Well, almost anything short of The Last Jedi would have been an improvement after the last entry (the key word there being almost, but we’ll get to that), and Thor: The Dark World is certainly a step in the right direction, judged against its immediate predecessor. By the standards of the first film, however, it’s a definite step down.
As before we open with Odin narrating the history a great battle the Asgardians fought to save the innocent, this time we learn that Odin’s father Bor battled the Dark Elves led by the fearsome Maleketh. The Dark Elves meant to use the Aether – a red-black liquid with immense power – to destroy the universe, since they hailed from the before time, when there was no light and long to return. They were defeated and the Aether captured and hidden.
Back in the present day, Loki is sentenced to life imprisonment for his crimes in The Avengers (because his mother Frigga plead his case down from the death penalty), while Thor travels throughout the Nine Realms quelling the unrest that has arisen since the Bifrost’s destruction in the first film. Back on Earth, Jane Foster is finally starting to date again after being stood up by Thor for two years (her date is hilarious, by the way; the guy is refreshingly nice, but…well, no Thor). But her date is interrupted when Darcy barges in to let her know of some strange readings, which leads them to a warehouse experience gravitational anomalies and mysterious portals being caused by the ‘convergence;’ a cosmic event where the Nine Realms align once every several thousand years. Jane ends ups sucked through one of these to find herself at the Aether’s hiding spot (well, if that isn’t just plain unlucky! Better get used to that sort of thing; it happens quite a bit in this film). She accidentally absorbs it into her body and collapses.
Thor, alerted by Heimdall that she has disappeared, rushes to Earth and takes Jane to Asgard to try to discover what the curious power is and how to remove it from her before it kills her. But at the same time, the reappearance of the Aether awakens Maleketh and the Dark Elves, who plot to recover the Aether and destroy the current, light-filled universe at the ‘convergence,’ when all the Nine Realms align.
The Dark World starts strong with an efficient demonstration of how Thor has grown since the first film. He drops into a battle in Vanaheim (the film helpfully provides titles for each world), knocks around a few goons, then faces off with the enemy’s champion: a massive rock monster. Thor walks up to him and offers to accept his surrender. The monster laughs, so Thor takes him out with one-shot, ending the battle. Thor now approaches fights with an eye to minimizing casualties and keeping his friends safe, rather than for his own glory.
Unfortunately, we quickly run into problems. The most obvious of them is that Maleketh is simply not a very interesting villain. In fact, he’s pretty much completely forgettable. He has no relatable motives (he wants to destroy the universe because he comes from the dark and hates the light. Okay), no real personality beyond being menacing, nor any kind of memorable powers. He’s just…there. A bog-standard bad-guy to show up, be evil, and be defeated. The Lovecraftian tendrils of Aether coming off him at the climax are a memorable sight, but that’s pretty much it.
This might not have been a huge problem if the rest of the film were stronger, but the story is also very shaky. It’s a bit of luck that Jane happened to be the one to find the Aether by randomly being sucked through a portal, though to be fair since she is a scientist she might be expected to run into something like that if anyone would. Still, it transporting her there of all places is…a bit of luck. Likewise, when Jane and Thor are stranded with no way out, they just happened to walk into the cave where there’s a portal back to Earth. It’s supported by the earlier convenience of Jane being pulled in to find the Aether (and why was she pulled in?), but it’s still a pretty massive and convenient coincidence. Then, in the climax, the collapsing ship just happens to teleport away moments before crushing them; not unacceptable, since things have been teleporting about all day, but still, very convenient. The conveniences aren’t unacceptable, but they do start to pile up and it begins to feel like lazy writing, as though any time the writers were stuck they just used the weird effects of the convergence to get them out of it.
Speaking of the convergence, there is a lot of repetition in this film. The convergence is explained at least three or four times by different characters. There’s a bit early on where we see news footage of Dr. Selvig being arrested for going nuts and running naked around Stonehenge. Then later we see the exact same news report so that the characters can learn where he’s been taken, moving the plot along (another convenience); why have both rather than just the one? Also, the film seems to imply that Selvig’s been in the mental home for some time, so why does the news report play just then?
