Of all the various Marvel properties, the toughest to develop had to be Thor. After all, we’re not talking about technologically-based heroes like Iron Man or War Machine nor super-soldiers like Captain America or Black Widow. Thor is a “god.” He’s ancient. He comes from a land that is distant from ours and functions different than ours. People wear capes and swing swords and axes and shields. They speak in theatrical tones. Those sensibilities work to limit how relatable Thor can be. Kenneth Branagh’s solution for his adaptation was to turn it into a Shakespearean-styled drama — brother against brother for the love and throne of their father. And it worked because both Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Tom Hiddlestone (Loki) were up for it.
New director Alan Taylor (TV’s Game of Thrones) continues on this thread but tones down some of the Shakespearean overtones for more straight-forward drama. He’s helped in that this Thor is known to us now thanks to both the first movie as well as The Avengers. The realm of Asgard and its denizens are more comfortable in this go-around. So that means less exposition and more action and humor, right? Yes, but for the amount of exposition at the start, the movie moves a pace far brisker and more assured than in the original. You want to get to the thundering and the pecs, don’t you?
The movie tells the tale of the Dark Elves, a race that existed in the darkness before the universe was created. They created the Aether, a mystical super-weapon that can turn warriors into berserkers called Kursed and can, in the right circumstances, turn the universe back towards darkness. 5,000 years in the past, the Dark Elves under their leader, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, TV’s Doctor Who), tried and nearly succeeded in using the Aether for just that purpose. The Asgardian King stopped them by stealing away their super-weapon and sealing it in a place no one would dare look: Earth.
Now, as the Convergence (the alignment of the Nine Realms) approaches, the Aether is accidentally discovered by Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, Black Swan), who is still searching for a way to reconnect with Thor. It’s been two years and she still can’t get over her god of thunder crush and has bounced around the globe in her quest. But her finding of the Aether will bring not just Thor back into her life, but summon an awakened Malekith and his Dark Elves to Asgard where Odin (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs), Frigga (Rene Russo, Lethal Weapon 3) and the rest of the Asgardians are trying to pick up the pieces from Loki’s betrayal.
The movie mentions a lot of these terms like “convergence” and “aether” but you need not worry about them. The movie breezes by once they’re established so that you don’t have to think about what they are. Think of the convergence as a stellar alignment, the Dark Elves as the bad guys and the aether as the super-weapon and you’re 80% of the way to figuring out what’s going on in this movie. Once they’re established, the movie becomes your standard “hero racing against time to stop the doomsday weapon from destroying life as we know it” action fare.
This movie benefits from two things beyond our familiarity with the settings and characters. First, it has a brisk pace and great sense of humor. You’ll be surprised by how much you’ll laugh during this thing. Taylor and writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely spin a very enjoyable yarn out of the god of thunder’s adventures. Most of it comes from his continuing “fish out of water” situations on Earth, but they also include a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor relating to their situations. Even though the movie does at time get dark and dire, it never lingers on these moments for too long. It’s quick to move you to the next battle, the next moment, the next joke.
Certain characters benefit from this shift. Most notably Darcy (Kat Dennings, TV’s 2 Broke Girls) and newcomer Ian (Johnathan Howard, TV’s Downton Abbey) who become both integral to the plot and to the climax as well as a great source of the comedy that permeates the movie. It’s less of a benefit to Dr. Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard, Pirates of the Caribbean), who goes from an intelligent scientist in the first movie and a key cog in The Avengers to a sort-of buffoon in this one. Look, pasty old white dudes either nude or in their undies is funny. But it’s never explained why it appears he has lost his mind.
The other benefit to this movie is Tom Hiddlestone, who continues to shine as Loki. I spoil nothing when I say that Loki’s stay in his dungeon cell is short-lived, but it’s the reasons why he’s allowed out that speak to the complexities of his character. In the hands of someone else, Loki might have been a variant of The Joker — a homicidal lunatic. In Hiddlestone’s hands, Loki is mischievous and deviant and angry and resentful and 100 other things all wrapped up in smugness. As he’s quick to quip when every friend of Thor threatens him should he betray his brother, “apparently there will be a line (to kill me).” He and Hemsworth have great chemistry together and, if the movie was only Thor and Loki, I doubt anyone would have minded.
Hiddlestone stands in stark contrast to Eccleston’s Malekith, who never rises above the role of stock bad guy. We never come to know Malekith or his Dark Elves. They’re the bad guys and they want to turn the lights out on the universe. This is all easy to get. But this is all you get. Who are the Dark Elves? How did they survive the Big Bang? What was their existence before the universe was formed? Even a generic “It was a life like nothing we could comprehend” from Odin is absent here. Without some bit of information, the Dark Elves never rise beyond stormtrooper fodder, whose deaths mean nothing and whose actions make even less sense. As for Malekith, he sneers and looks mean and speaks in a guttural language to his henchman, Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, TV’s Lost). But what you learn at the start of the movie is all you will get for him.
Likewise, the majority of the Asgardians remain good-looking cyphers. Odin is still the noble, wise leader but the indignant father to Thor, who refuses to ascend to the throne and keeps pining for Jane. Odin would rather Thor be happy to settle with Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander, The Last Stand), who while very attractive and a mighty warrior, never gets more of a personality. Honestly, does Sif love Thor? Does she harbor unrequited feelings for her friend? A few glances in Thor and Jane’s direction don’t a story make and she never speaks of any of her feelings in the matter. The Warriors Three — Fandral (Zachary Levi, TV’s Chuck), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson, Punisher: War Zone) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano, Ichi the Killer) — get a hero moment each, but are again window dressing to assist Thor in his quest. Heimdall (Idris Elba, Prometheus) gets his small role expanded slightly this time as well, even if he’s asked to remain stoic and honorable once again. Only Russo’s Frigga gets something of an arc, whose denouement becomes crucial for the story to continue.
Taylor’s sensibilities also help out in giving us an action movie where you can tell what is going on with the action. When Thor is fighting Malekith or he’s flying through Asgard, there’s distance and there’s speed and you can see people fighting one another — none of the traditional “action director” tricks we’ve gotten so much of recently. Speaking of Asgard, Taylor also gives us an Asgard that feels like a world and not just a set. The special effects from Double Negative & Stereo D along with the work of cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (TV’s Game of Thrones) go towards making Asgard a real place, with depth and structure and homes and pubs and life.
That said, if it feels a bit generic or by-the-numbers, then that’s by design. Marvel Studios is in complete control and they are calling the shots here. This feels like the next in a Marvel Phase movie — getting us to the next building block to the next Avengers movie. As such the tension that you’d expect when the stakes are this high — it’s the universe, by Odin’s beard! — never rise up beyond minor inconvenience. The movie seems to use the Dark Elves and their quest as a way of reuniting Thor with Jane, partnering up Thor with Loki and setting up the stage for the next adventure for the god of thunder — the final scene reveals as much. We also get two credits stingers — one right after the main credits sequence that hints at a larger thread within the Avengers universe and a post-credits denouement that perhaps should have been the proper ending. The tension that existed in other comic book movies like X2: X-Men United or Spider-Man 2 is absent here.
But none of that ultimately derails Thor: The Dark World because the movie is brisk, fast and enjoyable. Hemsworth feels far more comfortable this time with Thor. Hiddlestone shines as Loki. The humor is continuous and the action interesting without being distracting. It’s a pleasant time at the movies with the god of thunder. Just don’t look for anything serious here. You won’t find it.