Thor: The Dark World is another solo Marvel movie, with the usual caveats that entails, but The Marvel Movie has not been done this well before.
Of the non-Avengers Phase 1 entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor was, by far, my personal favourite. Each Marvel movie in that Phase had to manage the very difficult balancing act of adequately introducing each character to the audience, setting up future films and telling a good story on its own, and I feel that Thor did the whole juggling act better than the others. Sure, it had problems, namely the undercooked romance between Jane and Thor and Kenneth Branagh’s over-reliance on a canted angle shot for pretty much no discernible reason, but they were minor in the grand scheme of things. The story was stronger, the action sequences more exciting, the references and foreshadowing less intrusive and, and I cannot stress this enough when it comes to Marvel movies, a half-decent villain. Iron Man 3 was our first glimpse at Phase 2 and, being one of the approximately 16 people who didn’t much care for it, it did leave me slightly worried for the future of the MCU. I know that judging things this early is stupid, but the thought stuck with me anyway. Have Marvel dropped the ball? Can they regain that momentum and quality that Phase 1 had?
Thor: The Dark World, in the here and now, firmly refutes that theory with a firm “no”. Not only is it miles better than Iron Man 3, it’s also an improvement on the original Thor in many areas. It’s clearly a Marvel movie, you won’t find any personal stamps from director Alan Taylor like you did Shane Black in Iron Man 3, so if you’re not on board with the kind of product that Marvel Studios put out by this point Thor: The Dark World won’t change any minds, but The Marvel Movie has yet to be done this great (excluding The Avengers, obviously).
We’re two years removed from the original Thor, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth who just continues to get better and better in this role as time goes on) is off travelling the galaxy with Sif and The Warriors Three trying to restore order to and unite the nine universes. Once this task is succeeded (after the first in a series of very fun action sequences), though, Thor’s work is not done. The Dark Elves, led by Malakith (Christopher Eccleston), have awoken from their slumber with their eyes set on submerging the galaxy in darkness. Their plan, through means I don’t intend on spoiling, requires the capture of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), leading to Thor finally having to reunite with her and, again through means I don’t wish to spoil, reluctantly teaming up with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to save the galaxy.
As you may already have guessed from that basic plot layout, the various aspects are more connected this time around. The stuff on Earth with Selvig, Darcy and Jane, in particular, actually fits into the plot instead of purely being there to further Thor’s character growth. I mean, it doesn’t seem like it at first, after Jane gets whisked away to Asgard for the main plot we mostly seem to cut back to Darcy, Selvig (who has gone a little bit crazy since The Avengers) and newbie Ian The Intern for a nice light-hearted break from the more serious Asgard-based goings-on, but then they all end up serving key roles in the finale and the extra time spent with them adds a sense of risk to the finale, as I actually ended up fretting for their fates.
In fact, ‘more’ in general seems to have been the mandate thrust upon The Dark World because everyone from the original film who was given the short shrift ends up getting stuff to do here. Although, once again, she’s not in it that long, Rene Russo, as Thor’s mother, gets more material than to simply stand in the corner of the frame and look concerned. Anthony Hopkins doesn’t spend half of the movie in a coma and so, conveniently, gets more time to chew on some scenery (in a good way). Sif and The Warriors Three help Thor plot and execute a daring escape, even if one of them is practically put on a bus after the opening of the film. Heimdall gets one of the film’s most badass action beats, too! In fact, Loki’s role in this film is actually rather significantly reduced, he’s mostly relegated to the side-lines to seethe and scheme, but Tom Hiddleston, as seems to be his thing by this point, steals the whole film in such a short space of time regardless and several of Loki’s scenes, primarily designed to wrap up his character arc from prior films, are actually the film’s highpoints. Without spoiling, his arc here is a joy to watch.
