Of the Phase One movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor was the one that seemed least likely to succeed. Iron Man felt familiar as a superhero story, while Captain America had a mass appeal, but Thor was unusual. It had a Shakespearean family drama involving gods combined with a fish-out-of-water story and a bit of romance. The question was whether viewers could buy an immortal, Norse god as a superhero on the big screen. It was a surprise success, however, and in my view was the key film in setting up The Avengers, both in laying the plot foundation and in expanding the expectations of audiences.
So here we are two years later with Thor: The Dark World. After a Lord of the Rings-style prologue that tells the story of the Dark Elves, inhabitants of one of the Nine Realms who desire to return the universe to the darkness of its early days, we are caught up on where are heroes are now. Thor and Loki have returned to Asgard after Loki’s attack on New York was stopped by the Avengers, while Jane Foster and company are continuing the research that first brought her and Thor together. Thor spends his days trying to bring peace to the Nine Realms, which fell into chaos after he destroyed the Bifrost at the end of Thor and cut off Asgard from all of the other Realms. He and his loyal warrior friends fight for peace while Loki languishes in prison, scorned by his adopted father, Odin, but occasionally visited by his mother who still sees hope in him.
Everything changes when Jane Foster, who came to London searching for her colleague Erik Selvig (who is spending his time running naked around Stonehenge placing scientific devices and getting arrested), discovers a portal in an abandoned building. She is drawn through the portal and finds herself in a mysterious place, where she encounters the Aether, a powerful object capable of returning to the universe to darkness, which proceeds to attach itself to her. This event awakens the dormant Dark Elves, thought to have been wiped out by Thor’s grandfather, who resume their quest to rewrite the universe. Thor quickly whisks her to Asgard for her protection, and the Dark Elves begin their attack as they search for Jane.
If none of that makes any sense, no worries, it’s not that important. It’s enough to know that there’s a dark, magical McGuffin that has the power to destroy the world and some bad guys are after it. In previous Marvel movies it was the Tesseract, but now it’s the Aether and it has the power to destroy the universe. It’s not the most original threat, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has never been about coming up with new and creative threats. Instead, the focus has always been on character, and that is where Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and The Avengers shine.
Thor: The Dark World gives us a continuation of the family drama from two previous films. Thor, as the future king, struggles with what it means to rule and the decisions that have to be made. In the first film he learned both humility and the important lesson that a king doesn’t seek out battle for his own amusement. Here he’s trying to balance his duty to the kingdom with his love for a human, someone from a different realm who will only live a fraction of his lifetime. Loki, meanwhile, has seemingly gone full-on villain after the events of The Avengers, and while he still wants to rule and to prove himself more than anything, he’s starting to feel the consequences of his actions. The trust is gone between him and Thor, but they are still brothers and that bond is hard to completely sever, and that relationship still is at the heart of the films.
Chris Hemsworth has matured a lot as an actor, as has Thor as a character. There’s a weary quality to the performance, as Thor has come a long way from the carefree alpha-male of the first film, and he carries more burdens than we’ve seen at this point. Loki, who in the last two years has become the internet’s favorite sexy, bad-boy, misunderstood semi-villain, lights up the screen whenever he’s on it. In fact, the film might be a bit slow until Loki becomes integral to the plot in the second half. Tom Hiddleston can deliver sneering insults as well as anyone out there, yet also captures the inner sorrow of a man with a desire to prove himself but without a means to do it. We never know exactly where Loki stands or whose side he is on, and that makes the character and performance exciting to watch. The question with Loki isn’t even necessarily whether redemption is possible, but whether that is something he is even interested in.
