“You’re always so perceptive about everyone but yourself.” So assessed by his mother, Loki (Tim Hiddleston) is — for a brief moment — taken aback. But only for a brief moment. He’s soon enough, in Tor: The Dark World, reconfirmed in his belief that his perceptions about everyone, himself and his mother included, are right, always and inevitably.
At this point, early in the second Thor movie, Loki is actually incarcerated on Asgard, this due to his shenanigans in The Avengers. Visiting him in his cell, his mom, Frigga (Renee Russo), hopes not only to assess but also to soothe and even to turn him, to get him to see that his rage as his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and his younger brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth), ignited when, in The Avengers, he learned that he wasn’t actually blood-related to this whole god of thunder clan, and that he was not in line for the throne he expected to ascend.
While Loki’s efforts at vengeance were mightily entertaining in The Avengers, his detainment is less delightful. For one thing, he is in fact, locked up in a cell for much of the action, partly pouting, partly waiting for the plot to kick in — and for this last reason, especially, you might feel a particular empathy, as you will be waiting too. This movie begins, much like 2011’s Thor, with some battles: these, according to Odin’s oh-so-sober voiceover, brought together the Nine Realms and left Odin’s father in charge, and they involved lots of CGIed soldiers clashing with swords and maces.
This all by way of setting up yet another vengeance plot, wherein the losers here — the Dark Elves, led by the hideously pale-skeletal leader Malekith (a digitally transformed Christopher Eccleston) and his brutal Number Two (a lamentably unrecognizable Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, whose tremendous charisma is badly obscured here) — decide to destroy the Nine Realms, including, of course, earth. Re-enter Jane (Natalie Portman), Thor’s scientist-lady love from the first film, at the moment searching in London for Thor, who has been disappeared since The Avengers. This location allows for little new except that her mentor, Erik (Stellan Skarsgård), might be re-introduced as he strips off his clothes and runs around Stonehenge in hopes of staving off the cataclysm he somehow anticipates.
It’s a goofy and unfunny bit, but sets up, perhaps, the absolute rift or complete connection in sensibility among humans and Asgardians and Dark Elves, as all are apparently prone to silly parading and proclaiming and sputtering. Jane, nonetheless, makes an effort to remain polite, at least until she has a run-in, inside an abandoned warehouse of some kind, with an unsettlingly spiky-red-black vapor called the Aether. It invades her body, her eyes turn shark-black, and she’s duly infected, or a carrier of this vapor, one that Malekith happens to need to destroy everything. Just so, Jane becomes the Dorothy of this story, stuck with her own version of the ruby slippers and so designated as the most wanted object, by both Thor and Malekith.
Jane’s role as passive carrier is hardly helped by her battalion of buddies, including her intern Darcy (Kat Dennings), who now has her own intern, a nice enough tall white boy named Ian (Jonathan Howard), whom she uses as a sounding board for her snarky commentary on all that otherworldly business that so enthralls Thor and Jane.
As wrapped up in each other as Jane and Thor tend to be, the film makes a couple of visual-gaggy kind of notes on their mismatch, primarily a charming moment — another one that’s all too brief — when he arrives on earth to save her from this Aether and finds himself stuck in a tiny human car, his gigantic red cape and arms and hammer filling the passenger seat, the image insisting on his weirdness and also, his good humor about it. This humor he shares with Loki, and the two of them, despite their fighting, share a few cute exchanges, one featuring Loki’s shape-shifting ability used to get a rise out of his at-at-that-instant grim brother and a laugh for the rest of us.
As Thor can’t sort out how to get the Aether out of Jane, he decides instead to use her as bait so he can kill Malekith. (The logic isn’t precisely sound, but he’s Thor, the guy who wins his fights with a hammer.) This incoherent plan produces an incoherent set of storylines around it, involving Thor’s dreary associates, who are burdened mostly with playing loyal followers, from the lookout Heimdall (Idris Elba) and the seemingly interchangeable Warriors Three, Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Zachary Levi), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), as well as Sif (Jamie Alexander), left again to yearn for Thor while he remains committed to the human Jane. These non-characters and non-relationships rather miss the point that made The Avengers such a success, that is, its investment in the complicated relationships among lively, angry, judgmental characters. Loki is so obviously the most compelling figure on screen this time, and he’s also so obviously contained, leaving too much empty space to be filled by dullsville others.
It may be no surprise that in a movie named for the big-necked god (or demi-god, whatever they’re calling him now) Thor, the subtler figures and observations will be lost. It doesn’t have to be that way, though, as Loki and even Thor demonstrate repeatedly. But the utterly boring humans and the Warriors Three and Malekith obfuscate the brothers’ ups-and-downs, beyond any metaphorical options that The Dark World might have allowed. It suggests that Loki is perceptive, even if his mom missed it.