[This is a re-post of my retrospective series in which I take a look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These articles do not contain spoilers for unreleased Marvel movies. If you know any spoilers about the unreleased Marvel movies, please do not post them in the comments section.]
If Iron Man 3 is a break from the MCU, then Thor: The Dark World is getting back to work. This time, Marvel had the freedom to expand on the character since audiences liked Thor (Chris Hemsworth), they understood how his world worked, and they wanted to see more. In terms of pushing audiences into more sci-fi, the second Thor is terrific and features plenty of great production design, costumes, and inter-dimensional hopping that may rest upon a weak plot, but still provides plenty of entertainment.
Thor: The Dark World repeats the first film by creating a new, scary “other”. This time, instead of Laufey and the Frost Giants, it’s Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and the Dark Elves. Like Thor, we start with Odin providing a prologue about how this one race was bad but “the noble forces of Asgard” saved the day. The movie doesn’t really explain who the Dark Elves are other than they ruled the universe, and then they lost their power. They don’t have a culture, and the reason we’re against them is because they want to bring “darkness”, which presumably means death to everyone except the Dark Elves, who are bad because the word “dark” is in their name.
Thus far in the MCU, Malekith is the frontrunner for weakest Marvel villain. If it was only so far as “My people once ruled this universe, and I’m now going to take it back for them,” that would at least be something. But in the opening battle, he sacrifices his own people so he can get away, so why would they still follow him? What makes Malekith a compelling leader? He’s the bad guy because he looks scary and he’s willing to destroy everything. Luckily for Malekith, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has stumbled upon the Aether, the one thing he needs and just at the right time since the “convergence” is coming.
The film’s weak plotting belabors the first half of the film. The story awkwardly drops Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), clumsily reminds us that Jane is an astrophysicist who’s been pining for that guy she liked two years ago, and we have to go through the whole “There’s a bad guy who wants to be imprisoned so he can break out and cause chaos” thing again. Likable characters, fun dialogue, and gorgeous production design save the plodding narrative.
Thankfully, the script gets us off of Earth as quickly as possible, and while that does involve Jane becoming even more of a damsel in distress who’s willing to cast aside her science equipment the moment she sees Thor, it at least shoots us over to Asgard and further fleshes out that world. It not only works in getting us away from S.H.I.E.L.D. (which, as we saw from a tie-in episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., still exists at this point in the MCU timeline), but also gets us into something new and exciting.
The Dark World further shows us how the MCU movies can remain visually constant but also distinct. The film’s craft—from the music to the scenery to the costumes—is terrific, and it also feels like it was built out of what director Kenneth Branagh did in the first movie. Thor: The Dark World director Alan Taylor put in tons of fun expansions including force fields, spaceships, and other designs to try and add more of a sci-fi edge to the royal aesthetic of Asgard. While some dismiss the Marvel movies as looking the same, there are shots in here such as Friga’s funeral scene that wouldn’t work in any other MCU film, not just because of the content, but also because of the tone and the design.
The story finally comes together when it firmly moves to Asgard, and especially once Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is fully in the picture. Thor may have his name in the title, but it’s clear that these are two-handers where Loki is just as important as the hero. Additionally, this isn’t a simple “redemption” story because Loki isn’t looking to be redeemed. Hemsworth is still fun, and Thor has clearly grown as a character by becoming more responsible and deciding if he really wants to be king. But while Jane is a nice companion who has some good interactions with Thor (I still don’t buy them as people who love each other, although I like it when she throws her body over Thor at the end to protect him), she’s not on the same level as Loki. The movie gets more energy from his backseat driving on the Dark Elf spacecraft than Jane and Thor’s entire relationship.
Even after Loki exits the movie, The Dark World feels exciting and spontaneous. Thor returns to Earth, but the events no longer feel Earthbound. The effects of the convergence bring the fantastical to our planet so even though we may be away from the glorious trappings of Asgard, the inter-dimensional effects show us a conclusion that could only happen in a Thor movie. The fight between Thor and Malekith is unique, and it also brings the studio’s unique blend of action and comedy to the forefront.
This is the MCU at its best: finding a way to blend the distinctive aspects of a character’s world into a larger narrative. The Dark World may not directly touch anything from The Avengers—there’s no S.H.I.E.L.D. or any other Marvel character (aside from the great Chris Evans cameo)—but it feels like it’s consciously a part of the MCU rather than avoiding it like Iron Man 3. Thor shows these movies are part of a much larger universe, and while the stories don’t communicate directly (no one mentions that Air Force One blew up and no one in The Winter Soldier comments on the giant alien spaceship that crash-landed in London), the tone and characters have been locked in.
That being said, it does retread some of what we’ve seen in the MCU before. There’s the aforementioned Laufey/Malekith similarity. There’s also the alien army attack (although the Dark Elves going through London is much smaller than the Battle of New York) as well as a giant spacecraft crashing to a planet’s surface. It’s a bit disconcerting that this happens at least two more times in Phase Two (I’m not sure if it happens in Avengers: Age of Ultron since I haven’t seen the movie yet), and I hope Marvel has something more creative planned for its action climaxes in the future.
Like its predecessor, Thor: The Dark World has some deep flaws (the universe is saved by science javelins), but it at least finds the right balance between its own narrative and expanding the MCU. Even beyond the credit tag, The Dark World feels like a prelude to Guardians of the Galaxy. It has more sci-fi aspects, it’s eager to get away from Earth, and it really embraces some visually imaginative designs while still keeping a sense of humor so that the alien doesn’t alienate the audience. Part of that is a result of earning a larger budget, but it also comes from being able to take another step forward with the characters, the story, and the universe.
Nevertheless, Thor: The Dark World isn’t completely a part of our world. The movie takes advantage of its otherworldly status to invest more in expanding the MCU instead of dealing with a world where S.H.I.E.L.D. has more power and relies on more than one superhero. Saving the universe is a job for an alien space god. Saving the Earth is a job for a soldier, and Marvel’s next film would have him do it inside the design of a 70s conspiracy thriller.
- Iron Man
- The Incredible Hulk
- Iron Man 2
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- The Avengers
- Iron Man 3
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Guardians of the Galaxy