But the character with the most amount of additional material is Jane Foster who, over the course of every single one of The Dark World’s 119 minutes, switched from being a love interest who I felt was the definition of under-developed to a three dimensional character of her own who jumped up several spots on my “Favourite Marvel Movie Characters” list and someone who I could totally see Thor falling for. Though the script giving her the additional material clearly helps, much of this praise can be put on the shoulders of Natalie Portman, who has really stepped up her game here. It’s not that she was bad in Thor; it’s just that she seemed disinterested and not particularly engaged with the material. But whether it’s due to her getting stuff to do or some other reason, Portman is noticeably happier to be here and her enthusiasm seeps through into every scene that she’s in. She fosters chemistry with Hemsworth like a dirty kitchen fosters a colony of ants, too; the romance was something I never bought in Thor yet by the time the second post-credits sequence of The Dark World had closed I was purchasing it in bulk (don’t think too hard about that analogy, I certainly didn’t). If it weren’t for Hiddleston, she would be the film’s MVP.
This extra material for the side players does come at a cost, however: the lack of a memorable villain. This is something that all non-Loki Marvel movies seem to keep suffering from for reasons I just don’t understand, like a reverse Batman. With Loki kept away from the main plot for the majority of the run-time, this leaves Malakith as our Big Bad and… meeeeehhh. He’s not bad, Christopher Eccleston does make for one hell of a creepy-ass villain in terms of screen presence, it’s just that the script doesn’t really give him anything to do besides be a creepy-ass villain in terms of screen presence. He rarely shares any scenes with the heroes and the periodic check-ins with him are entirely performed in an alien language, preventing Eccleston from cutting loose. Yeah, he easily gets the best final fight set-piece in any solo-Avengers movie to date, but prior to that he doesn’t do anything particularly interesting, which is a damn shame. Marvel Studios really need to work on this in the future, because this is a problem that should be fixed by now.
Outside of the villain problem, though, the screenplay, by Stephen McFeely and Stephen Markus (who are also scripting next year’s Captain America sequel), is great. In particular, its juggling of tones is far defter than in both Iron Man 3 (which, incidentally, I also thought was too flabby, but I’m done dumping on that film now) and the duo’s other 2013 film Pain & Gain. It’s still a comic book movie that wants to have fun, but it also has to go far darker than in the original Thor and the script, and director Alan Taylor, is more than up to the task of switching between the two without inducing whiplash. Of particular note, the film’s unquestionably saddest scene informs, about 15 minutes later, one of its funniest thanks to the way one character takes the news. The final battle sequence uses the closure of a character’s arc as a simultaneously awesome and funny beat. Plus, there is a section of the finale that is both hilarious and, in its own strange way, actually rather tense, too, but I shalln’t go anywhere near spoiling it for you. You should probably see it for yourself.
Action scenes, in a tradition carried over from most other recent Marvel movies, are shot with a predominantly steady hand, as if somebody realised that people care more about the characters involved when you can actually see what they’re doing. The CGI looks absolutely fantastic, very little expense seems to have been spared here (compared to, say, Captain America), which really helps during an assault on Asgard and actually managed to rob an otherwise sad scene of its intended emotional impact because I couldn’t stop thinking about how pretty the image was (whether that’s a positive or a negative, I leave up to you). The pacing is well-done, dragging a lot less than in Iron Man 3 (last time, I swear…) but not barrelling through plot points too quickly…
That last paragraph is rather clinical because, well, Thor: The Dark World is the sum of its parts. It’s a Marvel Cinematic Universe film and all of the requisite features of a film in the MCU are here, for better or worse depending on your personal taste when it comes to these films. However, the individual parts are of a much higher quality than before, this time, which is what makes Thor: The Dark World the best non-Avengers Marvel movie yet. I didn’t even realise that Malakith was a kinda ‘nothing’ villain until I wrote this review about two days after I saw the film and I’m still replaying awesome sequences from the final setpiece in my head as I put the finishing touches to this. More so than most other blockbusters from this year, Thor: The Dark World has stuck with me in the days since I left the cinema loving every second, and considering the kind of year I’ve had when it comes to movies, that’s high praise indeed.
If prior Marvel films haven’t won you over, this won’t change your mind. But fans like me will likely find it hard pressed to come away from Thor: The Dark World disappointed or feeling like they’ve seen anything less than a great film. I really enjoyed this one. Bring on The Winter Soldier!