Marvel Studios has built something up that we rarely see fully realized in movies and that is a wholly compatible universe where all of their comic heroes can coexist within, while at the same time maintaining their own unique worlds in their selective franchises. From this, we have seen the big screen translations of famed Marvel characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor become hugely successful, with The Avengers movie series being the orbital force that binds everything together. While this has been a strategy that has brought about some very great results in the last few years, such an ambitious project is bound to hit a few pitfalls eventually. For me, that happened this summer with the release of Iron Man 3. While still a huge success at the box-office, the movie suffered from a lack of focus in it’s story-telling and became the first disappointment of the so-called “Avenger Initiative” thus far. My worry after seeing the lackluster Iron Man 3 was that the individual films dedicated to each super hero were only going to turn into bland appetizers in preparation for the Avengers main course; and they would no longer be able to stand on their own as a singular movie. With Thor: The Dark World being released this week, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier following in April 2014, I was afraid that these two characters were going to fall into the trap as Iron Man, and were only going to drag down Marvel’s master plan even more.
Thankfully, my worries proved untrue after watching Thor: The Dark World. This second installment in the Thor franchise is a genuinely entertaining and overall worthy addition to the “Avenger Initiative” project. Following up on the previous Thor film, as well as The Avengers movie itself, The Dark World manages to build upon what we’ve already seen and make it bigger and more epic without ever losing it’s focus. I think that’s what helps it succeed where Iron Man 3 floundered; that ability to keep things under control. The first Thor was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who was an unusual choice for such a project in the first place, given his notoriety as an actor and director of Shakespearean productions and small scale dramas. But Mr. Branagh not only managed to create a successful first outing for the god of thunder on the big screen, his style of directing proved to be a great tone setter for the series as well. The Dark World follows through on that foundation and manages to not only work as a sequel, but also stand very well enough on it’s own as a movie worth seeing.
Picking up right after the events of The Avengers, we find Thor (Chirs Hemsworth) leading his armies in battle in an attempt to restore order to each of the Seven Realms, of which Earth is also included. At the same time on Earth, we find Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a physicist and love interest of Thor in the first movie, discovering dimensional anomalies in the city of London, England. After examining dimensional portals in a warehouse, Jane is pulled through one suddenly, which takes her into a secret vault containing a powerful super-weapon called the Aether. Jane unwillingly is turned into a host for the Aether as it enters her body, and she is sent hurtling back to Earth. In no time, Thor finds her and whisks her away to Asgard, the kingdom of Thor and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). There, they keep her safe, as an ancient race of aliens called the Dark Elves arrive to reclaim the Aether for themselves, which they plan to use to destroy the Seven Realms together in one catastrophic event called the Convergence. Disobeying his father’s stubborn orders, Thor knows of only one way to take Jane out of danger’s way, and it means calling upon the help of his treacherous brother, and main Avengers villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston).
For a very complicated plot such as this one, I’m surprised that the filmmakers involved managed to not lose control of it and have everything end up as a convoluted mess in the end. I believe what helps to carry the story through are the characters themselves. Chris Hemsworth has now had two films to develop the character of Thor over, and his performance in this movie shows just how comfortable he has become with the role. He’s charming without coming across as smarmy or self-indulgent. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give him much to do until the second half, which would have been more of a problem if there weren’t any other strong characters there to pick up the slack. The rest of the cast is more or less in tact from the first movie, and they all fit well within the story-line without seeming superfluous. Natalie Portman, especially, improves upon her role from the first movie, in that she has an integral part to play this time, other than being the love interest character. I like her resourcefulness throughout the movie and the ways that she avoids being just another damsel in distress. Anthony Hopkins also brings great gravitas to the character of Odin, but you wouldn’t expect any less from an actor of his caliber.
The movie’s brightest spot, however, is the character of Loki. He has been the one that has improved the most over time, and I think that it’s largely because of his evolution, aided by actor Tom Hiddleston. In the first Thor movie, I found Loki to be a rather bland villain; and when it was announced that he was going to be the primary baddie of The Avengers (2012), I was very doubtful of the choice. Thankfully, the character went through a major transformation between the films and not only proved to be a great antagonist for The Avengers, but one of the film’s highlights as well. I think what happened was that they stripped all of the doubt and worry from the character’s persona and just made him unapologetic in his sinister ways, thus making him a much more memorable villain. That characterization has carried over into The Dark World and the movie is better for it. Loki gives the film a significant jolt of adrenaline every time he’s on screen, which helps the movie greatly whenever it starts to slag. He gets all the best lines, and his chemistry with Thor is even more entertaining than the chemistry between Thor and Jane. Tom Hiddleston looks like he’s having a lot fun here with the role, and that sense of fun becomes very infectious for audiences watching the film. I’m sure that the growing number of Loki fans out there will be very pleased with how he’s used in this movie.
