Marvel Studios’ string of filmmaking excellence continues – but sags a little bit – with Thor: The Dark World, a film that’s plenty fun but disappointing compared to its simpler, more emotionally satisfying predecessor. I blame Loki. [Note: Very minor spoilers lie ahead.]
The cult of Loki began with Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, which turned the mythical villain into a tragic antiprotagonist, desperate to be loved by his adopted father Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins) and lashing out against his handsome, doltish brother. The slithery sexiness of Tom Hiddleston and the sensitive motivation for his villainy made him the most appealing part of the film, and his almost lovable need for adoration at any cost carried over into Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, which found Loki nearly conquering our planet just so someone would look up him… if only at spear-point.
So Thor: The Dark World places its emotional focus entirely on Loki’s inner turmoil and uncontrollably deceptive impulses. Loki has to reconcile his misguided hatred for his adopted father with his seemingly genuine love for his adopted mother, Frigga (Rene Russo). Loki has to decide whether to set aside his jealousy towards Thor (Chris Hemsworth) long enough to do the right thing, if only for his own selfish reasons. Loki gets to play at possibility of redemption, toy with the inclination towards betrayal, and bait the fanpersons who love him throughout every single second of his classically theatrical subplot.
Meanwhile Thor – who technically gets the most screen time – apparently learned such a valuable lesson about maturity in the first film that he had nowhere to go but nowhere. Thor doesn't have to evolve much as a character ths time out, so he remains heroic and noble throughout the whole of Thor: The Dark World. That’s all fine and dandy, since he’s a hero (and a nobleman), but it’s not nearly as interesting as what Loki gets to go through. At least it’s more interesting than what Thor: The Dark World’s villain gets to work with.
In Thor: The Dark World, Thor fights a villain who wants to reboot all of reality, for no better reason than the baddie would basically prefer it that way. Understandably, Thor is against the idea, but aside from a mid-film plot point – one which really only serves to put Loki back in the middle of the proceedings – the villain Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) inspires little of the action. He’s a big fat MacGuffin who only serves to give the hero someone to fight who isn’t already beloved by audiences the world over, and who could (presumably) be killed by the film’s end without anyone really complaining about it.
And even that would have been fine if Thor: The Dark World didn’t spend half the film explaining the pseudo-science of Malekith’s evil plans, which basically boil down to harnessing evil red energy that’s located in Greenwich for some reason and blowing a bunch of stuff up with it, but which are translated into obtuse gobbledygook whenever anyone on camera actually speaks about them.
But… even the unnecessarily complicated plot and the villain’s overly simplified motivation can’t keep Thor: The Dark World from at least being fun. Let us not allow the towering standard erected by films like Iron Man Three, The Avengers and Captain America to ruin a perfectly sumptuous, good time at the movies. Not every superhero movie has to be better than the film that preceded it. Not every superhero movie has to be thematically resonant or the absolute apex of what the lead character stands for. Thor: The Dark World gets by reasonably well with a series of memorable and inventive action sequences, some beautiful production design and the seemingly effortless charm of its many stars, all of whom turn in wonderful performances.
Two years have passed since the events of Thor, and scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has just started to give up on re-opening the gate to Asgard – thus reuniting her with her godly beloved – when her intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) brings news of a scientific anomaly in Greenwich. The laws of physics no longer seem to apply in a rundown warehouse sitting atop an ancient evil artifact that infects Jane Foster with unlimited power, forcing Thor to return to Earth and find a way to separate her from “The Aether,” a force with the potential to destroy the known universe and – apparently – recreate it in a form more pleasing to Dark Elves.
Those Dark Elves are led by Malekith and his henchman Kurse (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Never mind the fact that the Dark Elves seem perfectly capable of living in this current universe, and that their population is small enough to populate a small community in Iowa without anyone even noticing much. Try not to think about it. No one else did.
Thor brings Jane Foster to Asgard to protect her, she gets to meet his disapproving father (which leads to some amusing awkwardness), and then the Elves attack and send Thor: The Dark World hurtling into a second half filled with uncomfortable alliances, a thrilling and unexpected heist subplot and a grand finale of an action sequence that caroms across the known and unknown universe. That finale is a bit of a wonder: the editing is spectacular, and director Alan Taylor finds a new way to bring Thor’s hammer Mjolnir to life that’s both funny and manages to escalate the tension skyward.
Fun stuff, but only a few last-minute plot points make Thor: The Dark World feel like anything more than filler in the grand Marvel Studios design, or an extended piece of fan service for the Loki acolytes of the world. The proper villain just doesn’t make much of an impression, and the heart and soul of the film are just far enough removed from the actual hero that – in the end – it doesn’t feel like Thor went through as much as he should have to fully justify another whole movie dedicated to him. But if you still love Thor, and especially if you still love Loki, Thor: The Dark World more-or-less satisfies.