Please note: this review is filled with spoilers, and meant for reading after you’ve seen the film. Spoiler-filled comments are also welcomed on this post.
Our spoiler-free review is here.
Earlier this year, Iron Man 3 showed that it’s possible for the Avengers to return to their solo adventures with enviable ease following the Marvel Studios mash-up that smashed box office records. Now it’s the turn of Thor and Loki to make that journey as Thor: The Dark World brings everyone’s favourite Asgardians back for another feature-length outing, pitting the brothers Odinson against Malekith and the Dark Elves. It, er, sounds goofier than it is.
Virtually the entire cast returns for the sequel, some fresh off The Avengers, other back for only their second outing. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are back alongside a freshly-traumatised Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), while Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and intern Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) return from the original Thor alongside a clutch of supporting Asgardians too numerous to list. Usual sequel rules apply: the groundwork is laid, now it’s time to go bigger.
And it is bigger, in all the ways that you can measure. It’s funnier than the first, it’s got more thrilling action, the characters have more nuance. It’s everything you expect a Marvel blockbuster to be. But it also isn’t quite as good as it could’ve been. As a Marvel fan and a comics nerd, I left with a grin, wanting to see it all again. But I also couldn’t help acknowledging the weaknesses.
An obvious touchstone here is Iron Man 2, a sequel oft-maligned not because it was particularly bad (it wasn’t) but because it wasn’t as bold and confident as its openly superb predecessor. In the same way, Thor: The Dark World suffers mainly by comparison to Thor and The Avengers, providing a less coherent and less thematically solid story. There’s still huge amounts to love, of course – Shakespearean familial machinations, nerd easter eggs and action sequences that make you want to leap from your seat and cheer – but amidst all that, it feels like a film that isn’t entirely sure what its story is.
It may be called The Dark World, but it definitely isn’t as dark as that implies. There’s a huge amount of comedy, much of which is provided by Kat Dennings’ Darcy, the Gen-Y intern and surprise breakout character from the original Thor. There’s nary a line she utters nor a glance she shoots that doesn’t land flawlessly, and her wisecracks fill the void left by the comparative lack of fish-out-of-water comedy moments the likes of which made the original so charming. In a very real way, she saves the plot from getting too po-faced about itself and smoothes out the clunkier moments of exposition. No matter how much of her you see, you want more.
Perhaps spurred by the competition for our affections, Natalie Portman also takes a step up. There’s still not a huge amount of chemistry between her and Hemsworth, but this time she throws herself into the role to the same degree that Anthony Hopkins decides to phone it in as Odin. It helps that she’s given more to do, more to say, and in particular her interactions with Loki are screen dynamite. But there’s something telling about the way the film’s romantic subplot is resolved as a literal afterthought. This isn’t the Thor and Foster show, like the first film – the creative team has long since realised that the relationship that matters in this film is Thor and Loki.
If anything’s above reproach, it’s the way the film uses London. Marvel knows the value of conveying a sense of place, and just as New York delighted audiences in The Avengers, London gets its time in the spotlight this time around. You can’t fault its use of iconic locations (but not obvious ones – no Big Ben here!) save for the sole complaint that we don’t get a shot of Thor channelling lightning down The Shard, which seems like a no-brainer.
The British texture is woven right into the film’s fabric, from the University of Greenwich to the police’s high-vis jackets to the most prominent use of a can of Vimto that the medium of cinema will likely ever produce. It gives the film a completely different look and feel to the first, but at the same time it’s a perfect fit for the character.
Perhaps the most surprising plot thread revolves around Thor and Loki’s relationship with Frigga, something that’s great to see particularly in the context of a cinematic landscape dominated by father-son narratives. It’s a shame we don’t see more of it, given how her story concludes, because it asks us to fill in rather more about her importance than we’re capable of doing comfortably. More than most, this arc is saved from failure by Hiddleston, whose strengths are such that when Frigga asks if she’s his real mother, he says “no”, but we can tell that he’s thinking “yes”.
What’s intriguing is that even as Marvel’s naming conventions attempt to break free of the ‘trilogy’ mentality – this isn’t called ‘Thor 2’, nor will we see a movie named ‘Captain America 2’ – the film itself has the distinct feeling of a middle-instalment. It’s downbeat. Bad things happen to good people because they do the right thing. The victories are pyrrhic. Threads are started then dropped – Sif and Thor’s relationship, Heimdall’s allegiances, Odin’s grief… – even the final scene is a cliffhanger. It couldn’t be more The Empire Strikes Back if the hero got his hand… oh, right, yeah.
The problem, though, is Malekith. For all the plates the film tries to keep spinning, this is the one that wobbles too much. Malekith’s motivations are flimsy, free from all subtext and complexity, and thinly-articulated to the point of one-dimensionality. Christopher Eccleston is horrendously under-used, and it doesn’t help that most of his dialogue is in a made-up Elvish tongue.
On the press tour, director Alan Taylor has suggested that a lot of Malekith’s backstory and interactions with the heroes was cut from the running time, and if that’s true then we can’t help but wonder if it was a mistake to lose it. Without a credible villain – no matter how hard Eccleston works – the story lacks the urgency and gravitas it needs, and no amount of Malekith killing major cast members can replace a well-realised personality. Discounting The Incredible Hulk‘s Abomination on a technicality (it was a Paramount co-production!) Malekith is easily the weakest antagonist in a Marvel Studios movie yet.
So that’s Thor: The Dark World in a nutshell. It makes the right moves, delivers the right flourishes, but somehow it’s missing the secret ingredient that takes it from good to great. Like Iron Man 2, there’s a lot of giving the audience what we thought we wanted – higher stakes, team-ups and a more serious treatment of the material – but maybe it should’ve been a bit more Iron Man 3, and given us something we didn’t realise we wanted instead. The original Thor movie wasn’t perfect, but it knew what it was doing and got most of the way there. This one doesn’t know what it’s doing, and ends up halfway to about three different places instead.
So definitely go and see Thor: The Dark World. Laugh at its jokes, revel in spending time with the characters, and try to not to lose your grip when the story makes a leap you weren’t ready for. It’s still a better waste of two hours than most blockbusters this year will be. But for a film about gods, it’s a shame that for all its bluster, it doesn’t quite deserve the worship you want to bestow on it.
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