Thor: The Dark World opens with a heavy bit of exposition as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) explains in voiceover narration that the movie’s MacGuffin is hidden in one of the nine realms. We’re not told exactly where, mind you, or what the nondescript thing does, only that the villain wants it and that the hero should prevent him from getting it. Have the Marvel pictures become so entrenched in formula that the filmmakers can no longer be bothered to build a story around their perfect blockbuster recipe?
It occurs to me that this is the first real instalment in the studio’s heavily advertised Phase Two. Sure, we got Iron Man 3 (2013) earlier this year, but Shane Black’s self-contained romp felt more like an epilogue to the first wave of films, wrapping up Tony Stark’s emotional arc as the man who ushered the age of super-heroes. In contrast, Thor: The Dark World builds directly from The Avengers (2012) to further the overall myth. Not coincidentally, it’s also the first Marvel movie not to pertain to its own title character.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) doe show up, of course, but only to perform the heroic tasks required by the plot. He heads to London to rescue his love interest (Natalie Portman) from the MacGuffin, comes back to Asgard to meet the baddies, betrays his father to give Loki (Tom Hiddleston) more screen time, and finally travels the nine realms for the climactic battle of Thor: The Dark World, wherein a cosmic convergence causes the characters to constantly shift dimensions, screwing with Mjolnir’s built-in GPS. That last bit is actually pretty neat.
My problem lies in the protagonist having no arc of his own. At the end of Thor (2011), the god of thunder earned the right to become king of Asgard by favouring the fragile earthbound lives in his care. In Thor: The Dark World, he starts off as that perfect, humbled warrior and remains the same throughout, arbitrarily changing his status quo in the last scene to facilitate The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). I’d call the character bland, but it’d leave me without a word to describe the film’s villain: Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), a space-faring elf who looks like an ork and behaves like every alien despot on Saturday morning television.
Even the sets in Thor: The Dark World lack personality. For the first Thor, Kenneth Branagh based his vision of Asgard on the drawings of Jack Kirby, rendering a rainbow-like kingdom so removed from our own aesthetic that we could only imagine titans living there. In contrast, director Alan Taylor presents us here with a generic cross between the lower decks of a Star Trek space station and the castles of Game of Thrones. Some will view this as an improvement, I’m sure, but I prefer my majestic godly abodes to be wondrous and imaginative rather than vaguely relatable.
Thor: The Dark World isn’t all bad, mind you. The movie does rehabilitate Loki from his abysmally shallow depiction in The Avengers, bringing back the conflicted trickster with whom we originally fell in love. Take, for instance, his reply when our hero points out that their mother wouldn’t want them to fight: “Well, she wouldn’t exactly be shocked.” The line reveals not just the brothers’ shared affection for Frigga (Rene Russo) but also the key difference between them: whereas Thor wants to live up to the best in people, Loki recognises individuals as they are and lashes out against those who won’t grant him the same courtesy. This makes it all the more touching how much of his scheme is designed to give the god of thunder exactly what he needs.
Unfortunately, Loki exits Thor: The Dark World far too soon, presumably to leave room for the rest of the supporting cast, which includes Erik (Stellan Skarsgård), Darcy (Kat Dennings), her intern (Jonathan Howard), Sif (Jaimie Alexander), Heimdall (Idris Elba), and two of the Warriors Three. The Asian one (Asano Tadanobu) didn’t make the cut for whatever reason, despite showing up at the beginning. At any rate, it seems to me these movies are getting too crowded, which doesn’t bode well for the future of the Marvel cinematic universe. Consider the mid-credit teaser for Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which Taylor himself has renounced. If the producers weren’t so keen on introducing their new property, they might’ve noticed that the scene shows all the polish of a Doctor Who cosplay video.