The rest of the cast from Thor returns, including Anthony Hopkins as Odin, who disapproves of Thor’s feelings for Jane, and an expanded part for Rene Russo as Frigga, Thor’s mother. Natalie Portman isn’t given a whole lot to do in this film, as she mainly serves as a vessel for the Aether, but she manages to have a real chemistry with Chris Hemsworth in their few scenes alone together. She makes the most of several fun moments, including slapping Loki and telling him, “That’s for New York,” but she doesn’t make as interesting a companion for Thor as Pepper Potts does for Tony Stark in the Iron Man films. Stellan Skarsgard is back as Selvig, now at least 80% more crazy, and Kat Dennings is consistently hilarious as intern Darcy, who snarkily assists Jane Foster and gets some of the film’s best lines. Thor’s battle companions, the Warriors Three, are back (though with the addition of Zachary Levi to the cast), as is Idris Elba’s guardian Heimdall, but they have so little to do and are so one dimensional as characters that they’re hardly worth mentioning.
Here’s the thing, though: Thor: The Dark World is a lot of fun. The threat our heroes are facing may be silly and unoriginal, the supporting cast might be one dimensional and the film’s mythology might be too complex for the average moviegoer, but all of those complaints fade away once the film gets started. It’s a testament to the film’s storytelling that a movie with those sort of faults can be so damn enjoyable. The cast does a great job with what they’re given, particularly Hemsworth and Hiddleston, and the movie flows along at a pace that keeps character interaction at the forefront of the action. Directing duties were taken over by Alan Taylor, who replaced Kenneth Branagh who so skillfully balanced Shakespearean drama and comedy in the first film, and the change in direction helps the film feel fresh.
Taylor, who has risen to fame lately by directing Game of Thrones episodes, finds his own balance to the storytelling and style of the film. In the first Thor, there was a line about Asgard being a place where science and magic are one and the same, but for the first time we really see that. Taylor takes a bit of Lord of the Rings and combines it with a bit of Star Wars to give the film a look that feels unique and interesting. There’s a lot of humor in the film, but it’s not exactly a comedy. It’s not a family drama or a romance either, although there are elements of those as well. In fact, the film is a bit difficult to describe, as so much of it looks and sounds familiar but feels new. No where is this more clear than the film’s finale, which takes a setup that many will recognize from other movies this year and finds a clever resolution and style that sets it apart.
There were a lot of questions following The Avengers as to how Marvel would handle Phase Two of their film universe. Iron Man 3 took a well established character and showed us new depths to him, Captain America: The Winter Soldier looks to be doing the same while examining a much murkier political situation than we’ve seen before, Agents of SHIELD has given us a different perspective on the changes the world is facing when the world as we know it is upheaved by the extraordinary, and judging by the mid-credits teaser in this latest film, next year’s Guardians of the Galaxy looks to be the craziest film yet. As for Thor: The Dark World, Marvel has taken a world that seemed like it might not have much to contribute following The Avengers and has made it into something unique, a world of gods and mortals, where everyone from Odin to Darcy’s intern is connected and has a part to play. I was honestly skeptical about Thor: The Dark World, but I’ve never been more excited to see what Marvel has in store than I am now. We’re halfway through Phase Two, with Avengers: Age of Ultron to follow, and if this is a sign of things to come then we’re truly in for one hell of a ride.
Warning: Spoilers Below!
Most of what I want to say about Thor: The Dark World involves spoilers, which is why I had trouble deciding what to say in my review. One of the most interesting phenomena of the Thor movies is that arguably Loki is perhaps the main character. I actually saw someone who suggested that the next Thor movie, in Phase 3, will probably have Loki in the title, perhaps something like Thor: Rise of Loki. It’s true that the most popular characters these days, particularly online, are morally ambiguous villains like Loki (see Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter, Hook and Rumpelstiltskin from Once Upon a Time or even back as far as Spike and Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). I think there’s more to it than just the appeal of the sexy bad boy, however.
Audiences like a charming villain (see Hannibal Lecter), but what they love more is a villain with a path to redemption. A villain who simply becomes a good guy becomes as boring as the heroes, but a villain with the opportunity to change is always an unknown. For villains like that, every moment is a struggle between the opposing forces of the lust for power and the desire for love, in whatever form that love might take (family, friendship, romance, acceptance, etc.). Loki embodies that perfectly.
