[Review] - Thor: The Dark World

Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Thor remains my favourite of the Phase 1 films. Maybe it was the Shakespearean sensibilities. Maybe it was the wild juxtapositions. Maybe it was because Thor represented the hardest sell Marvel had to make to the public to date (soon to be out seated by Guardians, and eventually Doctor Strange). And for it's flaws, it remains the one film of that initial lot I'm most likely to revisit on a whim. So, I had high hopes for the followup. And happily, as is becoming Marvel's tendency, it did not disappoint.

The Dark World is not a perfect film, and if it weren't for the likability of the cast and the continued commitment to character development, the plot along probably wouldn't qualify as even a good film. But the weaknesses are balanced out, and in many respects outmatched by the strengths, making for an excellent and direct followup not just to Thor, but to the Avengers, and the first steps towards the larger world of Phase 2.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that were happy to hear that space is good.


So, where does it fall over the hardest? Well, there isn't much to the plot. It's very simple. But so, if you remember, was the first film. And that film didn't even have a Macguffin for everyone to go bounding after. And part of that, I think, is why the Thor films are as successful as they are. Iron Man 3, for all it's intelligence and charm, was a very complex film. There were twists and detours, and agendas and so the focus was on the whys and hows. The Avengers too, while streamlined, was a goal oriented film. What sets the Thor movies apart is that the primary focus is on the characters. And I have to believe that is deliberate. Thor and his ilk are not something an audience might come to naturally. It's a difficult concept to convince people to have faith in (ironic, considering they are gods). So, you have to establish the characters as deeper, more realised and flawed individuals then you do, say Captain America.

When it boils right down to it, there is an elf (Christopher Eccelston, who is largely forgettable in an underdeveloped and highly secondary role as antagonist) who wants to destroy every world. A tall order, to be sure. He has a... cloud thing, which can do just that, though the how is left purposefully vague because it doesn't really matter. The cloud thing ends up inside Jane (Natalie Portman, who despite her initial reservations, appears to be having fun) because of reasons. Not overly developed reasons, but it gives Thor a reason to bifrost back to Earth to protect her. There is a lot that gets glossed over in an effort to keep things moving and keep things from getting bogged down in technomythology (like where exactly was it that Jane gets infected by the cloud?). Some of these are smart moves, and some I wished they'd spent a little more time elaborating on. But less stuff that makes no sense I suppose is a good thing.


The first act spends a lot of time educating the audience, too much time, as it took a while before I was invested in the film. There are high points in there to be sure. Sandwiched between a couple prologues is a scene between Loki and Odin that picks up straight off the end of the Avengers that is a lot of fun. And between a lot of backstory and plot positioning is an equal amount of Kat Dennings being wonderful and a really corking battle sequence. It isn't until Eccelston lays waste to Asgard directly that the film really takes off, and not just because that's when Loki reenters the picture. Actually, it's exactly because of that. Because the real thrust of the film is the complexity of the relationships between the various character pairings: Odin and Loki, Thor and Loki, Thor and Odin, Thor and Jane (though, that one is the least developed of the film, and one we're just expected to take as writ). Even Erik and Loki, giving us the best look of the effects of the Battle of New York we've seen yet, as Loki's manipulations apparently caused Erik to suffer a sever breakdown, with hilarious results.

And that is part of the strengths of the film too. I called Iron Man 3 a straight up comedy, with action elements, but I think I was wrong. Because Thor manages to buoy itself above the usual dourness with an almost self deprecating sense of humour. There were times that Loki seemed almost to be aware that he was in a movie, but it never seemed winking or meta. It was just very self aware, and the comedy was played completely straight, just another necessary element of these character personalities. And everyone got in on it. There wasn't a "funny" character, like Dennings was in the first film. Here, everyone seems like a rounded person, with their own style and delivery. And a few were completely humourless, to humorous effect.

All credit to the writers, and to Alan Taylor, for creating one of the most successful science fiction fantasy hybrid films since the original Star Wars. When the film moved from a sword and sorcery inspired battle sequence, with trolls and horses, to a dog fight laser gun battle out of an episode of Star Trek (complete with "pew" noises), and can do so with absolute organic transition, that is a firm foundation you are working on. Taylor was brought in to give a sense of realism and of groundedness to Asgard, and he succeeds in that charge. The film goes to great lengths to establish a culture in Asgard, that it becomes a believably lived in city, not just a palace on top of a mountain. To the extent that, I didn't give much thought to the people of Asgard in the first film, not I'd really like to see a Marvel One-Shot centred around a day in the life of an average Asgardian. I'd compare the sequences to those of Minas Tirith in the Lords of the Rings: the suggestion of a fully formed and living city, undergoing a terrible trauma. I didn't really feel that about New York in Avengers.

As tightly as the film focuses on characters, it's only the leads it seems interested in. The rest of the Asgardians are there to fill a specific role, and once they are down, they are forgotten. The Warriors Three put in little more than cameos, as does Sif (though this might have more to do with the fact that Jamie Alexander was nearly maimed during the opening battle sequence). Idris Elba expands nicely on Heimdall when given the chance, but eventually he disappears without comment. Even Odin suffers from a lack of focus, his actions viewed mostly through the reactions Thor and Loki have. Which makes the end of the film (which we'll get to) more than a little frustrating. Every character is given their moment to shine, but the movie never lets you forget that it's ultimately a movie about Thor first, Loki second and everybody else a distant third (even Jane, who after getting infected by the cloud does next to nothing for the entire second act).

The climax though, is a wonderful work of time and space shenanigans. We've seen Thor whack enemies with his hammer twice now, and it's a show that's getting kind of old. Add in a minefield of wormholes and gravity disruptions, and you get a sequence that is never dull. And still provides enough opportunity for humour. It's easily the funniest climatic action sequence you'll see this year, and next (we'll wait to see what James Gunn has in store for Guardians).

And now we come to the end, so spoilers are in full effect. Get off now if you want to avoid them.

OK?

Alright. The end. I have to say, I thought Marvel might have taken my advice, and despite Hiddleston's popularity in the role, really gotten rid of Loki. He's so successful as an antagonist that I don't want to see him diminished by overuse. As such, I was happy to see him apparently go. And despite the fact that he's a master of tricks, I believed it in the moment, to which all credit goes to Hiddleston and Hemsworth. But, I'm happy that they added in the single mid act sequence of him returning to Asgard under disguise, rather than spring the reveal on us cold. That would have been disingenuous, and would have lead to far too much confusion. 

But what happened there? Well, as I understood it, Loki has killed Odin and taken his place, able to do so because the one person who would have been able to see though that farce, Frigga, is dead. I could be wrong, he could be alive and in one of the cells in the dungeon, under a bewitchment. But I doubt it. And, despite my reservations about continued use of the character, it does set up a potential third film rather nicely. Loki's deception cannot continue forever, even with Thor's leaving to become the champion of Midgard. I'm genuinely looking forward to another return to Asgard, in a way I wasn't immediately clamouring for Iron Man or Captain America followups. 

Where as Iron Man 3 was a stand alone thing, The Dark World is very much a part of the large MCU. A cameo that tops Banner's appearence in IM3 is a great reminder, but it's the post credits sequences that really nail down the notion that these characters are part of a system, not autonomous stories. Events cause ripples, and as we build towards the Age of Ultron, I think we'll be feeling them more and more. It's never overwhelming or exclusionary, which is exactly what the audience needs and what works best for the film. And it gets us just that much more excited about what is coming next.

And now I'm wondering if Coulson and team will be going after the Frost Beast on ABC's budget?
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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