Thor: The Dark World

November 8, 2013

Thor: The Dark World is the latest entry in the Marvel superhero film franchise, and a sequel to 2011’s Thor. The hammer-wielding Teutonic titan is strong enough to anchor a film, but unfortunately this Thor gets bogged down with disparate, labyrinthine cosmologies before it can really get going. The most basic is the familiar superhero milieu, populated by the likes of Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Avengers, the Hulk, and so on. It’s heroes, supervillians, and world-saving exploits of derring-do.

Layered on top of that we have an anomaly even in the superhero genre: Norse gods. Thor is of course the Norse god of thunder (though the film suggests that he and the other gods are mortal). I’ve always felt it was a bit unfair to include an actual god to fight along with fallible, flesh-and-blood superheroes like Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Green Arrow-he is a god, after all, and has innate supernatural powers far beyond anything we puny humans could hope for. It’s sort of like bringing a nuclear bomb to a knife fight.

But hold on, we’re not done yet. Not only is Thor: The Dark World a superhero/god movie, but it is also a science fiction film, complete with aliens and spaceships. (Yes, I’m aware that aliens and spaceships are part of the Marvel universe, though they are used sparingly except for characters with extraterrestrial origins such as the Silver Surfer.) So we also have scenes of spaceships and laser guns that seem on loan from a Star Wars or Star Trek movie.

But wait, we’re not done, because elves also appear. Yes, pointy-eared elves who seemingly wandered onto the set from a Lord of the Rings casting session show up to reclaim some misty supernatural Aether they tried to use millennia ago to destroy the universe. By the way, the film takes place in London, in space, on Thor’s home world of Asgard, and on one or more of the Nine Realms or homeworlds of Norse mythology. This anachronistic mishmash results in Asgardian infantry bearing medieval armor, shields, and swords being shot at with lasers by elves in spaceships and sometimes retaliating with godlike powers. It really is a bit of a mess.

Astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) somehow figures out something about how a rare alignment of the Nine Realms is soon to happen, and when all the stars and planets and whatever are in exactly the right position it opens some sort of interdimensional portal between the worlds. Foster slips through one of these portals, gets infected with the evil Aether energy capable of destroying the world. This requires Thor (Hemsworth) to help her, while battling the elves, and freeing his half-brother Loki from jail (because for some unexplained reason he’s the only one who knows how to secretly leave Asgard). This all comes together because, because….

Because, well, you see–actually I don’t really know, and I’m pretty sure no one else does either, including screenwriters Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Don Payne, and Robert Rodat. This parade of hacks, mostly drawn from the television world and Chronicles of Narnia adaptations, are a big part of the reason that Thor fails to soar. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and too many writers spoil the plot. Thor: The Dark World seems written by a committee whose members had different ideas about where the story would go and thus threw everything in but the kitchen sink.

Chris Hemsworth is beefy and dreamy as Thor, and Tom Hiddleston appears as the treacherous Loki. The two are fine, though the talented Natalie Portman is largely wasted as Thor’s love interest, scientist Jane Foster. The clunky pseudoscientific gibberish her character is forced to say must have galled the Harvard-educated Portman, as her twaddle dialogue makes Deepak Chopra seem like Neil deGrasse Tyson. Foster runs around babbling sciencey-sounding phrases about gravity anomalies, quantum physics, and parallel universes. I know it’s just a comic book superhero movie, but just because a film is fiction doesn’t mean that scientist characters in that film can’t speak intelligently about real science. If a character is a lawyer, we expect his dialogue to show knowledge of law; if a character is a doctor, we expect her dialogue to reflect medical knowledge. Foster sounds like someone who learned science from a five-minute skim of Wikipedia.

Or perhaps she really is on the top of her game; according to the science of the film at the climactic ending, any scientific device that can detect a phenomenon can also create it (and can apparently do so by simply flicking a switch or maybe putting the batteries in backwards). Thus smoke detectors can create smoke, radar detectors can create radar, and seismometers can create earthquakes if you just hook them up right. Seems legit. The plot is a potpourri of woo familiar to most skeptics, from Stonehenge to ley lines to cataclysm-inducing planetary alignments.

Thor: The Dark World is a beautiful mess. There’s far too much going on in the film, too many characters and subplots. The film credits legions of visual effects artists, animators, compositors, and others (seriously-when you stay through the credits for a few “extra” scenes, see how the entire screen is filled with special effects credits). It is an amazing looking film, and I couldn’t help but imagine the years of man-hours spent on all those eye-popping computer-generated effects. And then I thought of what a shame it was that all that effort was in service of a muddled, pedestrian script. Surely a few more weeks could have been spent rewriting the screenplay to make it tighter and smarter.