Identity is a constant struggle in the world of superheroes. There’s who you are, who you want to be, who you’re hiding, and who you’re showing to the world. Likewise, it can be a struggle for films. Many movies have trouble figuring out just what they want to be. That was the biggest problem with 2011’s Thor. A decent movie for its flash and redeemed by its introduction of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Thor struggled to embrace a genre and a place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Luckily, that’s not the case with Thor: The Dark World, a movie that, boosted by consecutive billion-dollar runs in the franchise with Avengers and Iron Man 3, dove fully into a new corner of the MCU and came out stronger for it. This is high fantasy (with a dash of science fiction trappings – much like that other franchise Disney acquired almost exactly one year ago), and by embracing a genre, the movie was able to showcase its now-popular characters more directly in a story that was fun, fast-paced (mostly), and filled with moments for the fans. Thor: The Dark World is in a very real way Lord of the Rings meets Star Wars, and all in the signature Marvel manner.
Thor: The Dark World is a direct sequel to both Thor and Avengers, picking up plot threads of both. Directed by Game of Thrones’ Alan Taylor, it’s no surprise the movie centers on complicated relationships – Thor & Loki, Thor & Jane Foster, Loki & Frigga, Thor & Odin, amongst others. Loyalties, ancient threats, and redemptions are the name of the game here, and it makes for a rousing story for the most part. While the Dark Elves as a whole are about as compelling as the generic Chitauri threat of Avengers and Malekith, the movie’s main villain, is not nearly as fleshed out as Loki before him, the interpersonal relationships of the protagonists work so well that the mostly-forgettable villain isn’t a problem. While the Aether, the ages-old weapon Malekith seeks at first seems like the weapon-of-the-week, a late development makes it incredibly important to the MCU, especially for longtime Marvel Comics fans.
The movie struggles through its first half hour. After a rousing opening sequence establishing the history of the Aether and the Dark Elves (and featuring Bor, father of Odin!), an extended sequence on Earth, especially a dinner scene that is so forced and generic it could have just as easily been a single character listening to an iPod and staring into space for five minutes, slows the film down early. Thankfully, just as your eyes are about to glaze over for good, the movie’s first big turn hits, Thor re-enters the film, and the pace hits a stride it doesn’t break for the remaining eighty minutes or so. Yes, it’s understandable that a movie needs setup, but there had to be a better way to present it.
Once the pace picks up, and that’s mostly once all the major players are in Asgard, this movie is fantastic. Asgard is beautiful and godly, but also much more believable this time around, and the same can be said for all the realms visited in this film. A much higher concentration of actually built sets and on-location shooting, instead of an extremely high reliance on CGI, grounds the golden city and the other eight realms it supports, making it all much more believable. A beautiful painting in the first movie, I can now see how a society lives in this world. As Thor said in the first that “magic” to the people of Earth is just science they don’t understand yet, the blending of science fiction elements, from spaceship chase scenes to insanely cool black hole grenades, works smoothly here, with none of it ever feeling jarring (again, to draw a favorable comparison to Star Wars, there’s no problem there with knights and magicians traveling through space or having in-orbit dogfights, and likewise here seeing Viking-style warriors use lightning staffs against laser guns just doesn’t bother). This time, they are clearly saying, “Yes, this is the MCU’s fantasy corner,” and that makes for a much better movie.
Much has been said about Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki, the trickster god and adopted brother of Thor, and someone could probably write a dissertation on it based almost solely off this movie. Loki fans, do not fear, you will not be disappointed here, from wit (and outright humor) to some bad ass action, Loki gets his time in the spotlight. The quiet, emotional moments that continue to reveal just what kind of man Loki is beneath his entitled bravado, however, are the real scene-stealers. Even after watching him lead a massacre of thousands in New York in Avengers, it is impossible not to find yourself relating to and cheering for this character. It’s simply amazing work by Hiddleston, as well as writer Chris Yost and director Taylor. The movie doesn’t forget that Thor is the titular character, though, with plenty of triumphant and tragic moments for him as well. It’s been interesting seeing Thor’s journey from petulant man-child to true superhero, and by the end of this film, even moreso than after Avengers, you will think of him as one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Likewise, every character in the movie gets their “moment,” with particularly awesome bits from Frigga, Thor’s mother, and one for Fandral the Dashing, the lone recasting for the ensemble. Sif, played by Jamie Alexander, is unfortunately the most underused character here, with her “moment” scene cut short by the fast pace of the story. Jane Foster is the "damsel in distress" a few times, and gets to use her intelligence to help save the day a few times. Overall, her character is a bit of a wash, but Natalie Portman's natural charisma tips the scales slightly to the favorable side.
After an Act 2 with major turning points for all our characters (and one slight Deus Ex Machina that comes out of that thirty minutes of slow setup), Act 3 is all about the final battle between Thor and Malekith. The film showcases the battle in spectacular fashion, taking place across several realms with all the flash and special effects you’d expect from a superhero film. While Chris Eccleston’s character is, again, mostly a placeholder for the “someone to hit very hard with a magic hammer,” he does an admirable job with the limited development allowed to him. His menace oozes out, despite restricted facial expressions and a sometimes-silly voice effect (haaaave you met Bane?), but aside from a few small victories, you’ll never really feel like Malekith can possibly win this fight. Sure, that’s the curse of a superhero movie, but it felt like some level of that danger was missing. None of that took away from the film, but a bit more would have added to it.
Something must be said, too, for the mid and after-credits scenes. First, there’s an incredible recap of the film’s biggest moments done by Blur Studio, the computer animation studio who has made all of the incredible CGI trailers you’ve loved for video games over the last five or six years. Then, the mid-credits scene is simply monumental for Marvel Comics fans, and written in a way that fans of just the films should get nearly as excited. The end-credits scene is worth waiting for as well, and it’s fun to see Marvel borrow a bit from a certain spy franchise with a “Thor will return” coda. Seriously, do not leave before the credits. This is the eighth Marvel Cinematic Universe film, you should know better by now.
Thor: The Dark World without a doubt features a stronger solo story for Thor and his ensemble, and found an identity for this group of characters that the first film was sorely lacking. Embracing a genre and the idea of complex relationships makes this film fit into the MCU in a better and more whole way. With scene stealing moments for nearly every character and a nearly flawless second and third act, you’ll leave the theater definitely wanting more Thor solo films (if only to pick up on the loose threads from this one). Marvel fans will appreciate the major developments to the MCU mythos, and movie fans will enjoy an exciting fantasy adventure full of characters you care about.
Rama Rating: 8 out of 10