The biggest hurdle of 2011’s Thor wasn’t getting audiences to believe that a Norse god/space alien was just as convincing as a wealthy inventor with technologically advanced armor or a guy whose body turns big and green when he gets angry. The challenge was leaving Earth and taking us to a new world, and while Kenneth Branagh’s film didn’t hold up for me on repeat viewings, I was still taken with his vision of Thor’s homeworld of Asgard. Thor: The Dark World is a case of being careful what you wish for and being grateful for what you have. Alan Taylor’s sequel becomes far too enamored with the design of otherworldly realms and the supernatural machinations of the villain than with its eponymous hero. But when the story finally turns its attention to the God of Thunder and his scene-stealing adopted brother, then The Dark World hits with the force of Mjolnir.
Long ago, Malkeith (Christopher Eccleston) and his dark elves wanted to wield a powerful dark energy called “Aether” and use it to destroy the universe when the nine realms were in alignment. He was stopped by the forces of Asgard, fled by sacrificing most of his men, and the Aether was hidden where no one would ever find it. Cut forward to the present day, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is busy cleaning up chaos in the nine realms, winning the adoration of his people, and being groomed to be the new king. However, his heart is heavy because he wants to be with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Back on Earth, she stumbles upon the Aether, gets infected by it, which summons Malekith, and sets off a chain of events where Thor must reluctantly unite the imprisoned Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in order to stop the big bad space elf.
For the first half of Thor: The Dark World, the star is the production design. It’s a curious blend of medieval style and futuristic space weapons. The first movie took a more classic approach of shining up Norse mythology, but Taylor’s vision tries to wrangle in new designs like ancient-looking scepters that also go “pew pew” when they fire laser beams. This kind of medieval magi-tech is certainly eye-catching, and allows Taylor to create a cultures that are distinctly different from the Asgardians. Still, it takes a bit of readjustment to accept a race of malevolent elves flying around in spaceships.
However, the first half doesn’t give us much else to think about. The movie spends its first half with almost non-stop set-up to the point where I was left to wonder, “Where’s Thor?” The film admirably wants to expand Jane’s role, but the plot expands it into a damsel in greater distress. Meanwhile, the threat of the dark elves never quite sparks because Malekith barely qualifies as a one-dimensional villain. He wants to cover the universe in darkness, which would give him the power to do…something? If he uttered anything other than gravely voiced threats, I guess he would say, “I’m a dark elf. I want to create darkness. It’s my thing.” Back on earth, Erik (Stellan Skarsgard), Jane’s intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) and her new intern Ian (Jonathan Howard) are reminding us that Earth (specifically London) will be very important later on.
Taylor tries to follow Branagh’s lead by paying attention to the artistry of the otherworldly dimension. As I said, fleshing out Asgard and other realms was the most important part of Thor. But it wasn’t the best part of the first movie. The best part belonged to Thor and Loki, and the strength of their relationship was one of the reasons The Avengers was so good. Thor is an honorable with a roguish side and Loki is a rebel with a hint of honor. Admittedly, that’s a bit of an over-simplification, but they undeniably complement each other, and once Thor: The Dark World finally brings them together, the movie ignites.
From the moment the estranged brothers are forced together, a movie that was sporadically funny and occasionally exciting becomes painfully hilarious and absolutely captivating. Rather than simply providing visually lush settings, Taylor shows us why this world is special. All of the Marvel movies have their own production design and style, but the second half of The Dark World features elements that would only work in a Thor movie. No matter how many Marvel movies you see, it’s unlikely any of them will have anything remotely resembling the climatic battle in this film.
More importantly, by the time we reach the battle, Thor and Loki have already clicked everything into place. Like 2011’s Thor, Portman is completely wasted and her chemistry with Hemsworth is nice but not explosive. The real love story (not to go all slashfic) is between Thor and Loki. They have the history, and Hemsworth and Hiddleston have tremendous chemistry, although Hiddleston has the charisma to make every relationship better. Marvel could make Loki: The Post Office and it would be amazing because of Hiddleston. All of Loki’s cutting remarks hit with the same force as his bitter recriminations.
As the first hour of the movie rolled along, I continued to wonder when we would see more of what makes Thor special rather than taking in the scenery and seeing tired plot devices (after The Dark Knight and certainly The Avengers, no bad guy in a blockbuster movie should ever be thrown in jail). Rather than just showing us a world that’s different, Taylor eventually shows us what makes Thor’s world unique. If you can wait to get to the quips and hammering, Thor: The Dark World is as high-flying as its Norse god space alien.