The most recent instalment in the Marvel Studios film universe, Thor: The Dark World, is a competent adventure film, and perhaps better than the first solo outing for the Asgardian hero. However, despite having the highest stakes of any of the Marvel films to date—the fate of the universe is at stake—the film never gets going or delivers real thrills. It’s entertaining and funny in fits and starts, but never got me to care or invest in the world it has conjured.
Like Iron Man 3 earlier this year, Thor: The Dark World follows up with central characters from Marvel’s The Avengers. Thor has returned his brother Loki to Asgard to face punishment for his crimes and with the help of Thor’s companions, Sif, Vostagg, and Fandral (I had to look those last two names up), he has returned some semblance of order to the nine realms.
However, eons ago Thor’s grandfather, Bor, fought a war against the Dark Elves, ancient beings bent on returning the world to a state of darkness and led by Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith. After losing a battle to Bor, Malekith and his followers hide their ultimate weapon, the Aether, and go into hibernation. Thousands of years later, a portal to the world where the Aether is hidden opens up in London, and, coincidentally, Thor’s love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her intern (Kat Dennings) stumble upon the portal.
The Aether takes up residence inside Jane Foster, conveniently making Thor’s love interest the target for both the heroes and villains. Jane is whisked away by Thor to Asgard for protection, Malekith’s forces reawaken and attack Asgard, and Thor is forced to turn to his brother Loki for help, setting up a final act showdown against the Dark Elves in London.
As you can probably tell from the above plot summary, the film utilizes many screenwriting tricks to streamline character motivations and keep things moving briskly. I will give the screenwriters credit that the film is easy to follow for all the bodies and forces in motion here. But at the same time it suffers from coincidental plotting in a way that comes across as more sloppy and forced than necessary and efficient. Jane is reduced to a human MacGuffin, undermining her role as a character and giving Portman little to work with. Clunky plotting is covered up with humour and an emphasis on goofiness—Stellan Skarsgaard’s Erik Selvig inexplicably spends a great deal of the film without pants—but ends up making the plot disposable to the pleasures the film offers.
And there are some pleasures to be found in The Dark World. Despite its title, it’s a funny film and not a turn for Marvel toward the seriousness of DC’s The Dark Knight or Man of Steel (Iron Man 3 is more ponderous and self-interrogating). Tom Hiddleston shines as Loki, injecting the film with energy, wit, and the film’s best moments (his character’s assuming the form of another Avenger in a cameo appearance is stand out). Chris Hemsworth continues to shine, able to convey Thor’s good nature and otherworldliness at the same time; not an easy task. The always great Idris Elba is given little to do, but his Heimdall is a stand out Asgardian.
But if hard pressed I can’t say that it is a resounding success as a science fiction adventure film. It draws on so many other science fiction films that came before—ships out of Star Wars, elves and high language out of Jackson’s Middle-Earth—that it never feels like it is its own thing. Alan Taylor brings his experience in creating a fantasy world from Game of Thrones and tries to take some of polish off of Asgard from how it was portrayed in the first film. Still, Thor’s magical realm never feels like a real place, where real characters live lives (in contrast, say, to the immersive worlds of Tolkien or Star Wars). Neither is it ever truly awe-inspiring. It’s just kinda cool.
My lukewarm reception to the film certainly speaks to the fact that, at this point, I’m not quite sold on Marvel Studios and Disney’s plan of putting out what are essentially $150 million episodes of a continuing serial, twice yearly. Drew McWeeny, in an analysis of one of the films two post-credits sequences (which apparently sets up next summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy), commented on how it “shows how clearly Marvel has their eye on the long game.” But it feels like so much work is going into teasing fans and establishing future plots that they’ve forgotten there is a film and story here, and how to show us.
Marvel has at this point established a house style of filmmaking and a solid fanbase who will keep these films becoming massive hits. Hiddleston and Hemsworth have also emerged as legitimate stars in their own right. Thor: The Dark World has its share of pleasures and disappointments, but overall never engaged me as a film in its own right.
5 out of 10
Thor: The Dark World (USA, 2013)
Directed by Alan Taylor; screenplay by Christopher Yost and Chistopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; starring Chris Hemswoth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Christopher Eccleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgaard, and Idris Elba.