If for nothing else, Thor: The Dark World might end up being remembered as the bellwether for Marvel’s comic book movie legacy. In the five years since Iron Man kicked this crazy (successful) experiment off, a longview for Marvel’s mega-franchise has started to develop, with future road markers in sight, but no clear stopping point yet on the horizon. Like the hero of its latest instalment, the Marvel films have been forced to occupy two worlds: one, a grounded-enough sci-fi adventure universe filled with interesting characters, and another, where gods and aliens do battle at such a spectacular scale that the hero only saving a mere country means they’re having an off-day.
The former world is one inhabited by guys like Tony Stark, and it’s no wonder why Iron Man has become the lynchpin for this whole endeavor: no matter how many occult Nazi societies and robotic space whales Marvel throws at the viewer, Tony’s always been the handsome bedrock for the larger ticket-buying population that’s never picked up a comic book. For those who think of Nick Fury as just Samuel L. Jackson in an eyepatch, Iron Man has been like the one good friend you know at a party full of strangers and brief acquaintances. Thor, meanwhile, occupies a realm of pure and garish fiction, one rooted both in the distant past and distant future. Attempts to simplify the origins of Thor by turning Norse legend into science fiction haven’t helped to unmuddle the identity of one of Marvel’s key Avengers. The Prince of Thunder might be his official nickname, but to most he’s still just “the guy with the hammer.”
Messily dipping Thor’s fluffy fantasy roots into the dense, universe-building peanut butter that Marvel needed for future movies made the perfect casting of Australian beefcake Chris Hemsworth all the more vital to the original Thor’s success. To both make the character relatable, and maintain the grandiosity that makes him special, Thor didn’t so much balance its two competing flavors as keep them hermetically sealed off from one another. The opening and closing twenty minutes were irony-free space epics written as bad Shakespeare, while in-between was wedged a more literally down-to-earth character story. It made for a noticeably partitioned, but often charming popcorn film, one that respectably handled the dual tasks of preparing Thor for his debut as an Avenger, while also opening the door for the much larger Marvel Universe that we’ll be seeing from here on out.
Thor: The Dark World is the first Marvel film to really walk through that door, and regrettably, its first steps are shaky and uncoordinated. This won’t be terribly surprising for anyone who’s been following the film’s production, as director changes and emergency Whedon-transfusions never bode well, even for a machine as well-oiled as Marvel’s. But that same machinery may well be responsible for the aimless, and largely perfunctory story that Thor: The Dark World spends most of its time setting up, yet very little time actually telling. There are plenty of flashy action scenes to gorge your eyeballs on, and lots of pretty people being generally amiable while wearing colourful outfits, but the central lack of investment in this mini-franchise’s core has only become more apparent in the wake of offerings like the refreshingly introspective Iron Man 3.
A synopsis for The Dark World sounds less like a story summary and more like a checklist of plot devices, one Anthony Hopkins starts reading from immediately. As Odin, all-father of Asgard (and also-father of Thor) recounts during the prologue, a race of spacefaring Dark Elves led by the non-descriptly villainous Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) nearly wiped out all life 5,000 years ago. Odin’s own father, after forcing Malekith into exile, sealed away his universe-threatening MacGuffin to the deepest, darkest recess of creation…which, as it turns out, shares an interdimensional picket fence with modern downtown London.
In the present day, Thor is working as a U.N. peacekeeper across the war-torn nine realms, with Odin still dangling a kingship in front of him like Lucy with the football. When Thor’s Earth-bound sweetheart Jane (Natalie Portman) pulls a Lucy of her own (Pevensie, in this case), stumbling through a portal in London leading to Malekith’s secret weapon, it forces her smack-dab into the middle of a reheated conflict between the Asgardians and Dark Elves.
Even though it had a lot of background Norse mythology to cover, the first Thor’s central premise seems quaint by comparison, like a ridiculous blend of Doc Hollywood and Tarzan (“Me Thor, you Jane Foster”). Much of the fun of each new Marvel entry is in seeing how it grafts comic book trappings to familiar movie types. Iron Man 3 was their take on a paperback detective movie, Captain America was their take on a rousing World War II movie, and Iron Man 2 was their take on a just plain bad movie. Despite the presence of elves, several sweeping vista shots, and director Alan Taylor’s experience working on the Game of Thrones TV series, The Dark World never turns into the fantasy epic you might expect it to.
Instead, its stylistic influences owe more to disreputable examples of modern blockbuster sci-fi, sharing more than just Natalie Portman in its visually uncanny, and unfortunate resemblance to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. More than a full hour passes before all the setup is dealt with, and something of a plot is finally put into motion. Sadly, said plot isn’t really anything more than a revolving assortment of feints, reversals, and implausible coincidences. Combined with its eyecatching, but familiar aesthetics, Thor: The Dark World often seems like it has less in common with Thor than it does the similarly dim and disappointing Star Trek: Into Darkness.
In the micro of a given scene or setpiece, the sci-fi/fantasy pell-mell can make for an engaging mess; there’s an endearing dissonance to the Dark Elves being smart enough to use guns and grenades against the swordsmen of Asgard, despite their choice to fly spacecraft that are essentially giant knives. Similarly, the sparks of humor and levity struck by a fish-out-of-water subplot help liven up the grim tone. Jane awkwardly acclimatizing to Asgard works comedically about as well as Thor brashly strutting around a small town in the first film. His return to Earth makes time for some hokey gags that only get more out of place -and, therefore, more hilarious- the higher the stakes rise.
And if there’s one particularly encouraging trend to be thankful for in recent Marvel films, it’s that every one of them from Avengers on has managed to buildup to a finale that’s as entertaining and creative, as the finales before Avengers were anticlimactic and rote. I wouldn’t be able to explain to you why exactly the events of the big London showdown occur the way they do, but rest assured, whoever thought of them must have had a great time doing so (and almost assuredly played Portal). The result is an imaginative and fun final battle that gets some terrific fan service out of the mechanics behind Thor’s magical flying hammer.
But that you’ll come away from The Dark World having learned more about Mjolnir’s flight path than Thor himself is perhaps what makes the film feel so unnecessary. While it’s nice that Thor’s progression from the first film isn’t swept under the rug, he’s been left with nowhere else to grow, and rarely comes across as the most important person in his own movie. Most of the expansive supporting cast from Thor returns, but only Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is given anything resembling a new note to contribute. Even his inclusion feels more functional than organic, with an embarrassing number of story beats hinging on a trick Loki plays, one which tees up a nice pair of reveals early, before spoiling itself through overuse. Instead of capitalizing on the sequel as a chance to strengthen Thor as an individual franchise, Marvel does little more than cobble together a largely forgettable one-off, where endless setup creates few real moments of importance (which themselves are just setup for another movie).
The jarring juxtaposition between the film’s two after-credits sequences embodies the ongoing transition in Marvel’s cinematic identity, with Thor: The Dark World acting in a Heimdall-like capacity to bridge the gap. Next year’s political-thriller of a Captain America sequel, and a James Gunn-directed Guardians of the Galaxy movie might bring a balance back temporarily, but as Marvel’s ambition grows ever more expansive, it’s becoming easier for the characters at the center of that universe to leave focus. Thor was always going to be the toughest franchise nut for Marvel to crack, but rather than treating the task delicately, The Dark World attacks it with the brute force of Mjolnir, leaving viewers with a fitfully enjoyable, but mostly flavorless mush to tide themselves over with until next year’s offerings.