When I saw Kenneth Branagh’s Thor a few years back, I was confused. That isn’t to say I didn’t understand the movie, and I wouldn’t say it wasn’t badly made – I just had no opinion on its content. Perhaps it was the thin character development and gaping plot holes. Maybe it was the hokey costuming. Or it could have been that nagging feeling that it existed only to explain Thor and Loki’s appearances in The Avengers. But whatever that movie’s problems were, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Alan Taylor’s sequel, Thor: The Dark World, doesn’t have them. It avoids the sand trap of mediocrity altogether with a snappy energy and renewed sense of self, finally making Thor feel like an integral component of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The difference between the two films is immediately apparent. This time around, Asgard is no longer a plastic, antiseptic world. Every detail, down to minutiae like weapon design, feels fresh and new, perhaps owing its grittier aesthetic to Taylor’s history as a director for Game of Thrones. It also helps that Taylor takes a leaf out of Peter Jackson’s world-building handbook; just as Jackson did with Rivendell in The Hobbit, audiences return to a familiar world in an entirely different way, offering a different perspective than was given in Branagh’s Thor. Sitting by wavering pools, walking down long corridors and partying in crowded banquet halls all feel like organic extensions of a living, breathing city. Asgard is now more than ever a civilization that effortlessly and wondrously transitions between magic and technology.
On a surface level, Asgard seems to resemble Naboo from Star Wars: Episode I – but thankfully, that’s where the comparisons end. The Dark World wastes no time with complex backstory or political drama. Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) is a dark elf bent on the destruction of the universe for some reason, and that’s really all the explanation the film offers. Unfortunately, screenwriters Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely see fit to introduce that premise through clichéd exposition on more than one occasion. Aside from the obvious redundancy, these moments do little more than cast light on the villain’s one-note agenda.
This is symptomatic of the poor writing in The Dark World. Characters never have much to say to one another that isn’t directly related to the plot or for the sake of some hammy joke. The brilliant introspective commentary of Iron Man 3 is nowhere to be found here. Instead, gags are set-up and executed in a rote, machine-like thrum. The lack of innovation and wit isn’t debilitating, of course, but it is disappointing given Shane Black’s strong launch of Phase 2.
It doesn’t help that the dialogue in The Dark World is about as sharp as the broad side of Mjolnir. Indeed, the only conversations worthy of praise seem to be those where Joss Whedon stepped in to accentuate the relationship between Thor and Loki. These sequences are compelling and stand in obvious contrast to the weaker scenes featuring Thor and Jane Foster.
If The Dark World works, it is largely due to the top-notch performances of its leads. They show absolute commitment to the material. In particular, Chris Hemsworth has nailed Thor’s persona. His Asgardian alter ego is thoughtful, caring and vengeful. Gone is the jock-like, glory-bound portrayal from Thor; in The Dark World, none of his conflicts are without their emotional underpinning. Likewise, Anthony Hopkins seems to take his role more seriously this time around, his relationship with Loki and Thor better formed and more believable than it was previously.
Natalie Portman is once again wasted as Jane Foster, but filmmakers would do well to recognize that the character isn’t and will never be as interesting as much the better-developed fan favorite Pepper Potts. Without radical changes to the source material, it’s a dead-end; in the comics, Foster never really develops into more than Thor’s earthbound lover. Conversely, the brief screen time given to Frigga (Rene Russo) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) reveals them to be some of the deepest characters this side of Thor and Loki. So why bother with Jane?
In the past I have not been as fanatical about Tom Hiddleston’s Loki as some of my peers, but he really steals the show in The Dark World. His eyes reveal an ever-scheming mind beset by pain and emotional turmoil. In one particularly beautiful scene, Thor breaks through Loki’s illusions and finds his step-brother a distraught shell of his former world-conquering self. This sequence alone did more for both characters than either Thor or The Avengers combined.
It is easy to recommend Thor: The Dark World. After its ponderous, romance-heavy first half, tragedy strikes and launches the film into non-stop action. Set-pieces are huge and cleverly-conceived. Malektih and his lieutenant (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), while simple in mission, are suitably terrifying opponents for the seemingly indestructible Thor. Ultimately, Taylor shows glimmers of masterful superhero storytelling in his Marvel debut. I just wish that there wasn’t so much time wasted on interstitial drivel before the first punches fly.
Verdict: Movie Win
This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on November 19, 2013.