mass that was thought to be buried far beyond reach but which, heaven’s above, has somehow becomed entangled within the molecular/soulful essence of Thor’s earthbound girlfriend, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, playing far below her skill and industry stature).

With only Jane standing between his brutal domination of the Nine Realms, Malekith launches an assault upon Asgard (one of the film’s highlights), forcing Thor to enlist the aid of the one man in this alternate universe he dare not trust – his adopted brother and bitter rival, Loki (Tom Hiddleston, in fine form). Back in London, Jane’s tart-mouthed 2IC Darcy (Kat Dennings, all pouty and smart-ass) and mentor Dr Selvig (the film’s biggest asset, Stellan Skarsgard) play their part to save our world and Thor’s universe.

So comfortable in his role as to appear entirely natural in otherwise supernatural surroundings, Hemsworth has some well-staged moments with Anthony Hopkins, returning as his father Odin, and the always reliable Rene Russo as his mother Frigga. But it is meagre melodrama that clearly exists to simply move the film to its big-bang finale. Other returning faces (Idris Elba as Heimball; Jaimie Alexander as Sif) and newcomer Chris O’Dowd as Jane’s normal-guy paramour, are lost amidst the mayhem.

As appears to be the duty of any critic providing coverage of a Marvel episode, be advised that two separate ‘teaser’ scenes amongst the closing credits. Which I know many find exciting, but somehow leaves me feeling the selling of the franchise is a never-ending loop. Perhaps Thor: The Dark World would have played better if it didn’t ultimately reveal itself as just another stepping stone toward Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and so on… 

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