Written by Zac Platt.
Thor: The Dark World is the next chapter in Marvel Studio’s now eight film long Avengers franchise, and the second solo film for the titular comic book icon. At least until Guardians Of The Galaxy comes out next year, Thor has generally been one of Marvel’s harder sells to a casual audience. While the one part Lord of The Rings, two-part superhero concept sounds like a sure thing on paper, the grandiose mythology frequently runs the risk of dehumanizing the cast. The first Thor movie was at its weakest when it was just Asgardians arguing, but excellent when the Norse Deity played fish out of water. As one of the Avengers, Thor provides an essential dynamic to the team, but amongst his more natural setting he fails to stand out. And what’s true for the character is true for the films. As the next episode in Marvel’s ongoing epic it’s a fun little adventure that sets up some interesting concepts, but as a standalone film The Dark World is found wanting.
Director Alan Taylor has a long history in television, working on many of the most critically acclaimed shows of the last decade. This history in serialised storytelling means it probably shouldn’t come as such a surprise that The Dark World has such a heavy focus on setting the scene for future Marvel films. Not that it necessarily lacks plot or personality, it just feels very much like the middle of a story. However, if it is an exercise in world building, this is certainly a successful one.
Somewhere between Hellboy and The Phantom Menace, this is an Asgard that feels far more lived in than in Thor. There is a utilitarian take on magic that does wonders to make this feel like the same universe as Iron Man or The Hulk. The idea that magic is just a science we don’t yet understand is a well explored concept, but this is one of the better realisations of the theme. The technology/sorcery amalgam is best exemplified through The Dark World’s action pieces. Both the Asgardians and the villainous Dark Elves sport arsenals that are fantastical yet futuristic, creating a style that prevents the movie from feeling like something we’ve seen a million times before. Taylor has the most fun with the concept in the final action sequence, which creatively makes use of the earlier established spatial anomalies to add some real flavour to the battle.
Sadly, the same zest isn’t applied to the film’s godly cast. I’ve always said that with superhero movies character is key, and unfortunately this is The Dark World’s weakest attribute. Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) is a complete write-off as an antagonist. Evil for the sake of being evil, not one moment do you feel any connection to him or understand his motivations. For a villain to work they need to be either someone you can empathise with, or a threat so terrible you believe the hero is in legitimate danger; Malekith is neither.
It’s especially disappointing given how great a villain Tom Hiddleston’s Loki proved to be in previous installments. It makes sense then that the relationship between brothers Thor and Loki is the real centre of the story. While the film’s plot does give them some decent material for familial drama, the chemistry between Hemsworth and Hiddleston just doesn’t feel real anymore. The strained relationship and desire to believe in each other again is great emotional ammo for the film and it is definitely present in the script, but it just doesn’t feel natural on-screen.
Natalie Portman as love interest Jane Foster and Anthony Hopkins as Odin are certainly boons for the film’s credibility, but neither character is really given much depth in The Dark World. Foster’s stumbling upon a magical McGuffin, that Malekith needs to recover, comes off as a contrived method to make her more relevant to the plot. Hopkins is inspired casting for anyone who has read the comics, but aside from explaining subtext to those who will listen, there really isn’t anything for him to do here. On the bright side, Kat Dennings turns out to be a nice surprise as Foster’s intern Darcy, teaming up with Stellan Skarsgård as a now played-for-laughs Erik Selvig to provide much of the film’s light-hearted gags.
The Marvel movies are a strange beast; essentially high-budget episodic story telling disguised as films. It’s great that they can maintain the same bouncy humour and epic tone while taking us to such different settings. There’s definitely some extra enjoyment to be had for fans, with some fun nods to the other entries and an ingenious appropriation of a pivotal Marvel concept that is (finally) introduced.
While it’s easy for a weathered comics fan to see the way Marvel Studios are setting the chess board, it is a concern that the general public may not see the value of this film given a payoff that’s still a few years away. If this turns out to be the case, there may be a lot riding on next year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier to keep people invested. All of which is to say that if you’re on-board the Marvel train, Thor: The Dark World is a fun next chapter in the franchise, but if bombastic super heroics or fantasy settings aren’t your thing then this isn’t the film for you.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10