Marvel Cinematic Universe: Thor: The Dark World

Click here for Ant Man, here for Avengers: Age of Ultron, here for Guardians of the Galaxy and here for Captain America: Winter Soldier.

Okay! Let’s get this over with.

Background

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Like a lot of MCU projects, plans for a Thor sequel had been teased since before the first one even hit cinemas. This came as a surprise to the first Thor director Kenneth Branagh, who showed reticence straight up, although this was mostly because the first movie hadn’t come out yet. In 2011, a sequel was announced with Chris Hemsworth involved, but not Branagh himself. He cited the time commitment and unwillingness to jump back into such a complicated, effects-driven film so soon after the first one. He showed no ill will, seemingly and stated he enjoyed his time working with Marvel. This was kind of a shame, as Branagh’s Shakespearean graft really suited the world of Thor and Asgard, but alas a new director needed to be found.

This goes into one of the more controversial elements of the movie. Monster director Patty Jenkins was attached to direct. Natalie Portman, who played Thor’s love interest Jane Foster, signed on to reprise her role based on her admiration of Jenkins’ work and finally having a female director working in the MCU. Her idea for the sequel was pretty interesting as well: a Romeo and Juliet-inspired story with Thor and Jane, being separated on worlds they have no connection to, and Maleketh forming his evil plans on Earth itself because Odin has no interest in it.

Sadly, this was not meant to be. Marvel were not interested in Jenkins’ vision and, fearing she wouldn’t be able to adequately produce what they wished for on top of the burden of being a female director in a genre that hasn’t been kind to female-led involvement, she decided not to continue working on it. This wasn’t as dramatic as the Wright case as Jenkins didn’t work for years on this project. It’s unlikely a script had even been completed-Thor writer Don Payne had been working on one, but it didn’t appear that anything concrete had been handed up by then. Anyway, there seems to be no animosity between the two parties. It’s not like Jenkins lost out-four years later she’d work on another little superhero film Wonder Woman, which ended up surpassing Dark World in every regards. This did end up being a thorn in the side of Portman, who really wanted to work with Jenkins, but stayed on to fulfill contractual obligations. The eventual potential fallout of this doesn’t really affect this production, but it’s worth noting.

Eventually they went looking for other directors, including Alan Taylor. Taylor was best known for a multitude of television work, in particular Game of Thrones. He eventually won the job and went for a more grounded, gritty real look instead of the magical realist and fantasy-laden feel of the first film. He brought over his GoT’s cinematographer Kramer Morgenthu to help him with this. Payne’s script was rewritten by Robert Rodat. This was eventually passed onto Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who worked on the Captain America movies and are two of Marvel’s primary screenwriters. They passed drafts back and forth with celebrated comic book script Chris Yost, who was also rewriting while on set.

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I’m sure this director/DoP team have experience with humanoid-looking monsters anyway

Production went pretty smoothly and most of the actors from the first movie reprised their roles with little drama. The only exception to this was Joshua Dallas, who couldn’t return as Fandral in the Warriors Three due to commitments to Once Upon a Time, and was replaced by Zachary Levi. The biggest of the new cast were the villains. Mads Mikkelen was in line to play one of them, but could not commit to the part (he would go on to play the villain in Doctor Strange). Eventually, Christopher Eccleston was cast as main villain Malekith, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje went on to play Algrim. Principal photography began in September 2012, and they shot all over the world going for less of a greenscreen reliance like in the last film. There was also an attempt to make everything more globe hopping, similar to the structure of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Film was wrapped in December 2012. Rewrites were even handled by Joss Whedon during reshoots.

Thor: The Dark World had its premiere in October 2013, and was released theatrically over that month and November. So, how’d it do?

The Same, But Bigger

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Some of these terms I throw in are kind of self explanatory, but for the sake of it “The Same, But Bigger” doesn’t mean they literally do the same movie, but amp up certain parts. It’s that they do a similar story, or even one that follows predictable beats, and oversell a lot of elements people like about the first movie. Sequels are hard, especially as they tend to be following certain films whose success wasn’t a given and, more importantly, didn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for a follow up. Thor was not the case here, seeing as there was a lot about the Nine Realms that had a ton of potential and over half a century’s worth of comic books to pull from.

And I really liked the Romeo and Juliet angle Patty Jenkins had. It gave the story a lot of much needed emotional stakes for our main breeding pair, and it paid off one of the more significant moments in the last film, that being the destruction of the Bifrost. But nope! The bridge was restored between movies (apparently explained in a tie-in comic), so thanks for diluting any consequence the ending of Thor may have had. I even think the chaos the Nine Realms could have made a really fun story, yet again paying off a bit of consequences from the original film and giving the Asgardians supporting cast more to do, but we open with that having been covered, so I guess not.

