The terms and ideas surrounding a character like Marvel’s Thor (Odinsleep, bifrost, Yggdrasil, etc.) whether based on Norse mythology or not, are admittedly strange. Yet Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was kind enough to put it ever so simply in his 2011 film, “Your ancestors called it magic but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same“. Well if you found comfort in Kenneth Branagh’s Richard Donner-like origin story, Thor: The Dark World is like taking AP Calculus just when you think you’ve got the hang of your times tables. Not that Alan Taylor’s follow-up film is particularly smart (ambitious is more like it) but in terms of comprehension there’s an unexpected learning curve that’s made easier thanks to the talented cast and a dormant but satisfying balance of action, comedy and super hero-ey goodness.
Following the almost obligatory “bigger is better” sequel mentality Thor: The Dark World is about a malevolent force trying destroy and ultimately revert all of the nine realms to eternal darkness…and who would be happy with that outcome? Dark Elves of course! How they would see, operate or find contentment in infinite darkness (or any end of the world scenario) however is still an end goal to which no storyteller has yet to provide satisfying rationale, but let’s move past that.
Cutting to the chase, Thor: The Dark World is bogged down with its own convoluted story. Now Thor, both the film and the character, is comfortable having a laugh at himself and so the God of Thunder still faces his share of fish-out-of-water hurdles just teeming with subtle humor. Branagh hit the right notes with his 2011 film when he grounded this otherworldly character with a combination of vulnerability, charm and humor. But you can’t save New York City from a trans-dimensional invasion and go back to quaintness or obscurity. After all, this is the guy who goes toe-to-toe with The Hulk – you have to go big or go back to Asgard. Like any A-list super hero Thor must continue to grow, but his second at bat, and the first solo outing in a post-Avengers world plays more like a victory lap instead of a yarn that pushes his cinematic story/mythology forward.
Director Alan Taylor may lose a lot of his audience as the film tries to explain itself. While seeking its footing this sequel comes across a little heavy-handed. Even though this is not a Kenneth Branagh vehicle, this seems entirely Shakespearean, and frankly boring, until it gains traction. It’s lopsided for sure; Thor alone can’t protect Asgard, or Earth against the Dark Elf Malekith’s Star Trek inspired ships/technology or his mindless revenge (5000 years in the making). It comes across a bit hollow because really, this film is like a trojan horse of sorts that find Thor facing a formulaic and ultimately forgettable villain. It’s a less than rousing film about Marvel’s answer to Superman and really just testing audiences’ willingness to follow a Marvel film into outer space…but more on that in a bit.
Now it’s funny that a film about Thor really doesn’t find its legs or even become entertaining until Loki (the brilliant Tom Hiddleston) becomes more of a prominent character. It seems that audiences really do love that puny God of Mischief about as much they love the God of Thunder. Their opinion is justified and though people will claim that Loki needs his own film that won’t really work either; the two are symbiotic and so he and Thor need equal screen time. Novel idea right?
To some degree the complaints that 2011’s Thor lacked action were seemingly heard by the higher-ups who overcompensated to make Thor: The Dark World a constant slug-fest. Yet part of what made Branagh’s film work so well was that the action was relegated to important story beats, not mindless action. Difference being is that the former had tangible stakes in the game. Taylor’s film nearly fails to get us involved emotionally save for a tiny exchange (an afterthought is more like it – we know of the Loki re-shoots/added scenes) between Hopkins and Hiddleston whereby Odin’s own admission we learn the rulers of Asgard are not really Gods; they are born, they live, they die. Loki similarly comments on his acknowledgement of their perceptively infinite but still limited lifespan being roughly 5000 years.
Speaking of five millenia, the threat in this film comes in the form of those Dark Elves (led by Malekith) who seeks to use a cosmic convergence (where all nine realms align) to reveal the location of one of the universe’s most powerful weapons – The Aether. They’ve been in stasis since Odin’s father (The AllGrandfather??) did displace, not vanquish them 5000 years ago. Yet in a bit of convenience, as this “convergence” again draws near, it bends the physics of all nine realms (think the ‘Beyond’ segment of The Animatrix) and allows a sort of portal for Jane (Natalie Portman) to reach Thor and that “physic bending” plays wonderfully and inventively into the film’s action packed finale. Criticism/fan-fueled optimism aside, it all ends on a high note, yet it’s not this story Marvel is betting on. Thor: The Dark World is an undercard fight before the main event in 2015 which reunites the Avengers for The Age of Ultron.
Thor: The Dark World is the first step towards Marvel’s more extra-worldly battles and films. It’s a singular story but one with a more globally, over-reaching theme which is to say it’s really just a sly litmus test. This will determine if audiences will buy into cosmic heroes prior to the Avengers 2 (and ultimately 3) starting with the planned pit-stop to introduce the Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. A comic film or no, Taylor’s sequel is good, but not great. It’s only because of minor side characters (like Kat Dennings oddly enough and of course Hiddleston as Loki) that help establish and sell the wonderful balance between the action and humor. Those beats offset the doldrums in the first 2/3rds of Taylor’s film and help it eek out a win. Truth be told, Thor no longer needs his own solo film. True, Hemsworth is entirely charismatic (leading man or demi-God lummox) but he’s better in a group. As stated above, this film is fun if you view it as a pit stop instead of defining Odinson canon.