Another problem is that Asgard, and especially Odin himself, are very ill-served by this film. Part way through, the Dark Elves mount a full-scale assault and pretty much decimate the Asgardians without much effort. We’ve been led to believe that Asgard is the most powerful of all the Nine Realms, able to keep the others in check by its sheer might. It is the home of the gods, inhabited by some of the most powerful beings alive. Yet a fragment of a force that they had already defeated is able to make mincemeat of their defenses and get away more or less free and clear while inflicting heavy casualties, including the Queen. This sinks Asgard horribly in the sight of the audience and makes them appear less a mighty, all-powerful noble empire and more a tottering paper tiger ready to fold at the first sign of resistance and held in place only by Thor’s might.
Obviously drama must be maintained, but what they should have done was to have the Dark Elves stage a covert infiltration, slipping past their defenses and taking what they wanted before the main force of Asgard was even aware of their presence. This would have fit with the ‘Dark Elf’ concept and (ironically) have made them seem all the more dangerous; that for all its power, even Asgard can’t fight a foe that it can’t find. We could have gotten much the same sequence of events, but without making the Asgardians look like chumps (which, alas, will only get worse in future films).
Not only that, but it would have made the confrontation between Frigga and Maleketh stronger and her plan to hide Jane more reasonable. As it is, it’s simply a delaying tactic, since they’d find her the moment they searched the room. But if Maleketh were on a strict time limit and needed to be gone before the guards were alerted, then the whole scenario would have made much more sense.
Meanwhile, Odin’s primary role has become to simply be wrong, unreasonable, and hotheaded in order to make Thor look better. This is a terrible decision on many, many levels. It makes Thor’s heartfelt line from the first film, “I will never be a wiser king than you” sound retroactively hollow. It contradicts Odin’s portrayal in the first film as the voice of reason and restraint. Like with Asgard itself, it makes Odin appear much weaker and more pathetic than he has any right to be (he is the king of the gods! He ought to be, as was said an unfortunately deleted scene in the first film, “the most powerful being in the Nine Realms”). When Jane appears with the Aether inside her, Odin doesn’t even wait to learn why she’s been brought to Asgard before ordering her to be gone (his line to Thor should have been something like, “I trust you have an excellent explanation for this?”). Throughout the film Odin is wrong about everything, and then at the end we learn that he’s been subdued and replaced off-screen by Loki. What a sad waste of a classic character.
What all this amounts to is a strong impression of rushed or lazy writing, as if the writers just wanted to get the script out and done with and threw it together without paying much attention. It’s extremely unfortunate and means that many of the opportunities presented by the story go to waste and the whole thing is remarkably average.
But, along with these key weaknesses, we have a number of real strengths. Loki is still a fascinating character, and even after two films we still are never quite sure what he’s going to do or what his motives are. If Avengers showed him at his most malicious, this one sees him apparently trying to maintain his malice with less success. He still interprets everything as a conspiracy against himself, still lies, cheats, and schemes for power, but he can’t deny his real feelings when things come to the point. The scene where he learns of his mother’s death (done in silence) is great, as are his various conversations with Thor. Not to mention he gets some ambiguous moments, as when he shoves Jane out of the path of a black-hole grenade, thereby nearly being sucked in and killed himself. It isn’t clear, even at the end, just how much of his behavior is malice and deceit and how much is based on sincere good-will.
Sif and at least two of the Warriors Three (Hogun sits out most of the film) get a bit more to do this time, such as joining Thor in a daring escape plan, though they remain very underdeveloped. Sif herself gets a few more scenes hinting at her attraction to Thor, but it unfortunately never gets to go anywhere.
On the other hand, Darcy gets a bigger role this time, which I was glad for since I really like Darcy. Her interactions with her own intern, Ian, are hilariously cruel and completely in-character (used to being at the bottom of the totem pole, she takes every chance to lord it over someone lower than her), but have a delightful payoff when he ends up saving her life. I also like that, though she’s still comic relief, she actually does take initiative and try to get things done in Jane and Selvig’s absence as best she can.
