Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers) only one wasn't an origin story (Iron Man 2), the others simply tasked with setting the table. Where most franchises feel a greater freedom to take risks and shake things up in later installments, 'Phase Two,' as folks have taken to calling the studio's present slate of films, seems too inter-connected to dabble in such tomfoolery. With four films (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man), four TV shows (centered on Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage), and two more untitled flicks on the docket for 2016 and 2017, this is no time to be taking characters and potential plot developments off the board. As enticing as this multi-layered set-up is, the focus on the long game can make individual installments feel like they're just treading water. Oh, hello, Thor: The Dark World; we were just talking about you!
More so than in any previous Marvel entry, Thor: The Dark World's plot feels more like an excuse to hang out with characters we know and love than a proper page-turner. An alien species once again haunts the gods of Asgard, the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim filling the, 'weird-looking bad guy that we don't really care about,' slot previously occupied by the Frost Giants (Thor) and Chitauri (The Avengers). They have this red stuff ('the Aether'), you see, and it's very bad. So bad, in fact, that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must travel back to earth, reuniting with his lost love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and eventually being forced into a tenuous team-up with his lecherous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Scary guys try to pull the universe into a state of darkness, Thor swings his hammer, and there are two post-film snippets (one mid-credits, one after) that essentially tell us to buy more tickets to more movies.
In the name of fairness, the latest Thor does have its pleasures. Asgard, as seen in the first installment and this one, is the most visually engaging place that the MCU has yet taken us, all celestial wonderment, and gold. The film also has a solid sense of humor, and wisely commits a good deal of its obligatory climactic action sequence to coaxing laughter. Hiddleston is a lot of over-the-top fun as well, though those who claim that he, 'steals the show,' ought to reconsider their personal definitions of theft. The character of Thor gives Hemsworth precious-little to work with, Anthony Hopkins looks like he'd rather be taking a nap, and Portman's Astrophysicist still sounds curiously like a Valley Girl. Hiddleston's cast mates are kind of like those people who leave a big bowl of candy on their front door on Halloween with a sign that says, "Please take one": How could he not steal this movie?
Speaking of Portman, why is she is these movies, anyways? Carving out 20-plus minutes to have your muscly hero fall for a personality-free beauty is a faux-pas that a lot of action movies commit, but casting an Academy Award winner in the role only makes it worse. The whole audience knows Portman can act, and watching her stumble through these movies without a character or purpose to speak of is an unrelenting distraction. This is why the Megan Foxes of the world exist: because pure eye candy with an obvious brain isn't pure eye candy, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. Sorry for the aside, but her casting really takes me out of these movies, in a way that even Hopkins can't match. At least he immediately commands reverence and respect. They cast him as a king, right?
Look, this article isn't intended to be a total take-down of the latest Thor. The two hours pass briskly, are pleasant on the eyes, and I'll doubtlessly be in line for Captain America: The Winter Soldier this spring. Maybe that's just it; I've come to expect a certain level of quality from the guys behind this whole MCU thing, and Thor: The Dark World is one of their few entries to not quite make it. Unlike Iron Man 3, which was surprisingly open to diverging from the playbook, the god of thunder's latest romp is something far less inspiring: just another Thor movie.