I can’t really get into this without at least briefly discussing the first film, Thor. For the record, I still like it. It’s spectacularly broken and has some dry moments that are utterly wasted. It’s too safe and condensed for a movie that needed to be bigger, and had an underwhelming and rather abrupt ending. But I just couldn’t hate it because of how charming and quaint it was. I still can’t, but I acknowledge that its disposable presence in the Marvel Universe definitely makes it one of the worse movies in the franchise and served as more of a dissection subject for people (including myself) that were scouring for clues and hints at a greater universe.
With The Dark World, we now have this greater universe, one that is magnified and rendered as a more suitable playground for Thor rather than one ice planet and a New Mexican desert. It’s more of a conventional superhero blockbuster kind of movie than Iron Man 3 was, so if you didn’t like Stark’s latest adventure, you’ll probably find this one more to your liking.
Whereas the first film began with a story about Odin defeating the frost giants, this film begins with a story about how his father, Bor, fought a century-spanning war against the forces of darkness itself – a race of Dark Elves from the realm of Svartalfheim and led by Malekith the Accursed (known simply as Malekith in the film). Malekith’s goals were to use a mcguffin called the Aesther to return the universe to its pre-created form. Bor stole the Aesther from Malekith and won the war, mistakenly believing Malekith to be dead, but hiding the Aesther anyway.
To explain just a little bit more, the Aesther is a device that is only capable of reshaping the universe every 5,000 years when the realms are aligned.
Now in the present day, it’s been two years since the Battle of New York. Loki is in the dungeon, Thor and his band have been bifrosting themselves across the universe fighting off various bad guys to finally bring peace and stability to the Nine Realms. With this last battle on Vanaheim he appears to have done just that. And Jane Foster is in London, still studying cosmology and looking for traces of Thor and connections to other realms…which just so happen to be aligning. When the realms align, they create invisible portals that defy gravity and mess with space & time.
I don’t really need to tell you anything more than that. It’s a superhero movie so you know what’s going to happen. Story-wise, there’s little here that you haven’t seen before, but it’s all done exactly the way a Thor movie would do it, and it does the sensible trick to keep the focus on the main characters – all of whom are improved – and using the setting as the canvas for all the breakneck craziness. The first act is a little cluttered but the rest of the film makes up for it.
Already we can see a more mature Thor. He’s definitely the same guy we all liked, but he’s soberer and dismissive of affection. I’ll admit that I’m still of the mind that such a trait was more written than natural, but Hemsworth still sells it. He still feels the emotional sting of Loki’s betrayal and he hasn’t completely recovered from it, but it’s not one-dimensionally overbearing to the point of buzz kill. He’s just a better character all around. The Avengersreally appears to be a blessing when it comes to setting up a new path for his arc. When the enemy rears its ugly head and awakens Asgard to the threat of imminent doom, Thor and Odin have another argument about what to do. It’s actually the same one they had in the first film, but this time, you’re on Thor’s side because he’s not a jerk.
Darcy and Erik Selvig are relegated to comic relief roles, but they’re still involved, as is their new intern Ian. The Dark World has a bit more of Lady Sif and the Warriors Three, except for Hogun, who’s in the beginning but pretty much exits the movie after that. Heimdall doesn’t have a big role, but Idris Elba is still Idris Elba, proving once again that anyone who was even remotely upset at the thought of a black actor playing someone who was initially drawn as white is just being silly. Each member gets a cooler and more memorable moment, but at the end of the day, it is Loki whom Thor must come to for help.
The impressionable Jane Foster, meanwhile, actually was more central to the film than I thought she’d be. It’s through her and her interactions with Asgardians that allows the magics of everything to be explained (or partially explained) in science terms – continuing the classic Marvel theme of having them be the same thing. I won’t pretend like it all made perfect sense, but it works, especially in the third act.
By seeing more of Asgard, particularly with Jane at the focus, we get a sense of the past world/future world blend. On the one hand, you’ve still got the ridiculous looking costumes that you’re used to by now and people still fight with old melee weapons like swords, axes, and hammers. On the other hand, this movie has space ships, laser rifles, and medical technology that looked like it came straight from Tony Stark’s basement. Are Asgardians really magical gods or just an older and more advanced race of people? You may or may not hear something about this from Loki.
Loki has less screen time in The Dark World than he did in his other two films, but Tom Hiddleston is sensational in the role. He and Hemsworth have cemented their legacies as these characters for generations, regardless of how long they’re destined to stay in them. They show no signs of turning away. Funnily enough, it’s Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman who are a little less interested in bringing their A-game to the movie, but even then they’re still good and they’re playing better characters. Portman and Hemsworth actually have some chemistry in this one…some.
It’s that tight character focus that keeps the film cohesive and very well paced. Alan Taylor knows a thing or two about directing character pieces that have to stand tall and mighty on their own but belong to a greater franchise. But this film isn’t all words, exchanges, and nerding out. It’s an action movie and boy, are you in for it here. There’s a lot of it, but it isn’t a blazing redundant stream of punching, smacking, and destruction porn. There are a couple alien invasions and open field battles, a prison riot, one on ones, and more. It’s all nicely varied with the look, though you can skip the 3D.
I won’t spoil what the third act battle looks like. Just this: think Monsters Inc., but with Thor. The creative team behind Man of Steel may look to it as an example of doing it right.
I must admit that this movie is helped by its franchise and you can’t really see this film without having already seen Thor and The Avengers. If it were on its own, it probably wouldn’t be quite as compelling. However, by having more of everything we liked about the first movie and almost none of what we didn’t, Thor: The Dark World nailed it. It’s tons of fun, a good indication of Marvel’s expansion, and a solid regular superhero movie. If future Marvel movies are at least this good, these characters will be with us for a long time.
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