Meanwhile, a good chunk of the film is dedicated to Thor and Jane’s relationship, though unfortunately we don’t get much more insight into it than we got in the first film. The film assures us that there is a great, true love between them, but again we’re not really sure why. The relationship is sweet, and there are some very nice moments between them (as well as some very funny ones), but for a match between a god and a mortal, there really ought to be more weight to it. Jane in particular needs more than just good looks and a pleasant personality (both of which she admittedly has in abundance) to sell the idea of a mortal woman who haunts the heart of a god.
That said, they do certainly sell how out of place and, well, fragile Jane feels in Asgard, amid these god-like beings. Whether from staging or acting or both, you feel her vulnerability and comparative weakness, which makes those scenes all the more effective (and I love her flustered reactions to meeting Odin and Frigga). This gives Thor quite a few chances to be heroic and chivalrous to her, though the film doesn’t make as much use of this aspect as it might have. Thor himself remains the thoroughly likable fantasy hero he was before, and retains every bit of the character development he received in Thor and The Avengers, though, alas, he doesn’t really get to add to it much here; his journey mostly amounts to deciding to move to Earth to be with Jane. I suppose he takes initiative, but then, when has he not? This isn’t a huge problem; Thor’s a perfectly good hero by this point, but it does make the film feel a bit like filler.
The action is one area where the film steps up its predecessor, which didn’t give Thor very much time to be swinging his hammer around being Thor. Though I don’t like it from a story perspective, the assault on Asgard is undeniably interesting to watch, as is Thor and Loki’s subsequent escape. The film also continues the tradition of finding creative consequences for Thor’s connection with his hammer, culminating in a very amusing sequence where Thor and Malketh are being ported all across the universe and Mjolnir whips back and forth trying to get back to Thor like a lost puppy. The film also makes several startling and unexpected uses of Loki’s illusion powers. And the portals themselves are used to very creative effect during the climax.
On the other hand, the finale, with Jane and Selvig using their anomaly detecting equipment to somehow create portals raises a lot of questions, like “how the heck does that work?” and, more importantly, “how is it this Aether cloud is ripping stone structures apart, but Thor is able to carry this delicate scientific equipment through it without at all affecting its functionality?”
Dark World further continues its predecessor’s strong visual style, and though it’s not as striking (the Dark Elves’ home world is pretty bland), it does manage some great images, especially at the convergence when the realms appear as ‘pools’ in mid-air. I also love the scene where Jane is caught up in the Bifrost for the first time, and we get a gorgeous impression of what it feels like for a mortal to be whipped across the galaxy in a rainbow bridge. I also like the imagery of a flock of birds disappearing into midair, only to erupt from the ground.
It also continues its predecessor’s strong dialogue. There’s usually a lot of snappy dialogue in the Marvel films, but the ‘Thor’ movies tend to be particularly strong in this regard; “I am not getting stabbed in the name of science!” “Evidently, there will be a line.” “Is there a point to this, because there really needs to be a point to this.” “Oh, dear; is she dead?” “There’s nothing more reassuring than realizing the world’s crazier than you are.” “Thank you for the commentary; it’s not at all distracting.” “Perhaps next time we should start with the big one.” That’s in addition to the juicy, elevated, almost poetic lines: “Merriment can sometimes be a heavier burden than battle.” The Nine Realms are not eternal. They had a dawn as they will have a dusk.” “Always so perceptive about everyone but yourself.” “I wish I could trust you,” “Trust my rage.” “If I were proud of the man my son had become, even that I could not say.”
Ultimately, The Dark World is not bad, exactly; it’s entertaining enough, and it continues many of its predecessor’s strengths. But it’s weighed down by a very lazy script, several bad storytelling decisions, and one of the most forgettable villains in any superhero movie. The result is probably the most thoroughly ‘average’ of the Marvel films; relatively solid entertainment crafted onto a heavily flawed story.