Written by David Holland
With the Iron Man trilogy all wrapped up, we’re leaving Earth and returning to the stars. But we’re also coming back to Earth at the end, because if a big battle isn’t going to happen in New York City, you can be darn sure it’s going to happen in London.
There’s not a ton to say about the lead-up to the second Thor film. Marvel announced in April 2011 that after “The Avengers”, Thor would go on to have other solo adventures. This announcement came before “Thor” was even released, much less “The Avengers”, so I guess that means Marvel had a fair amount of confidence that audiences would want more Thor before they’d had any. Not as much confidence as committing to four Avatar sequels over a decade after the original, but still a lot.
Kenneth Branaugh did not return to direct, the turnaround time being a little too quick from the first movie. Instead, Alan Taylor took the helm. Taylor was fresh off of directing some of the best episodes of Game of Thrones season two, like Valar Morghulis, Prince of Winterfell, and The North Remembers, so he seems like a natural choice for a fantasy-heavy superhero flick. Otherwise the cast is pretty much the same as the original – one of the Hemsworths, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Charles Miner, and all of the Merry Men except for one recast. We’re following hot on the heels of “The Avengers” but seeing the events on a more cosmic scale rather than an earthly one such as in Iron Man and Captain America.
How Does it Hold Up?
In preparation for my article this week I dutifully watched the next movie after “Iron Man 3”, which I knew was “Captain America: Winter Soldier”. Then I went back and checked the definitive source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, and learned that “Thor: The Dark World” actually came in between those two, but somehow I had forgotten it. And maybe that’s the best summary for how The Dark World holds up. It’s not a bad movie. It’s… fine. It’s like the Pittsburgh Pirates of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – not good, and not bad. By the way, that’s a sports reference that I definitely knew off the top of my head and didn’t have to ask my sports-versed friend for help with.
We start with a prologue that’s a bit like a scaled down version of the one from Fellowship of the Rings with some soothing voice over from Sir Anthony Hopkins, a Thor who is comfortable in his role as cosmic peacekeeper but brooding over Jane, and a Jane who is on her first date in a long time with the star of IT Crowd, an actor who definitely deserved more screen time. When Jane accidentally infects herself with the Aether – the third Infinity Stone introduced in the MCU, Thor brings her under his protection in Asgard, then on Earth for a daring confrontation with Malekith, the Dark Elf leader seeking to use the Aether for his own purposes.
The film’s director, Alan Taylor, has said in the aftermath of the movie that he was unhappy with how it turned out, and blamed the studio for making changes to the product he submitted. It’s always hard to tell who is really at fault for something like this, but as I’ve pointed out before, other MCU directors have voiced frustration with the studio’s willingness to insist on changes or even makes those changes without consulting them. Never mind the drama that was caused when the original director, Patty Jenkins, dropped the project due to creative differences, which upset Natalie Portman to the point that she very nearly didn’t return. In addition, this movie’s villain stands in stark contrast with Loki from “Thor”, who was tortured, complex, and had very human baggage. Malekith wants the Aether so he can make the universe dark? I guess? I couldn’t even remember Malekith’s name until I watched this again, which is a shame because he’s played by Christopher Eccleston, aka the Ninth Doctor, a man who acts his heart out in every role and deserves better.
My point is that the director was unhappy, the leading lady was unhappy, and the villain was forgettable. But for all its flaws, it has redeeming qualities. The death of Frigga, Thor’s mother, is genuinely heartfelt but is made even more so by the revelation of a ragged, grief-stricken Loki. The fight scenes are cool, the CGI impressive, and this film lays the foundation of the Thor/Loki banter that will play an even bigger role in “Thor: Ragnarok”. In fact, Hemsworth’s and Hiddleston’s performances do most of the movie’s genuine emotional heavy lifting.
Theme: A Child of Two Worlds
Ever since his time on New Mexico in the first movie, Earth has had a special place in Thor’s heart. In “The Avengers”, that manifested in a general love for humanity that brought Thor back to Earth to fight Loki. In this film, Thor’s love for Jane Foster is his driving motivation. He is constantly reminded that he and Jane are too different for a traditional romantic relationship. He could live for five thousand years, while Jane will only live about a hundred. His father encourages him to pursue Lady Sif while Loki mocks him for loving a human. But Thor’s love and connection with humanity contrasts him with Odin, who would willingly sacrifice Asgardians in pitched battle. Unlike his Asgardian counterparts, Thor doesn’t long for battle for its own sake. Instead, he engages in violence only when necessary (it’s necessary a lot in this movie). Thor also has to balance his responsibilities as crown prince with his love for Jane and humanity, which brings its own tension to his decision making. But Thor’s two-world-ness isn’t a weakness, it’s what makes him an effective hero.
Also, Jane Foster is coming back as Thor in “Thor: Love and Thunder”. There wasn’t really a great place to fit that in earlier, but I’m very happy about it.