Here we are, then; the same but bigger. And yes, Thor: The Dark World isn’t exactly like its predecessor, but it has some pretty similar plot beats. A former enemy of Asgard with a personal history with the main family re-emerges, and its connection with one of our main characters makes everything spiral. Thor’s actions indirectly lead to pretty dire consequences putting him at odds with his dad. Odin is out of commission, so it’s up to Thor to team up with his friends, including the science team from Earth, to save the day. Along the way, he’s betrayed by his brother Loki, including him faking his death to escape justice.

Again, not exactly the same in terms of how things happen, etc. but it feels a bit rote. What’s worse, though, is that there’s a lot of lacking connective tissue here.

The Story is Both Weirdly Convoluted, and Way too Pedestrian

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This movie has a strangely busy plot, and absolutely none of it connects with you. But from the top, a summary:

The Dark Elves were a mythical species from the beginning of time, when there was only darkness. Their leader Malekith wishes to go back to only that. He tried using the Aether to destroy the Nine Realms during a time called Convergence, where all the Realms merge. Bor, Thor’s grandfather, stops the Dark Elves, and  Malekith murders his own people to secure an escape. This…apparently convinces the Asgards that all the Dark Elves are dead, and they secure the Aether at Malekith’s homeworld to keep its immense power from the wrong hands.

We cut to thousands of years later, and Malekith returns because its Convergence time again. Loki has been imprisoned, and Thor is serving his father’s whims by pacifying the Nine Realms. He is still pining over Jane Foster, who is doing the same in England.  Jane and her team find a portal between Earth and the Aether, and it conveniently pulls her right to it. It then possesses her, and this causes Thor to take her to Asgard to be examined. As Malekith wishes to take the Aether and complete his eons-long plan, Thor needs to save his beloved while also battling Odin’s dismissal of their pairing, wanting his son to take his place as King of Asgard.

I’ll go into more of the nitty gritty later, but that’s the basic set up. It takes a really damn long time for all these pieces to fall into place as well, which brings up its really erratic pace. It spends so much time getting viewers up to scratch on these otherworldly concepts that very little groundwork is made on the character beats and motivations.

With all this establishment and plotting, and paying off stuff that happened in Avengers, AND making sure the Aether gets a lot of time in the spotlight because it plays into the larger MCU narrative, it’s no wonder this film feels as flaccid as it does. There’s a lot being thrown at you way too quickly and in an undercooked way. A lot of ground is not laid for emotionally compelling or fulfilling arcs or plot strands. If we’re not going to give the heroes something to chew on, or interesting adventures and ideas to explore, you better make your villain run the show well, and you already know where this is going.

Let’s Just Get the Stupid Villain Out of the Way

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Malekith and the Dark Elves are awful, awful antagonists and are one of the biggest reasons this movie is not so fondly remembered. This isn’t something I’m willing to devote a lot of time on, as I think it’s universally agreed that he’s one of the worst villains. But I’m forced again to compare them to something in the first Thor and it’s a huge reason as to why they don’t work.

The Frost Giants are not that interesting. And they have similar dimensions to the Dark Elves, being former enemies of Asgard brought back into their path due to circumstances created by Thor. Here’s the difference, though-they matter to Loki a hell of a lot, and bring out a lot of dimensions to his character. Because they have such an impact on one of our leads, they add more texture to the story and keep themselves from just turning into generic henchmonsters.

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While I’m here, the other Dark Elves look dreadful! It’s like if that sex cult in Eyes Wide Shut hit the crystals too hard and decided to go to Comic Con dressed as their best guess of the Putty Patrol in Power Rangers! At least Malekith’s design was cool.

Malekith, conversely, does not have that. He doesn’t actually do anything to make Jane grow and change and has no real connection to her outside of being a means to an end. He doesn’t even have any grudge or antipathy for anybody else in the cast! He fought Odin’s dad, a character we do not know (hell, I only found out whilst writing this that he was played by Tony Curran!). There is fuck all emotional tension when he attacks because the only stakes are survival.

None of this would even matter if Malekith had any character, but he just doesn’t. The one trait he has is that he’s ruthless. He kills his own people to escape Bor’s army, he sends kamikaze soldiers into Asgard later to bring down their shields, and he turns his most loyal henchmen into a mindless killing machine to complete his mission. Does this connect you to him on any way, even in disgust? Does this make him a more three dimensional, fully fleshed out being? Hell, does this trait do anything in terms of his downfall? Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy is second only to Malekith in boring villains, but at least his self-seriousness eventually led to his defeat!

