"Thor: The Dark World," the uninspired, yet slick new product off the Disney-Marvel-movie assembly line, hammers home the point that the "Thor" franchise is the weakest in the Marvel repertoire, just as the character himself is the least interesting of his fictional counterparts.
With a bigger budget, but without offering anything new, "The Dark World" rehashes the same emotional and comedic beats that defined the first movie.
But that's not for lack of talent, something the film has in great abundance. All of the key players from the first round are back-Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, the wonderful Tom Hiddleston and of course, the man himself, Chris Hemsworth as Thor.
A still from “Thor:?The Dark World” shows Thor (Chris Hemsworth, left) with his father, King Odin of Asgard (Anthony Hopkins).
Hemsworth has a formidable screen presence, manifested by his natural ability to shift between warm irreverence and godlike wrath. His booming voice, when pushed to its highest register, crackles like lightning, making even the most risible dialogue menacing.
And at times, when the busy plot settles down for a few moments, Hemsworth's intense stoicism and seemingly unattainable, almost inhuman physique, make us believe Thor is torn from the pages of myth, and not from a comic book.
In one scene, a shirtless, brawny Thor broods over a balcony that faces a great body of water. Framed from low and behind, it's a heartthrob image that elicits the appropriate response from the audience, but it's also a quiet, earnest depiction of an archetype whose immense power is rendered pointless against impossible odds, odds dictated by a plot so generic that it's virtually the same thing as the prologue that sets it up.
The film opens with Thor's father, King Odin of Asgard (Anthony Hopkins), explaining that a long, long time ago, a Dark Elf named Malekith attempted to cover the universe in eternal darkness by way of an ineradicable, red-and-black, stringy substance called the Aether.
But before he could do so, Odin's father and his army managed to conquer Malakith's forces and hide the Aether within a stone column somewhere in the universe. His army defeated and his weapon gone, Malakith narrowly escaped, waiting eons for the right time to strike back.
Cut to the present day. Jane Foster (Portman), an astrophysicist and Thor's love interest, investigates some anomalous quantum activity on Earth and inadvertently stumbles onto a portal into another dimension, the same dimension in which the Aether has been trapped for so long. Movie critics might call it contrived plotting, the layman, a coincidence. But the characters call it fate.
The substance latches onto Foster and becomes a part of her, drawing Malakith to its presence. The rest of the film follows Thor's attempts to protect Foster and vanquish Malakith. To do so, Thor must risk allowing his evil, untrustworthy brother, Loki (Hiddleston), to help him.
The stakes are on a universal scale, but you wouldn't know it from the way most of the characters act. Perhaps the film's most defining trait is not its expensive, yet vacuous set design, or its epic sibling rivalry, or even its interdimensional action climax, but rather, its sense of humor.
The film always has time to crack a joke despite immediate threats, riffing on the same stranger-in-a-strange-land comedy of the first film.
In one scene on Earth, Thor hangs his hammer on a coat rack. Cue laughter. In another, fully clad in Asgardian armor, he rides shotgun in a dilapidated station wagon. Cue laughter. Even the romance isn't given the weight it deserves considering how Thor and Jane's relationship is crucial to the fate of the universe.
Here is a film too funny for its own good, unable to find the right balance between self-seriousness and self-mockery, a film so light-hearted and easily digested that its unmemorability is cause for repeat viewings.
But ultimately, "Thor: The Dark World" is a franchise-feeder, existing only to remind audiences that a sequel is inevitable, as is a new property in the Marvel universe teased in one of those cryptic mid-credits sequences that have become so ubiquitous among these movies that they're no longer a novelty, but rather the sole reasons for the two-hour spectacles that precede them.