The downside of having Loki present, however, is that he steals so much of the effectiveness away from this film’s more principal villains. The portrayal of the Dark Elves is really the one thing that keeps this from being a truly great film. They are very forgettable and uninteresting bad guys on which to center the film around, and sadly, the movie never really delves deeply into them as individual characters. They’re not terrible villains by any means; and definitely not the awful, slap-to-the-face villains that Iron Man 3 presented us. There’s just not much to say about them other than they are mean and they want to destroy. The leader, Malekith, is played by a former Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston, and he does the best he can with his underwritten character. The problem that I have with their function in the story-line is that we never really get to understand what the Dark Elves are. They are an ancient race bent on destruction, but it’s never explained exactly where they come from or what they plan to do once they have enacted their apocalyptic plans. That being said, their look is unique and they have a very memorable looking spaceship that is used effectively in scenes throughout the film. Perhaps if there wasn’t a better villain already taking up screen-time in the movie like Loki does here, then maybe the Dark Elves would have worked better, but unfortunately they stand as one of the weaker elements in the film.
That being said, I am glad that the movie doesn’t fall into the trap of being just a lead-up to different movie. In some ways, that actually makes it an improvement over the first Thor. Thor (2011) was a wonderful film in it’s own right, but it was also tied a little too closely with the “Avengers Initiative” Phase 1 plan, and that led to some awkward shoehorning of elements from the overall Marvel universe. In this movie, the references to other Marvel characters are minor, allowing the story-line to stay more focused within Thor’s world. Sure, there are mentions here and there of the “New York Incident,” especially when Loki enters the film’s plot, but even these moments make sense in their placement within the film. There’s also a great cameo halfway through the film that I won’t give away, but it makes perfect sense once you see it.
I also think that the film did an excellent job with it’s visual look. Asgard has been expanded upon from the first movie, which rarely left the confines of Odin’s immense palace. In this film, we are given more overview of the surrounding world that Thor calls home and it is beautifully realized. I especially like the different ways that the production design team worked in Nordic styles into the look of Asgard. At one point in the movie, there is a fierce aerial battle in the skies over Asgard and the warships that the Asgardians use to battle the Dark Elves are made up to look like flying Viking longboats. It’s clever visual elements like this that makes Thor’s world feel unique, while at the same time easy to understand. Also, bringing the action on Earth to London helps to blend the visual styles of the different worlds together. The original film brought Thor to New Mexico, which significantly clashed with the scenes set in Asgard. Here, by taking the setting to an Old World city like London, the filmmakers manage to keep the blending of styles consistent throughout the whole movie. Thor feels much less like a fish out of water in the Earth scenes here, which helps with the character’s familiarity with our world in the story. First time film director, Alan Taylor, tackles both sides very well, and while he may not have the same extravagant style as Kenneth Branagh, he nevertheless manages to keep all of the elements of the film working together. Perhaps it’s because he’s worked in both kinds of genres for so long, directing episodes of both Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, that he was able to find that right sort of balance.
Thor: The Dark World may have some faults in the story-line and in some of the characterizations, but it mostly succeeds as both it’s own stand alone film and as part of the Marvel universe as a whole. This was a breathe of fresh air after being severely disappointed with Iron Man 3. What is most pleasing about the film is that the filmmakers were able to actually make a movie that exists more within Thor’s own world than what we’ve seen before. I view this film as being only slightly better than the first in that regard, but both films have about the same strengths and weaknesses. What makes the Thor movies so interesting, and perhaps more interesting than any of the other Marvel films, is that they are grounded more in fantasy than anything else. Iron Man and Captain America are identified as science-fiction works, but the Thor movies play by different rules, and as a result, you can actually get away with more of the cheesy, swashbuckling elements in the plot. Marvel films do deliver consistently on the action front, but when a movie like Thor unashamedly indulges itself in some of the more operatic moments, it feels very natural and appropriate. What I love most here, though, are the little character touches. It’s hard to think that a small thing like Thor hanging his hammer on a coat rack would be so endearing to me in this film, but that’s how well it works. I’m happy to see Marvel pick itself up and do well by their hammer swinging hero, and I hope that it marks an improved trajectory for both “Avengers” Phase 2 and for Thor’s own series as well.