So far Marvel has had a terrific run. They’ve been putting out solid films, and the way they set up Phase I was an astonishing feat. They’re risk-takers, and releasing a Thor movie in 2011 was one of those risky decisions. Would an audience accept a Norse God and all the fantastical mumbo jumbo that came with him? They did, making Thor a success for the studio. Its sequel, Thor: The Dark World, makes up for a few of the previous film’s issues, while also bringing its own set of serious problems to the table.
This time around Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is facing more struggles than ever before. His relationship with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has suffered after years of distance, he’s fighting small-scale wars, he’s still conflicted over his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and, to make matters worse, a D-movie villain, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), leader of the Dark Elves, shows up for revenge. Malekith not only shakes up the world of Asgard, but also any dramatic potential to be had with the more interesting conflicts set up but given no satisfying payoffs. So much, with the exception of director Alan Taylor‘s eye, is given little time to breathe.
Taylor is a veteran television director whose work on Game of Thrones in particular caught the attention of Marvel. He brings a slice of the grit that HBO series has, lending Asgard a tangibility that wasn’t a part of Kenneth Branagh’s Asgard. The sets, costumes, and alleyways all feel real and lived in. They have dirt to them, not the sheen we saw in the previous film. That’s why it’s a shame Marvel made Thor: The Dark World a 3D endeavor. Taylor wasn’t even informed the film was going to be converted into 3D before it was announced, and it shows. The 3D drains the life out of some possibly lovely design work and landscapes. Why Marvel, beyond monetary reasons, went with 3D is a tough question to answer.
Structurally, the movie is just as frustrating. The first half of the film is one long set up, with heavy chunks of exposition clouding nearly every scene. Not even the action can add levity, because it’s all around underwhelming. The three major set pieces are problematic in their own ways. When we first see Asgard invaded we’re mainly watching goons and henchman battling. That can only remain fun for so long until you want to see your leads in action, not faceless characters we don’t even know. The second set piece, following a breakout from Asgard, is questionable when it comes to logic. It’s as if Thor & Co. made their situation more difficult than it had to be, just so it’d make for another action scene. Spectacle doesn’t always require smarts, but at least make sure to deliver on the spectacle.
Lastly, and most disappointing, is the face-off between Thor and Malekith. The first film’s end battle, while brief, had emotional stakes to it. There was more at risk than a few flipped over cars. Here, there’s nothing beyond the typical “I have to save the day” routine. They attempt to give their fights weight, but it’s done in such a cheap and easy way. One of the many problems with a weak villain is seeing them win or lose bears no excitement, even when giving they’re given a power we’re “told” makes them stronger.
Malekith is such an empty and dour villain who doesn’t pose much of a threat, or at least a threat to believe in. The destruction we see him cause does not even compare to the damage Loki or fellow villains have stirred up. He’s a footnote whose motivations are recycled from other films. Having a villain who’s all around evil is fine, but give him, and an actor of Christopher Eccleston’s pedigree, something to do beyond delivering dry exposition. It doesn’t help his case when Tom Hiddleston is in the picture, still relishing each one of Loki’s quips and betrayals. Everything right about Loki only highlights everything so wrong with Malekith.
Also coming away with the short end of the stick is Jaimie Alexander. She has a striking presence and, at first, it seems as if she’ll be given more to do this time around. Sadly, that’s not the case. The film hints at a possible love triangle — and not like it’s needed — but goes nowhere beyond that. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) implies Sif is a more logical choice than Jane Foster, but that idea is never given much thought beyond a quick glance between Thor and Sif. Every question, conflict, and character is stripped down to a paper thin result, making room for uninspired set pieces, tonally awkward comedic relief, and a clunky set up that hopefully leads to a superior sequel.
Thor: The Dark World shows glimmers of light every now and then, especially with a few jokes that land, but not enough to makeup for its vast number of shortcomings. Hiddelston and Hemsworth’s charms simply can’t save this script. It’s sad to say, but Thor: The Dark World marks Marvel’s first serious misfire.
The Upside: Hiddelston and Hemsworth couldn’t be more comfortable in their roles; a great cameo; a nice end credits stinger.
The Downside: An undercooked storyline; far more problematic than Iron Man 2 and Thor; Christopher Eccelston is given nothing; surprisingly small in scope; perfunctory set pieces; murky 3D; Kat Dennings overload; tonal issues; a muddled ending; a lackluster score.
On The Side: Mads Mikkelsen was considered for Malekith, but he dropped out of the running because of Hannibal.