In the interest of full disclosure, I need to admit that the Kenneth Branagh's 2011 Thor was my favorite Marvel movie, surpassing my like of Whedon's Avengers. I realize that for most, that movie wasn't the best, but like Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk, I found that the film's focus on the characters as opposed to the action really made me pay more attention. Thor's relationship with both Loki, his brother, and Odin, his father, made him vulnerable. It was, for me, the perfect approach to a story about a god.
Which is why I was a little iffy that Branagh wasn't coming back for the character's second Marvel Film outing, Thor: The Dark World. Instead, Alan Taylor, was hired to do the directing chores. I'd never heard of the guy, but a quick look at IMDB shows that this was his feature debut. Before this, Mr. Taylor's filmography was television, episodes of Mad Men and Sex and the City. He also did several Game of Thrones episodes, so there was a chance this wouldn't turn out like total crap (see X-Men Origins: Wolverine or Ghostrider: Spirit of Vengeance).
If you're not familiar with the story, Thor is the god of thunder, son of Odin, the king of Asgard, home of the gods. His foster brother, Loki, fresh from his attempted takeover of Midgard (Earth), has been imprisoned in the dungeons of Asgard while Thor quells an uprising in Vanaheim. Jane Foster, a woman who Thor met and fell in love with in the first film, is still trying to find a way to reach him in Asgard, and stumbles upon an ancient evil that was buried on Earth (or something) eons ago by Thor's grandfather. When the Asgardians' enemies, the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim, discover that their secret weapon, the Aether, is awake, they set their sites on Asgard to take it back.
I was very encouraged by the trailers of the movie when they came out. The art direction looked great, and the fact that most of the cast returned was a promising thing. I also liked that Christopher Eccleston was cast as the Dark Elves' leader, Malekith. Eccleston is still my favorite Doctor Who, and I was thinking that he'd make for an excellent villain.
The film didn't quite live up to my hopes, though.
It's a fine movie, don't get me wrong. There's a ton of really great stuff in here, from the humor, to the actors, to the awesome art direction, and the fantastic effects work: the list goes on. However, the sum of the parts doesn't resonate the way either the fist Thor did, or entertain like Avengers did. There were just too many nagging things that drew me out of the movie.
The biggest thing that I didn't really buy the Thor and Jane romance.
How can I say that when both of these guys are absolutely adorable? It's not that either Chris Hemsworth or Natalie Portman are bad actors, but it felt like there was so much else going on that the filmmakers failed to sell me on the idea. Any time Thor meets Jane in Thor: The Dark World, something came up and they're dealing with some threat to either Earth or Asgard. The necessary time needed to get the audience to actually care about the relationships wasn't there.
The same happens with Thor and Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Thor and Frigga (Rene Russo returns as Thor's mother), Thor and Sif, or Thor and just anyone. Again, it's not that anyone of the actors was failing at their job (c'mon, Anthony FREAKIN' Hopkins), but that there wasn't any time to really sell it. It felt like the only screen time anyone really got with Hemsworth was Tom Hiddleston, who plays Thor's foster brother, Loki. The whole second act feels like the Thor and Loki Show.
Problem being, we've seen that before in both Thor and Avengers. Sibling rivalry, blah, blah, blah. Loki's entertaining, but you're wasting all those awesome Dark Elves here.
I hate to say this, but Hiddleston and the rest of the Warrior's Three, Frigga, maybe even Odin for the most part, should have been left behind. If this was going to be a Thor and Jane story, let it be a Thor and Jane story. FOCUS. Bringing back everyone (except for Josh Dallas who played Fandral in the first one and is replaced by Chuck's Zachary Levi in this one) for the sequel means that you have to give everyone their little scene. with nine or ten characters coming back and four or five minutes apiece, plus all the new faces (I swear, why is Alice Kirge even in this film? She has one line)... we'll you see how the story can meander.
On the bright side of things, we do get to see a lot more of Asgard this time around.
The effects guys working on this outdid themselves with the virtual sets. Asgard looks completely glorious; bright and shining, and wonderful. Nothing like the stark over-developed mega city of Coruscant in the Star Wars prequels or the barren, arid caverns of Oa in the Green Lantern movie. It really is fantastic, and I'm sorry I didn't see it in 3-D.
We also get to stop back into Jotunheim, home of the Frost Giants, Vanaheim, to visit with Hogun (Tadanobu Asano, who returns for his aforementioned five minutes onscreen), Midgard of course to visit with both Darcy (Kat Dennings) and Dr. Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), and Svartalfheim,where the former king of Asgard has razed everything to the ground and killed off an entire race.
Sad to say, but I think that the bar for superhero movies has been raised so far now by the like of Avengers and The Dark Knight Rising that studios won't bankroll smaller stories any longer, which is what I think this should have been. People who don't read comics might not know this, but the good stories are often the smaller ones, focused on a fewer people. More than I remember Death of Superman, I remember the aftermath and how it affected the supporting cast and other heroes. Marvel's Civil War involved the entire planet, but the most memorable story from that was Iron Man's confession to Steve Roger's corpse that the conflict wasn't worth the cost. The self-contained Joss Whedon run on Astonishing X-Men was better than all the huge multi-title crossovers that have come since.
That was the kind of story I was hoping for here, and the kind we got with the first film; something more personal. We know that there will be little room for character development in the upcoming action spectacular that is Avengers 2 coming in 2015, so it's perfect to save it for the individual franchises.
It looks like Captain America: Winder Soldier might tackle some nice issues like that next year, so I'm eager to see if that one does a better job. Thor: The Dark World failed to do it for me.