Loki grew up with a thirst to prove himself, having always lived in the shadow of his golden god of a brother. In the first film he manipulates Thor into invading the realm of the frost giants to start a war, knowing that it is against their father’s wishes, presumably in the hopes that it would either disgrace Thor (which happens) or perhaps cause his death. Of course, Loki learns that he was born a Frost Giant, which causes him to resent the very family he wants to impress. He gains control of Asgard, but it’s not enough to rule, he has to defeat his brother, sending the weapon to New Mexico to destroy Thor. After being overthrown and outcast, he heads to Earth, content to rule a lesser realm, but once again it’s not enough to rule, he has to defeat an enemy worthy of the effort, in that case the Avengers.
In Thor: The Dark World, Loki is imprisoned but is still visited by his adopted mother, Frigga. He clearly has some internal conflict about this, as his mother’s presence reminds him of his origins and his shameful behavior, but it also comforts him as she is the only mother he has ever known. Her death is seemingly the impetus for joining Thor in his quest to save Jane from the Aether and the Dark Elves, because when he seemingly dies he tells Thor that he didn’t do it for their father. I interpreted this as meaning that he did it in memory of their mother, who felt that Jane and by extension the universe were worth dying for.
Of course, we find out that Loki is not dead, having impersonated a guard sent to search for him in order to return to Asgard. We don’t know how Loki managed to replace Odin, but I would say it’s safe to assume Odin is still alive somewhere, perhaps subdued by Loki’s magic. With Thor gone, Frigga dead and Odin replaced, there is no one to see through his disguise. By allowing Thor to leave, he removes his only challenger for the throne while simultaneously finding a way to make a small bit of peace with his brother, granting his heart’s true desire.
I have no idea where things go from here for Loki, but it’s clear that he is as much a main character in the Thor universe as Thor himself. Loki is the only villain from any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films to make a repeat appearance, and even if it’s confirmed that he won’t show up in Avengers: Age of Ultron (which for my money is a good thing, as Loki may be the universe’s most important villain thus far, but I don’t need or want to see the Avengers fight the same threat in every film), he’ll of course be back for Thor 3. In this film Loki gets a semblance of redemption, but still has nefarious motives, so anything goes from here.
In comparison, I imagine that Thor’s journey seems pretty dull to some people. Thor grew in the first film from a fratboyesque jock into a thoughtful future king who understands sacrifice and the consequences a king must consider. He didn’t exactly have an arc in The Avengers, mostly attempting to clean up his family’s mess by defeating Loki, although as things progressed he saw his sympathy and hope for his brother evaporate as he witnessed Loki’s crimes. Here his struggles are between duty and love, though there’s never much doubt as to what he truly wants. In the end, Loki allows him to relinquish his duty as future king in order to go after Jane, easing his conscience about leaving.
There is one aspect of Thor’s journey that I do find interesting, however. In the first film, he charges headlong into battle, not caring who gets hurt or what the consequences might be. He learns to protect others first before he can fight and as such becomes worthy of wielding Mjolnir. In this film, Thor is the one who strives to protect the people of Asgard while his father is happy to fight to the last man. Thor and company steal Jane and take her to the Dark Elves in order to draw them away from Asgard. Of course, this puts the entire universe at risk, but Thor has learned when to take big risks in order to stop the certain slaughter of many innocents.
But what I realized in watching both Thor movies this week is that in many ways Thor has become the anti-Man of Steel. I made no illusions about how much I disliked Man of Steel, whose ending consisted of 45 minutes of endless scenes of Superman and Zod punching each other while Smallville and Metropolis are destroyed in the battle costing countless lives. I’m not going to debate the merits of Man of Steel, but I will say that I found Superman’s choice of combat over saving lives to be extremely off-putting.