I have no transition here, let’s talk aesthetics and more technical stuff.

The “Real” and the Action

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In terms of production, well, it looks great. It’s an MCU movie, so more’s the surprise. Outside of the aforementioned Dark Elves, the costuming and Asgard aesthetic is on point. I think Thor looks better here than he did prior, and the robes they give Jane are great. The production design and location gives everything far more weight than previously, and I appreciated it. The same can’t be said for when we go back to Earth and everything has this washed out, really drab looking appeal to it. Once the otherworldly majesty is not the focus, everything just looks boring.

The other example is the Dark Elves’ home world, where the over-exposed but also grim aesthetic kind of kills a lot of the immersion for one of the most significant events in the story. This kind of gives a tonal whiplash with everything going on-exciting mysterious worlds combined with a lot of nothing once we leave Asgard. There is a consistent attempt of realist cinematography, but the fantasy is just peaking over it yelling at you for your attention, and it makes everything come across as weightless.

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So glad we left the vibrant and majestic Asgard to shoot this black metal video

The action scenes are also a mixed bag. I really like the opening one with Thor taking on that rock monster guy. It’s got a wide berth in terms of shot composition and uses Thor’s personality to turn on a dime and make everything exciting. This also works in the chase scene out of Asgard, especially cutting to Thor and Loki’s interactions. It’s one of the few times humour and action are balanced really well. Also, the final fight is so goddamn creative and fun, with monsters popping up and the environments interacting from different Realms is super neat and everything is just well shot and framed to get a sense of scale.

But ones like Malekith’s siege of Asgard is choppy and badly focused, with Frigga’s fight being the one moment that works. They keep the focus tight and her fighting is well choreographed, but even that is cut annoyingly short. I hate the weird way the ships are framed when they’re ramming into Asgard’s shields, and Heimdall’s running down the Bifrost just feels weirdly rubbery to me. Thor and Loki’s fight with Malekith in the Dark World was let down by the aforementioned dull aesthetics issue. It’s also a bit weirdly staged-I know Thor and Loki have a plan, but everyone seems to just wait their turn until Malekith just gets what he wants because the plot said so. It’s actually kind of funny how bad that plan fails considering how much effort clearly went into it!

So the visuals in this audio-visual presentation are kind of a mixed bag. They add to the problems the story structure has of everything feeling fractured and too unevenly focused. It fails to keep you gripped and really there in this world with our characters. But maybe this will be made up by just solid characterisation to keep our investment and keep the stakes high! And you know they aren’t because I bitched about the characters already, but let us pretend there’s suspense to be had!

Too Many Characters, Bathos, Thor’s “Arc” and Loki’s Arc

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If you can tell by now, arguably the biggest problem with Thor: The Dark World is its lack of focus. This is especially the concern of how it handles its cast. It’s incredibly overstuffed, and most of them do not get the chance to get fleshed out enough to make an impact. This is especially true of the Earth cast, who are set aside for large chunks of time, and don’t really get a hell of a lot to do when they are onscreen. Darcy gets an extended role and even her own assistant/love interest who is hot air. Her “extensions” include getting Jane to call off her date, getting Selvig out of an asylum, and…that’s it, really. All her other actions are mostly bad jokes and helping out the plans of the others like she did the last time.

Speaking of Selvig, he’s turned into ineffective comic relief until his McGuffin-adjacent Convergence navigating…things actually matter for the climax. This is also one of the biggest examples of the humour, which incorporates a lot of bathos. Bathos, if you are not aware, is undercutting dramatic moments with jokes. We see this happen with Darcy a lot, like when they discover the Convergence and she wants to drop somebody’s shoe into it. Bathos can be very effective in terms of diffusing tension or adding a bit of character to the proceedings, but here it’s obnoxious and badly timed and seems to be the only thing a lot of characters are useful for. Including Chris O’Dowd, who is in about 3 scenes and his only goddamn purpose is to call Jane and that’s it. Otherwise, he imbues humour in awkward, inappropriate moments the few times he’s onscreen.

That’s the Earth crowd, but what of the Asgard people? They’re, like, around? Heimdall gets some decent screen time, but he’s mostly there to harp exposition and just be cool. We lose one of the Warriors Three early on for some reason, and the rest are just floundering until Thor’s escape plot. Sif is probably the most interesting one, because there’s clearly meant to be romantic tension between her and Thor that’s one sided, and this goes nowhere. It’s not like you can’t balance this cast, but they don’t bother. Whatever the movie’s priorities are, it’s not on world building or giving us more adventures with these distinctive personalities. Their focus is on Thor and Loki. So, if we can cut to various characters whose actions and personalities lead us nowhere, how does it build on our leads?

