Set after the events of “The Avengers”, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is back on Asgard, and his scheming brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is now sentenced to imprisonment. A race of dark elves (led by Christopher Eccleston) poses a new threat with something called The Aether. And this is where Thor’s human acquaintance Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) comes in. An ill-advised investigation of some kind of wormhole/inter-dimensional portal has somehow seen Jane become possessed by The Aether. Thor has a plan to use Jane as bait for the dark elves, but unfortunately this means letting Loki loose and forming a shaky alliance with his untrustworthy brother. Their father Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins) has no knowledge of this plan, and won’t be happy when he finds out. Kat Dennings returns as Jane’s friend Darcy, with Stellan Skarsgaard back as their scientist colleague Erik, who has gone considerably nuts since we last saw him and has made a public spectacle of himself at Stonehenge. Chris O’Dowd has a cameo as a guy Jane is on a date with, but can’t seem to concentrate on him at all.
In what may be the biggest leap forward in quality from originator to sequel, this 2013 film from director Alan Taylor (who has directed episodes of the compelling “Game of Thrones”) is just good enough to earn a solid rating. Just. But given how mediocre (borderline poor) the original was, that’s one helluva jump forward in quality, believe me. In fact, it may be the mild best of these Marvel comic films of late, small praise as that is. The only things I really liked about the first film were the scenes on Asgard, and the solid villainy by Tom Hiddleston. Thankfully, this film is predominantly set on Asgard, and the film is all the better for it. The opening really grabbed me, not only with the otherworldly Vikings shooting lasers, but the genuinely good music score by Brian Tyler (“Frailty”, “The Expendables”). And true to form, Tom Hiddleston immediately steals the film as the treacherous Loki. Sir Anthony Hopkins is also in fine form here as patriarch Odin, making much more of his character than is perhaps on the page. There’s a sadness and a slight bit of madness to go with the gravitas he brings to the part. He, Loki, and Thor make for an interestingly warped, messed-up family dynamic, actually. The other standout here is Stellan Skarsgaard. As much as I prefer the film being on Asgard, I can’t deny that Skarsgaard’s every scene is hilarious. His character has clearly lost his mind, and apparently his clothes.
Stan Lee also gets one of his funniest cameos ever, too. I was also glad that the highly underrated and too little seen Rene Russo got more screen time (and dialogue) here than last time. I just wish her role was worth a damn. To be honest, though, I’m not sure Russo’s entirely right for a comic book fantasy setting. I personally would’ve cast Barbara Hershey or ideally Dame Helen Mirren. Then again, Mirren was terrible in “Caligula” and “Excalibur”, so perhaps not. Idris Elba doesn’t get a whole lot to do, but still manages to be the coolest guy in the film, whilst Ray Stevenson is more than able to play essentially the Brian Blessed ham and cheese special role.
The film looks positively stupendous, when on Asgard. This is a truly handsomely mounted film, with great set design and colour, and terrific special FX. The giant rock creature at the beginning is genuinely impressive, with great texture and seeming to have weight to it. There’s also a stunning Viking funeral, which I still say is the absolute best way to go out. I can’t claim to be an absolute expert on the specifics of the plot, but whilst on Asgard, things are gorgeous and not remotely boring. The whole time ripple thing is a bit “Star Trek”, and indeed there is a bit of a “Trek” feel to the film, with the dark elf villains in particular being bad arse “Trek”-like villains. Not a complaint. The director should be applauded for giving us action and spectacle without shaking the fuck out of the camera.
So it’s a shame that we have to spend some of our time on Earth with Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings. Sure, Chris O’Dowd has a fun cameo being all Chris O’Dowd, but as much as Portman survived the clunky dialogue of “Star Wars”, she completely flounders here. She looks bored, to be honest. Why sign on to make it then, sweetie? (Indeed, she was allegedly unhappy with the replacement of the originally intended director and tried to get out of the film to no avail. Most actors would try to hide their displeasure, however. I believe it’s called being professional). As for Dennings, she isn’t an actress. Like Jennifer Aniston, she has one act. It’s grating, and she’s not getting her jugs out, so I don’t care about her annoying, useless character. Yep, that wasn’t offensive at all. As for Chris Hemsworth, he continues to be the worst thing about the franchise. His dialogue is puerile, but Hemsworth is just awful and lacking in any charisma whatsoever. Taking an even more tongue-in-cheek approach to the role than last time, he pratfalls over his British accent, like a bad American host of “SNL” in an unfunny medieval sketch written by people who don’t like medieval history or fantasy. He really makes you appreciate someone like Viggo Mortensen all the more.
If you remove the Kat Dennings character and recast Thor, you’ve got yourself a terrific movie. As is, it’s undoubtedly a huge improvement over the first film, and certainly very watchable. Based on the Marvel comics and a story by Don Payne (who co-wrote the first film) and Robert Rodat (“Saving Private Ryan”), the screenplay is by the trio of Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (who wrote “Captain America: The First Avenger”, “Pain & Gain”, and the “Narnia” films), and Christopher L. Yost (who has a slew of comic book-based animated writing credits).