** (out of four)
When Thor (Chris Hemsworth) first appears in “Thor: The Dark World,” he’s dominating a battle in Vanaheim (home of Visneyland?) and destroys the Rock—er, a monster that resembles a walking rock collection—with a single hammer smash to the face. It’s easy. Too easy.
That’s part of why, despite Hemsworth’s perfect casting, I again have tried and failed to care about the Marvel comics superhero whose contributions to 2012’s “The Avengers” identified him as a useful team player. Largely on his own in 2011’s dull “Thor” and now in “The Dark World,” Thor, his mighty torso and his powerful-enough-to-turn-anyone-into-a-badass weapon lack vulnerability. Fans may say, “But he’d risk his life for Jane (Natalie Portman)!” These movies make me think how lovely Thor and Jane’s kids would be but not how majestically dreamy their bond is.
Following his previous battle with the underwhelming Frost Giants, Thor now copes with Dark Elves who return in pursuit of aether, an evil power that looks like possessed, flying red wine. Seriously, this is the main villain and the world-destroying force at work. The film also grows complicated rather than engrossing as multiple worlds move toward the convergence they achieve every 5,000 years. That unlikely coincidence isn’t the only bad luck here: Thor’s throne-craving bro Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was the juiciest character in “The Avengers,” but he spends much of “The Dark World” in jail. It’s as rewarding as when Lisbeth Salander lay around in bed in “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Next.”
Better used in a small dose is one of the Avengers (no, I won’t ruin who) in a brief, self-parodying cameo; it’s the film’s most effortlessly fun moment. Otherwise, a few strong images from new director Alan Taylor notwithstanding, “The Dark World” becomes the latest expensive approximation of entertainment that equates destruction with eye-popping splendor.
Not that things get better when the dust settles. Anthony Hopkins returns as King Explains-A-Lot for some of the film’s many conversations that unfold as intense bickering elevated to big shouting and returning to serious assertions. And none of the instances when the script’s a little funny involve Kat Dennings (returning as Jane’s snarky assistant), who again clearly thinks she’s hilarious but registers only as obnoxious. How this annoying one-trick pony continues to get work I have no idea.
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