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Thor’s arc, as it were, is choosing between Earth and Asgard, represented through Jane and Odin respectively. Let me backtrack here-I forgot to go into the overarching theme I’ve said Phase 2 movies follow in my Winter Soldier review, and that’s “Adapting”. Mostly because it’s so baked within the narrative-Steve Rogers is all about adapting, his old world values with the scary new world among us. I bring this up now because the adapting thing could be perfect for Thor’s growth. He has to choose to take on his role as King of Asgard or abandon that for Jane. Difference here is that he doesn’t adapt both. And I mean he has the option to-he can easily go back and forth to Asgard now. This isn’t even considered, they make it some form of ultimatum.

Now, the bigger one that is discussed is that Jane will die, whereas Sif will live as long as he does. That’s something directly stated by Odin himself. That’s a way more compelling argument, and it leads to one of the better conversations between Thor and Loki. However, this isn’t really framed as if it’s the emotionality that’s the issue, moreso that he’s giving up his responsibilities for this mortal woman. Nobody ever tries to argue that he can choose both, and that they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it. To use a similar example from Lord of the Rings, this was a lot more compelling in the case of Aragorn and Arwen because their personal attachment is emphasised a lot. With Arwen, the crisis is her being devastated for all her life over losing the man she loves. With Thor, it’s mostly his dad chastising him for not taking his responsibilities more seriously.

Oh, let’s talk about Odin! While my mind may change about him once I rewatch Thor, I got the impression that he had his nefarious and manipulative side, but he was all around intelligent and had Asgard’s best interest at heart. Neato, then, that he’s kind of a fucking idiot because the plot needs him to be. I just don’t get why he doesn’t want his son to be with Jane outside of prejudice, and if that’s the case, this is never brought up in the narrative and it’s just Odin being bullheaded and cruel for no real reason. Yet, this is presented like he’s considering the options Thor won’t. When Jane comes up to Asgard, he’s completely against this even though she’s possessed by the fucking Aether, it’s in all their best interests she be there. It’s implied he doesn’t know something mystical is up with her, but 1. Why would nobody tell him? and 2. Even if that’s the case, wouldn’t he ask why she’s here or would someone, I don’t know, explain what she fucking did on Earth to calm him down?!

We get to after Frigga’s death, and while I understand Odin is grieving, his actions are still really nonsensical. It’s not even that keeping Jane under lock and key is unfair to her, it’s just that having Malekith attack Asgard is a terrible way of getting him. This is all just to contrive a way for Odin not to be part of the final battle as he’s clearly very powerful and it will lower the stakes. It is also a way for Thor to defy his father and choose Jane through actions instead of words.

It’s also really annoying how Thor shows very little reaction to his mother’s death here. Even wanting to confront Malekith for revenge seems more like Loki’s desire than his. This kind of goes back to just how badly developed Frigga was through both films. It’s a shame, she has a great actor and it’s sweet how she seems to care for Jane, and is the only family member to show visible affection to Loki. They try to say he got her trickery from her, but outside of one incidence of her using a glamour you don’t really see that through her personality. Thor says at one point he was closer to Frigga than Loki, but it’s so hilariously not displayed well.

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The biggest issue with Thor and Jane’s romance being such a big focus; it doesn’t change our protagonist. At all, really. I know ‘want vs need’ is not a hard and fast rule of storytelling, but it’s a good way to get growth across with easily reached parameters. And this isn’t the case with Thor, he always wants Jane, and at the end that’s what he needs. Not helping matters is how little chemistry they have in this film-Jane constantly feels like a plot point. Nothing that happens to her seems to phase her personality or help her grow. Even the awe of seeing Asgard in person isn’t that highlighted. Having one of the most powerful items in her body doesn’t do anything beyond force her to be involved in the plot. And this is who Thor gives it all up for!

Let’s move onto Loki. He has easily the strongest characterisation and is just the best thing about these films in general. It’s actually a smart move to keep him out of the action for most of it, because it makes the moments he is there all the more impressive. Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth have excellent chemistry, they really do feel like brothers. They set up his relationship with Frigga decently, and actually give him a lot of complex feelings of guilt after she dies. That funeral was just a nothing thing, but his breakdown was legitimately touching. Even with this all being a ploy to get out of jail and take the throne while his father is incapacitated, you genuinely buy his love for his mother and his desire for revenge. “I didn’t do it for him” rings really true. Him deceiving his brother doesn’t change that. He’s clearly not all there yet, and usurps the throne through deceit, but it’s solid character building.