Compare that to the ending of Thor. In the first film, Thor finds himself in a small town in New Mexico, facing an enemy on the Main Street of the town just as Superman would in Man of Steel two years later. Instead of flying into battle, however, Thor’s first thought is for the civilians, as he acts not to defeat the enemy but to distract it while they help people escape. This act, along with his willingness to sacrifice his life, is what makes him worthy of Mjolnir and allows him to defeat the machine. Thor only fights once he’s sure that he has saved as many people as possible. This theme is continued in The Avengers. The message is that Thor (and the other Marvel heroes) are not above common man, but are instead concerned about the common man. And not concerned on some hypothetical level where the ends justify the means, but one in which every single life matters, no matter the outcome. A victory where innocents are sacrificed is no victory at all (see also: Tony Stark’s sacrifice at the end of The Avengers).
The Thor movies are also the anti-Man of Steel from a stylistic standpoint, which is equally important as the thematic. Man of Steel‘s message might have been off-putting, but its finale was also impossibly dull. Watching two superbeings who are invulnerable punch each other over and over again is not at all interesting. Thor stripped the god of his powers for battle, only restoring them once the meaning of the sequence had been achieved, and the confrontation between god-like Thor and the machine lasted only moments. In Thor: The Dark World, we have two superpowered individuals in a city setting, but instead of endless, city-smashing punches the film does something far more clever. It takes the alignment of the realms and uses them as an excuse to send our hero and our villain through portal after portal, creating the potential for a different kind of battle. It is a situation ripe for comedy, as Mjolnir zooms around Greenwich trying to return to Thor as he zaps from place to place, and Darcy and the intern get into all sorts of hijinks. It also is visually interesting, as the portals allow for changes of scenery to keep things interesting. Man of Steel, and even the Christopher Nolan Batman series, may have been darker and more “real” (whatever that means), but the Marvel Cinematic Universe is more entertaining. The DC films may appeal to the mind, but the Marvel ones appeal to the heart, which is why I greatly prefer them. Call me a sap if you must.
Entertainment Weekly recently ran an article about ways to tell you’re watching a Marvel movie. And while it was full of some funny ideas, one thing really stuck out at me. The author (Darren Franich, who I have had issues with in the past) compared the Marvel films in passing to the old studio system. It’s an interesting idea, and it has some truth to it. The Marvel movies are not the first ones to have character cameos from other series, nor the first movies to tease upcoming releases, but having such a roster on call to film appearances in movies not belonging to them is unique these days. Look at the Captain America cameo by Chris Evans in Thor: The Dark World, which was both unexpected and absolutely hilarious. Or look at Benicio Del Toro’s appearance as the Collector, a role he will reprise in next year’s Guardians of the Galaxy. At this point, it’s safe to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe lives or dies together, they are no longer separate film series at all. Agents of SHIELD is a big piece of that puzzle as well. It reminds me of the days when there were three Star Trek TV series on the air at the same time (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager), which all stood on their own but were all connected. Cast members from each show would appear on the others, events from one would be referenced in another, and supporting characters (the equivalent of Agent Coulson) would appear across all three. To me, the interconnectedness of the films (and Agents of SHIELD) is one of the most exciting aspects of the endeavor.
At this point it’s safe to say that Marvel clearly knows what it’s doing. The rotating directors have helped the films stay fresh, when typically continuity is what is sought, while the overarching vision of the film saga makes every film feel important but never too important and the variety of styles provides something for everyone. I don’t want to sound too much like a fanboy, but I’m somewhat in awe of the job Marvel and Disney are doing with their universe. Sequels, remakes and spinoffs may rule the day at the box office, but the Marvel movies don’t feel like sequels. Instead of merely a way to tack some more profit onto a successful property, each film feels like a piece of something larger, not a conuation but a building. Some films may be more successful than others, but each film still feels like it has a place (yes, even the generally blah Iron Man 2). The mere concept of it is invigorating, and the execution has mostly been stunning. I would never say that Thor: The Dark World or Iron Man 3 were the best films of the year, but combine them with Agents of SHIELD and I might say that Marvel provided the best entertainment of the year. I think that is something special.