**MILD SPOILER WARNING** I’ve gone out of my way to avoid revealing specific plot points in this write-up, but my review does include a level of information equivalent to that of a trailer or high level synopsis. Unless you require a completely blank slate going in (and have therefore endured a self-enforced media blackout for the last month), you should be relatively safe. As much as I beat up on the film below, I liked it quite a bit. If you appreciate what Marvel Studios has done with its movies so far, you’ll be pleased to find more of the same with this one.
Though enjoyable enough in its own right, the first Thor was arguably my least favorite of Marvel Studios’ Phase One projects. While it was a fun and surprisingly convincing introduction to unconventional characters and settings, I felt it lacked the cohesion of its sibling films (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America). The presentation of the Asgardian world and its cosmology was imaginative and remarkably source-loyal, but the Earth-based material seemed dull and artificial in comparison. (I’m not unaware of the irony in that statement.) The high melodrama of Asgard clashed disconcertingly with the forced sitcom humor of the movie’s human element, and the two worlds never quite resolved together satisfactorily. Thor sequel The Dark World (TDW) takes a number of steps in the right direction, drawing the separate realms closer tonally (not to mention physically) and building admirably on the established Thor/Loki relationship. It also replaces the somewhat campy, over-stylized visual flair of Kenneth Branagh’s outing with Alan Taylor’s more grounded and gritty approach, but its failure to transcend tired plot tropes prevents it from attaining new heights. In the end, TDW, much like the franchise’s previous installment, is likely to be remembered less for its own merit than for the role it played in laying the groundwork for what was to come.
Stop me if this plot sounds familiar. Our film opens with a flashback to an ancient battle wherein an ancient king steals an artifact of power from his ancient, inhuman foe, and that artifact is later hidden away, lost to time and memory. When it is unwittingly rediscovered in the present by the unlikeliest of persons and begins to exert its corrupting influence, our protagonists set off on an epic adventure to prevent the artifact from falling back into the hands of its evil master who would use it to bring darkness to all the land(s). Along the way, they visit fantastical realms, encounter giant creatures, and fight evil armies with the aid of soldiers exhibiting a notable Norse fetish. I’m not necessarily claiming that TDW borrows more than a page or two from Lord of the Rings, but it’s hard to avoid such suspicion when Gimli wasn’t even written out.
The film also retreads plenty of familiar superhero ground and subsequently falls victim to a number of the pitfalls common to these kinds of movies. The first warning sign of this superhero film syndrome (SFS) is the presence of an obligatory love interest. I can appreciate romance as much as the next guy, but when a single hour of rewrites could make it a wholly dispensable story element, I have a hard time taking it seriously. From the moment Jane Foster met the Odinson in the first Thor film, I found their relationship completely unbelievable and even more gratuitous. Natalie Portman has earned my admiration for her other work time and again, but Jane Foster as written simply does not have anything to offer Thor and doesn’t bring anything of substance to the story that couldn’t be provided by a character not looking to swap bodily fluids with the hunky lead (alluring Aether-eyes aside). I suppose one might argue that romantic subplots are an appeal for female viewership, but I think Hemsworth and Hiddleston are probably draw enough in themselves at this point.
Another indicator of SFS manifested by The Dark World is its unconvincing depiction of an allegedly immense threat. Much like the Chitauri invasion of Earth that was strangely limited to downtown New York in last year’s The Avengers, the peril never feels quite as dire as it purports to be. In TDW, the fates of the nine realms of Yggdrasil are supposedly at stake, but the story’s climax had me worried only that pale Dr. Who might turn off the lights in London. Also symptomatic of SFS are the film’s overly generic baddies. As interesting as they may be conceptually and aesthetically, the dark elves are simply not given the requisite attention to develop as three-dimensional villains. Malekith, the dark elf commander played by Christopher Eccleston, is certainly an intimidating, regal presence, but even he doesn’t merit much detail beyond the repeated reminders that he is very old, very angry, and really likes the dark.
Fortunately, the staleness of the overall plot is offset by some fantastic world and character building. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki steals the show as usual (and wields a dagger like a badass). It’s almost sad to think that he won’t be returning as the primary antagonist in the Avengers sequel. (I have high hopes for James Spader’s Ultron, though.) Comic fans will not be disappointed here, however, as both the script and Hiddleston’s performance embrace the manipulativeness and deviousness at the core of the Loki character in a way that his previous appearances have only teased. Chris Hemsworth, as well, has settled into his role as Thor, and the collected rebellion he displays in TDW fits him much more comfortably than the overplayed hubris of the headstrong brat he portrayed 2011’s Thor. The dynamic between these siblings is probably the highlight of the film and the grist for a couple of genuinely interesting plot twists. The resolution of their arcs actually has me intrigued by the possibilities of another sequel.
In fact, TDW is a great showcase for the Asgardians in general. Anthony Hopkins is Odin again. Heimdall, played by the always captivating Idris Elba, has a couple of great character beats, and mother-god Frigga (Rene Russo) impressively demonstrates that Asgardian women should never be underestimated. On the other hand, Jaimie Alexander’s Sif gets short shrift, and I can’t help but assume there was more to her suggested rivalry with the Jane Foster character that wound up being cut from the script/film. The Warriors Three don’t have much to do in this movie, either, but that’s probably for the best.
Taken as a standalone film, then, TDW is a mixed bag. In addition to the derivativeness of its plot, it suffers from a handful of other annoying technical and story issues. At at least two points in the narrative, for example, plot contrivances are introduced that are so brazen and preposterously convenient that I almost groaned audibly. (Just keep an eye out for when and where passages between worlds happen to appear.) And, in what I surmise is the result of reshoots after principle photography, a scene in the Asgardian throne room shortly before the film’s conclusion contains some of the worst green screen integration I’ve seen in a good long while. All in all, however, the movie’s sheer fun outweighs its foibles. Marvel is breaking new cinematic ground with its shared universe (watch for a surprising but well placed cameo halfway through the film) and slowly building metaplot, and TDW is another solidly entertaining step into that frontier.
What does The Dark World have to tell us about the future of the aforementioned shared universe? Those insights and more next week when I share my own speculation about Marvel’s long term plans.