So yeah, bit of a positive to end on. Good work on the one character ye bothered to develop. Shame about the rest.

Post-Credit Scene & Miscellaneous

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Mid-credit scene this time was a set up for Guardians of the Galaxy, the scene was even directed by James Gunn. Volstagg and Sif  visit The Collector (his first appearance along with his assistant who betrays him in GotG) and give him the Aether, which is made of the Reality Stone. The Collector says one down and we end there. This has more consequences for Infinity War than for his next appearance, but it’s a nice tease to the funky sci-fi world of the Guardians of the freaking Galaxy.

Post-credit is Jane eating cereal when Thor arrives from Asgard. Probably should have been in the actual film, but I get them wanting to end the film on the cliffhanger of Loki disguising himself as Odin and taking over Asgard. Also the monster thing that walked out of his Realm via the Convergence chasing birds around. Cute.

More things I noticed:

-I know I said this in the review, but I still can’t get over the usage of Chris O’Dowd in this film! What’s even worse is that he’s not even funny! Why waste a really talented, funny guy like that?
-I did like the call back to the ‘Another!’ gag. See, there are things I liked in this movie!
-There is also some neat transitions, like that one that cuts from the Thor being transported via the Bifrost to across the “Rainbow Bridge” itself.
-Still dunno why they needed those kids to find the truck. It’d be more impressive and economical if they just discovered it themselves. Oh well, it’s a minor point.
-Don’t like the design of the Dark Elves, but their ships with the blade on their edges are pretty cool
-Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s character is really just there to transform into that monster and kill Frigga to give Loki some catharsis as he’s the one who kills him and avenges his mother’s death. It’s never established that he knows it’s this thing, but still.
-Frigga’s death was a big thing at the time because the MCU had a habit of not killing its recurring cast, but as I said it rings hollow. It’s trying so goddamn hard to be a moment, but let down by an over-indulgent score and her just not being a fleshed out character. The sparkles from her ship looked nice, though.
-Idris Elba apparently really, *really* hated shooting the spaceship cutting scene. He wanted out so bad, but he’d have to wait a while I guess…
-Speaking of, Heimdall betraying Odin to help Thor free Jane and escape Asgard actually has serious ramifications for his character in Ragnarok. It’s one of the few plot points that carries over from here.
-There is that moment where they try to compare Odin to Malekith because of former willing to sacrifice his people to get at the latter, but it may have worked better if anything happening was a little better justified by the narrative I don’t know…
-Chris Evans as Loki was great. He’s got the mannerism down pat.
-It’s funny that Loki was one of the best things in the film, because he originally may not have been in it. His popularity in The Avengers had them rewrite the script to give him a prominent role. While seeing Loki is always a great, perhaps that time would have been served to better flesh out the villains or the other characters.
-Really terrible framing of Thor explaining the plan to free Jane from his father and then them doing the plan. Kills the momentum.
-Apparently Kevin Feige, Anthony Hopkins and Alan Taylor weren’t sure if Odin died at the end or not. Feige hints he’s alive, Taylor thought he’s dead and Hopkins wasn’t sure but he was done. This was obviously resolved in Thor: Ragnarok.
-The use of the Reality Stone’s power doesn’t exactly match up with how it’s used the next time it appears.

Conclusion

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Thor: The Dark World is a thuddingly dull and below average film. All the potential it could have had for something decent was squandered just to rethread the spine of the original Thor thematically, and not do anything adventurous or exciting. An overstuffed and poorly developed plot, wonky pacing and lack of focus absolutely water down any potential for this to stand out. This is exemplified by it’s flaccid and unthreatening villain Malekith, who gives nothing to the story outside of its main conflict. Some decent action, improved production designs and decent use of the character of Loki don’t help matters here. Chris Hemsworth seems a lot more comfortable in the character here, admittedly.

All of this you likely knew, I’m not giving you any new information. I’m doing this out of obligation, and it remains one of this franchise’s most uninspired and unchallenging sequels. It’s the MCU movie I imagine people who don’t like MCU movies see every time, and I’m happy to put this out of my conscious now that this review has come to its end.

4/10

And here’s its ranking:

  1. Captain America: Winter Soldier
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy
  3. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  4. Ant Man
  5. Thor: The Dark World

Let’s conclude our look at Phase 2 with a look at the conclusion of the trilogy of the film that started this whole ride.

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