Something is rotten in Asgard, to which Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has returned with a vanquished but ever-sneering Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and where Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is throwing regular regal hissy fits. Perhaps Odin is troubled that his majestic realm is about to be overrun, not so much by aliens as by a second-rate Tolkien plot that revolves around an empowering dark matter (the Aether) that attaches itself to, of all people, Natalie Portman as top Earth scientist Jane Foster. The computer-enhanced villain is called Malekith—even the name is generic—and he wants to destroy the Nine Realms, which means he first has to suck the Aether out of Natalie—who is given to passing out, drifting into another dimension, and emitting crackles of energy.
I drifted off into the Aether myself while various CG armies whacked away at one another, but Thor: The Dark World gets a lot more entertaining in the second hour, when the shape-shifting Loki is sprung from his cell (for complicated reasons) and immediately begins trading bitchy insults with his forthright, manly brother. Many credited and (I’m sure) uncredited screenwriters have come onboard to punch up the banter and add good, deflating gags, like Thor having to board the London tube (“Mind the gap”) in the middle of an epic battle. That’s the series’ comic signature, and it’s a good one: high-flown Asgard declarations followed by earthy put-downs. Sometimes the balance is off and the movie tilts into camp (Kat Dennings as Portman’s high-strung assistant is an irritant), but when all is said and disintegrated, it delivers. At these prices, it better.
You can be sure that in the Comic Con-claves of the Internet, angry young men are even now debating the thorny issue of Thor’s kingship and why he doesn’t want it, and whether various minor Marvel characters have been given their due onscreen (obviously not). I wish them well. The rest of us can enjoy the ripe décor and luxuriant alienness of actors like Idris Elba and his great, horned helmet. Hiddleston stole the first Thor picture, but this time Hemsworth holds his own. I’ve been guilty of underrating him; he no longer seems like an overdressed lifeguard but an actor at one with his mythic accoutrements and worthy of his hammer. His voice is a thing of beauty—basso profundo with a rasp that adds an echo effect. He easily overpowers Hopkins, whose perorations are flat and cadences overfamiliar. Modern superheroes have an ironic, self-deprecating side, whereas Hemsworth is a true Marvel.
This review originally ran in the Nov. 11, 2013 issue of New York magazine.