How do you know that “Thor: The Dark World” is for the fan-boys and absolutely nobody else? The opening exposition — about an ancient race of Dark Elves led by the evil Malekith, who craves a mysterious elemental goo called the Aether, which has the power of infinite destruction — is sub-Tolkien balderdash that merely has the power to put you to sleep in seconds.
The latest attempt by Marvel Comics and parent company Disney to Borg all of popular culture is a holding maneuver, a superhero tap-dance until the next “Avengers” movie turns up. “Thor: The Dark World” has its moments of visual invention and self-aware humor — mostly when the hero’s trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is around — but otherwise it’s an awkwardly plotted extravaganza of no use to anyone other than global audiences who like confusing noise and chalky digital effects when they’re yoked to a familiar franchise and Marvel camp followers who grow tumid at the idea of a Stan Lee cameo. Others may question whether this even qualifies as a movie.
For the record: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is sulking around Asgard after the events of 2011’s “Thor,” pining for the human scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) while his father, one-eyed Odin (Anthony Hopkins), rumbles and grumbles and tries to install his hammer-wielding son on the throne. But there’s a Convergence coming up — it sounds like a TED talk but it’s just the Nine Realms of the universe aligning for the first time in 5,000 years — which will give Malekith his opening to attack, especially now that Jane has absorbed the Aether into her body during a visit to what looks like the ladies’ room of an intercosmic dance club.
Feh, I say. Feh, to all of it: The digitized Asgard that looks like Maxfield Parrish’s first draft for Disneyland; the dogfight scenes cloned from the clones of “Star Wars” (but with airborne Viking ships in place of spacecraft); the boilerplate supervillain and his invincible minions (here they’re called the Kursed — how can you conquer the Nine Realms when you can’t even spell?); the collapsing buildings and flying masonry, so familiar now from every blockbuster they’ve become depressingly tedious. Only a finale that has Thor, his hammer, and Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) punching in and out of multiple dimensions — including the London Underground — has any pop zest.
The first “Thor” had its amusements: Hemsworth was unexpectedly sly for a slab of Nordic uber-beef and Hopkins, Portman, and Stellan Skarsgard (as Jane’s mad-scientist friend) had fun camping around in a second-tier tentpole. Maybe because that film’s director, Kenneth Branagh, has been replaced by Alan Taylor (whose relevant credits appear to be six episodes of “Game of Thrones”), the cast looks much less energized this time out. Actually, Portman looks depressed.
The exception is Rene Russo as the hero’s mum, Frigga, who gets to swing a mighty vorpal sword. The gifted comic actor Chris O’Dowd (”Bridesmaids”) is deployed for two scenes, neither of them remotely essential. Kat Dennings, as Jane’s sardonic intern, still gets the best lines, and Hemsworth, who the recent “Rush” proved does have a mind behind that impossibly huge forehead, has one great sight-gag: Thor daintily hanging his Invincible Hammer on a coathook by Jane’s door. Memo to Stan Lee and the Disney corporate elves: Could the next “Thor” forget about all the sub-Wagnerian gobbledygook, strand the big guy on Earth, and give him a minimum wage job hammering drywall? Then he’d have something to get angry about.