There has been a worrying trend in recent years with Marvel comic book adaptations that needs to be discussed. As the films have reached blockbuster status time and again and the studio has positioned itself as a major Hollywood player with a focus specifically on big-budget superhero tentpoles, innovation and nuance have, more often than not, flown right out the window. Some of the movies are a little better than others, but they are also increasingly derivative and radically convoluted, each one a virtual remake of the last. 2002's "Spider-Man
" and its consistently terrific sequels, 2004's "Spider-Man 2
" and 2007's "Spider-Man 3
"all three directed by Sam Raimibrought not only grandeur to the fold, but also told emotionally viable, cleanly developed stories with characters who jumped off the page and came straight to life, not only as individuals, but as a multidimensional, fully formed unit. Since then, Marvel has put out, among others, 2008's diverting but unexceptional "Iron Man
" (and two lesser sequels), 2011's enjoyable but unexceptional "Thor
," 2011's meandering and unexceptional "Captain America: The First Avenger
," 2012's inferior also-ran and generally unexceptional "The Amazing Spider-Man
," and 2012's overstuffed, diverting but ultimately unexceptional "The Avengers
." What is the common denominator? A sinking sense that hundreds of millions of dollars are being thrown into a series of movies that have little palpable passion or vision behind them. Sure, they are popular and make a quick buck, but they also feel as if they are being made by committee, each one (with a few tweaks) the same as the last. Where is the wonder? Where is the irresistible excitement? Where is the genuine emotion that transcends flimsy prefabricated calculation? Where are the people on the screen who move beyond undercooked Screenwriting 101 constructs?
The initial "Thor
" got a pass because it did its job competently and appeared to be, as so many of these comic book pictures are, an origin tale with the suggestion that bigger, better and more thematically rich things were yet to come for the studly, blond-locked Norse prince of Asgard. "Thor: The Dark World" might technically be larger in scope, but it is also grindingly frivolous and pedestrian in the extreme. It isn't an obvious disaster, but its undeniable mediocrity is just as disappointing as if it were outright terrible. There is virtually nothing to differentiate this film from its like-minded predecessors and very little to inspire awe or swoons. The trips to otherworldly realms with names such as Asgard, Vanaheim and Svartalfheim either look like they are being filmed on sets and in costumes from "Xena: Warrior Princess" or are so overwhelmed by unconvincing CGI that they never get a chance to come alive as anything more than pretty but artificial desktop imagery. Meanwhile, the distaff love story between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and human astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has roughly the heat and complexity of a passing middle-school crush. Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, these two are not.
It has been two years since Jane has seen Thor. She is well aware of his exploits in New York Cityalongside Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye and Black Widow, he went to battle against his power-hungry brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and saved the world from a potentially catastrophic alien invasionand is now having a tough time moving on with her personal life. While working in London, Jane's discovery of a baffling anomaly that goes against the very laws of physics coincides with Thor's reappearance. Convergencethat is, the perfect metaphysical alignment of worldsis in the midst of taking place for the first time in thousands of years, opening a portal that sends Jane back to Thor's home in Asgard. A new war is about to be waged by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), the ruler of the Dark Elves who is determined to use a force known as the Aether to return the world to its state prior to creation. With this dangerous power now within Janelong storyThor has no choice but to seek a now-imprisoned Loki's help in stopping Malekith before it is too late and all is destroyed.
The first major directorial feature by Alan Taylor (TV's "Game of Thrones"), who took over when Patty Jenkins bowed out citing "creative differences," "Thor: The Dark World" continues Marvel's rut of unexceptional creative returns. Screenwriters Christopher L. Yost and Christopher Marcus & Stephen McFeely (2013's "Pain & Gain
") do not take things too seriously, and this is most likely a smart choice considering how ludicrous it sounds when written out in synopsis form. The best thing that can be said about the film is that, on occasion, it distracts one's attention and has a couple striking moments, the best occurring during a funeral procession along the waters of Asgard. If this scene is beatific to behold, it is lacking the necessary emotional weight that should come when a loved one passes away. Instead, said death is over and done with seconds later, bereft of any signs of resulting pathos. This inconsequentiality lurks throughout. The bad guys' motives of revenge and destruction are so very typical as to be wholly tedious. Malekith is exceedingly dull as far as villains go, and his crony, Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), is noteworthy solely for his resemblance to the "Predator" creatureonly with horns in place of dreadlocks. As the narrative spins its wheelsthe majority of the action takes place in the stuffily synthetic Asgardforward momentum proves to be a hot commodity as green screens smother the actors. Building proper thrills and excitement is out of Taylor's reach; unlike in a recent dazzling popcorn movie that lived up to its intentions, 2013's "Star Trek Into Darkness
," this one hasn't a single set-piece worth remembering as original, dynamic or prompting a quickening pulse. Suffice it to say, there will be no backsides creeping to the edges of seats.
The ensemble cast is harmed by the lackluster script. Chris Hemsworth (2013's "Rush
") is a magnetic presence in the title role, but Thor is pushed too often to the sidelines of his own story as an array of supererogatory supporting players vie for screen time. As Jane, Natalie Portman (2011's "No Strings Attached
") cannot shield her disinterest in this contractually obligated return engagement. Given next to nothing to sink her teeth into, Portman is forced to sulk around for much of the length, alternately looking serious and distracted. Her relationship with Thor is a non-starter, nearly impossible to feel anything for them as a couple. Reprising their roles as the antagonistic Loki and his and Thor's father, King Odin, Tom Hiddleston (2011's "War Horse
") and Anthony Hopkins (2012's "Hitchcock
") share a riveting exchange early on where they debate Loki's birthright, then get little to do beyond this. Kat Dennings (TV's "2 Broke Girls" and 2008's "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
") traverses a line that ranges from cloying to craftily amusing as Jane's self-deprecating assistant, Darcy, getting more to do this time than she did in the first "Thor
." She fares better than just about anyone else in sight.
"Thor: The Dark World" returns to London in time for a climax involving a giant space vessel and a chaotic battle and chase through energy shifts as Malekith seeks to use the convergence to obliterate the universe's nine realms. As this ensues, London conveniently looks to be deserted, the desolate cityscape their playground. Like all that has come before, it is overblown and flashy, but missing pizzazz, an experience of mounting indifference that comes too close for comfort in reminding of 2011's "Green Lantern
." Instead of racing to reach a release date, it would behoove Marvel Studios to start aiming for more than just the bragging rights of adding another leaden, threadbare $200-million notch to their belt.