These are dark times. Dark and gritty times. Or so it would seem from our choices at the box office, where trends kicked up (but hardly established) by the Nolanverse Batman films continue to cloud every superhero franchise for miles around. This is a land where wonderment is traded for plot expedience, story pacing replaced by gorgeous, if rampant, CGI. Thor: The Dark World is no exception, being as dark as its title suggests. Fun to watch, but ultimately only slightly more substantial than its predecessor, T:TDW suffers from being the middle chapter of its series, if not a smaller piece in the giant puzzle that is the MCU. Its visual clout may be mighty, but its story lacks punch.
Engage at your peril, for through this ethereal portal lie SPOILERS.
Our story begins several different ways; in an expository war thousands of years ago, on Earth, on a distant world unsettled by invaders, and with a prisoner. The Dark Elves, once at war with Asgard to cover the universe in Darkness, are back and seeking out their weapon of choice, a floating mass of evil Capri Sun called the Ether. Meanwhile, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his warrior friends are kept busy by skirmishes across planets, and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is kept busy by what looks suspiciously like a pile of Legos as he languishes in prison. Also, on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is trying to date again after the disappearance of her fling from another planet, oblivious to a planetary alignment that makes all the realms as permeable as cosmic Swiss cheese. (If you feel confused by anything, especially the villains and their motivation, all is explained again later in the film.) We know little for certain at the start, but we can all bet on Jane becoming involved with the Ether, on Thor having to come to her rescue, and on Loki not staying put in the dungeons for very long.
T:TWD is a banquet of visuals, from the spectacle of Asgard to the H. R. Giger-tinged alien ships. The film borrows liberally from the cinematic library of Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars prequels, Harry Potter, and even Doctor Who. Still, it is no less appealing for its mass of references, providing tireless marvels like an illuminated tome whose pictures move to tell the story of the Dark Elves. While recycling many designs established by the first film, the sequel expands on them. On offer is a more full view of life in Asgard, with training as well as feasting areas, palatial interiors that flow into exteriors. But the pall of war hangs over the would-be utopia, a reflection of the disarray and chaos the nine realms have been thrown into, and there is little time for sightseeing when there are battles to fight.
Supporting players fare well in the Marvel movie franchise with the largest expanded cast, with a few exceptions. Primarily, Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), who for some reason is packed off to another realm fifteen minutes in and almost never appears again. Sif (Jaimie Alexander) has plenty of enemies to dispense with, but, after playing a large part in an early battle, slowly disappears from the film along with the remaining Warriors Three (much to this reviewer’s disappointment). Heimdall (played by a more famous Idris Elba than in Thor) is given more to do here, though barely, having one scene of exhilarating action to justify his presence in a plot where he cannot sense the enemy. And speaking of stars who have risen to a clear place in the sky, if there’s one lesson to be learned in Thor: The Dark World, it’s that whatever paycheck Tom Hiddleston wants to keep coming back to the franchise, Marvel should pay it.
Most memorable, however, are the scenes and fights given to Thor’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo) who proves herself not only a queen, but a true warrior of Asgard. Indeed, aside from Sif, all of the franchise’s female characters (the most in any of the three pillars of the Avengers universe) find their roles firmly asserted. Though Jane spends a third of the movie as a gamely quipping MacGuffin, in the other two thirds she is a lively scientific adventurer whose expertise allows her to participate significantly in the final battle, if not help resolve it in the first place. Darcy (Kat Dennings) is expanded from snarky intern who doesn’t know what anything does, to snarky full assistant and occasional life coach, making her first appearance with a scene that is A) effortlessly funny, and B) passes the Bechdel test.
I’m going to traipse down the rainbow bridge of unpopular opinion here, but the clouds hung too darkly over Asgard for my taste. His Avengers brothers and sister in arms might be at home in a grungy spy thriller, but a film with Thor & Co. should be suffused with wonder, not touches of realism. Instead, visually tantalizing moments are rushed through or brushed aside in favor of repetitive action.
Thor houses an inherently incredible premise, the most outlandish on a team that includes a man in a flying metal suit and a living piece of WWII propaganda who survived 70 years frozen in ice. After all, Thor is the Marvel take on Norse mythology that produced some of the strangest mainstream trappings in the Silver Age of comics, involving monsters and magic and travel to different realms. The popularity of Thor tie-in books, as well as fan love for the recently ended run of Journey Into Mystery, prove that cynicism is no replacement for the enthusiasm and earnestness of classic adventure. Perhaps The Dark World sought to capture the darker essence of Blood Brothers, the much lauded graphic novel concerning Loki and Thor’s troubled relationship. Still, a sense of adventure is exactly what is missing from Thor: The Dark World, and something it sorely could have used. Characters toss out the occasional quip, often to great effect, but it never quite felt like enough. A grander sense of delight at what we’re seeing, or at least a sense of fun, is something that the film does not seem to have space for. Sure, there are a handful of gags that elicit laughs, but they just as often felt out of place in the dark tone of the story.
Thor, perhaps more than any of his fellow Avengers, is a property informed by his surrounding material, namely, the other movies put out by Marvel in the last several years, since the climax and aftermath of The Avengers concerned a primary character and a MacGuffin derived directly from his franchise. But the weight of a larger universe serves this story ill by stunting its growth. The Thor franchise, like the other Avengers series’, must maintain the status quo, preventing the story from playing out any changes that would affect the other movies. At the end of the day, The Dark World was a fun diversion with inspired visual design, well-treated female characters, and a healthy does of action banter, but I do wish it had invested more in escapism.