Taking a cursory glance at today’s cinematic landscape it would appear that Marvel, or more accurately Disney, rule the world. Since 2008’s Iron Man the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built itself up into a box-office behemoth with huge cultural influence. I have never quite got the superhero hype, however. A long-time lover of ‘proper’ cinema and arthouse flicks, in recent years I have fought against this tendency to be a ‘film snob’. My Marvel Diary is a challenge to myself to watch all 23 MCU films, perhaps proving my prejudices correct, or perhaps turning me into a lifelong fan of all things superhero.
Release Date: 30th October 2013
MCU Phase: Two
Director: Alan Taylor
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Christopher L. Yost
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Christopher Eccleston
May contain spoilers.
Because My Marvel Diary involves me watching all films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe now, in many cases several years after their original release, it is directly affected by the weight of expectation. I went in to The Avengers thinking it would be the best one yet. It was. I went into The Incredible Hulk expecting a dud. It was. With Thor: The Dark World we find ourselves in the latter camp, with one of the MCU’s most critically maligned films.
I began watching, from the film’s reputation, its dark and stormy poster, and the title, expecting a dull, gloomy film. Thankfully, Thor: The Dark World surprised me. It surprised me in how much fun I had watching it; it surprised me in some of its plot twists; it surprised me in its wild swings in tone; and it surprised me in how it went from some very good moments to being really quite bad. The film did irritate and frustrate me a lot, but it’s not without its merits. It criminally underserves Jane Foster; the tonal transitions between Asgard and the human world are jarring; the battle scenes are a mess sometimes; the story is basic, empty nonsense; and somehow I still quite enjoyed it.
The film’s synopsis on Disney+ reads:
“While Thor fights to restore order across the cosmos, an ancient race led by vengeful Malekith returns to plunge the universe back into darkness. Setting out on his most dangerous and personal journey yet, Thor is forced into an alliance with the treacherous Loki to save his people and those he loves…and our universe itself.”
Let’s break that down a bit. To start with: “an ancient race led by vengeful Malekith returns to plunge the universe back into darkness”. As far as the villain of the film goes, that’s it. Almost everything of any note to do with Malekith (an unrecognisable Christopher Eccleston) they’ve already told you in that half-sentence. His character is entirely bland, boringly evil without any proper motivation. There is nothing interesting about the Dark Elves he leads either. They’re old and they look a bit creepy; that is all. And their motivation for the whole plot really is just plunging the universe into this unspecified “darkness” using some spooky power called the aether. The result of all this is that when, near the end, Malekith shouts “The aether cannot be destroyed!” at Thor in what is supposed to be a big dramatic moment, the only genuine reaction it elicits is ’nobody cares, this is bollocks, and Thor’s going to kill you in roughly 5 minutes time’.
Now that’s out of the way: “his most dangerous and personal journey yet”. The “dangerous” bit of that suggests that the film will be an action-packed thrill ride. That’s only partly true. Some of the action is fun, yes, and the sight of Thor wielding his hammer will always be exciting (steady on), but the aesthetic and feel of the piece is a little false. In the opening prologue, which is simple and exposition-heavy but somehow still leaves things a bit unclear, Brian Tyler’s score gives off strong Lord of the Rings vibes. The swords-and-shields battle scenes and ring-like power of the aether evoke Peter Jackson’s classic trilogy, too. But then there’s big lasers and flashing lights everywhere, reminding us that this is essentially a sci-fi film. It’s like watching a mix of Middle-Earth and Star Wars that has potential, but more often than not feels like it was made up by an overexcited 10-year-old.
As for Thor’s ‘personal journey’, that description is a bit of a stretch. In the first film, our hero lacked a clearly-defined character, and The Avengers did little to improve on it. The thing is, I like Thor; or rather, I want to like him. When Chris Hemsworth cracks a smile and behaves like a bit of a cheeky-chappy, the god of thunder feels more natural and engaging. Similarly, when this film embraces his flaws and nuances, it feels like we have a proper good character on our hands. From what I’ve heard, Thor is dealt with far better after this film, and I can see that coming at the end of The Dark World.
The ending, where he refuses the Asgardian throne because he would rather be ‘a good man than a great king’ and believes Loki to be better suited to leadership, says more of interest about his character and these films in one line than everything else put together. Thor wears his heart on his sleeve, is a bit impulsive, can be blinded by sentiment, and is generally sweet and funny – all things I have been waiting for them to embrace for three films now. It’s a shame this came so late on, and that Thor’s decision and personality were not more embedded in the film as a whole. It’s as if the writers only worked out how to use him once they’d written the film, so left it at the end for someone else to pick up. Even if it doesn’t help this film too much, it bodes well for the future.
“Thor is forced into an alliance with the treacherous Loki” – this is the bit of The Dark World that makes it worth watching. I have loved Tom Hiddleston as Loki in both Thor and The Avengers, and whenever he is on screen this film picks up in pace, fun, and intrigue. The script amps up Loki’s role as mischief maker, and trying to guess just how evil and duplicitous he is is great fun. This all coincides with a nicely-staged extended sequence that cuts between Thor, Loki, and Jane breaking out of Asgard, and the plan being hatched by Thor and his faithful friends. Add in some banter between Thor and Loki, and genuine hurt between them too, and for roughly half an hour the film is a joyous, big-hearted romp. It is a style Thor is well-suited to, but isn’t given enough of.
The multiple twists genuinely had me fooled, with Loki appearing repentant, then cunning, then horrifically treacherous, then actually being the hero all along, then dying a hero with Thor at his side in an almost Shakespearean flourish. But then, right at the end, it turns out, inexplicably, that Loki is alive and was impersonating their father and is somehow now on the Asgardian throne. I think the reaction they were looking for here was ‘no way!’, but what they got from me was closer to ‘oh fuck off’. It’s one twist too many, and partially undoes the two best parts of the film.
Finally, we have Thor’s proposed mission for the film: “to save his people and those he loves…and our universe itself.” This is where things started to really irritate me. The thing about a film where the emotional core comes from the hero saving their loved ones, is that the audience has to care about the loved one too. The death and funeral of Thor’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo) is well-handled, but Jane Foster as a character has been failed by these films. Last time we were introduced to her fairly plainly, but fair enough they had another film to make up for it. She has even less to do this time, and barely any new details added to her personality. All she does for most of the film is lie unconscious or have what looks like a massive cosmic nosebleed when the aether travels in to/out of her. She is a plot device, not a character. At one point Thor explains to Loki that he cares for her so much because she is strong and powerful in extraordinary ways. I wish we had seen that on screen; then we might have been more invested in Thor’s efforts to save her. Love stories rarely work on screen if they are too one-sided.
The ellipsis before “and our universe itself” seems apt. The film peaks with Loki’s death, after a strong run of scenes and a dramatic high-point. It feels like this should be the end, but there is a whole load of nonsense to come. A huge London-based battle feels emotionally inert, mostly down to the script’s villain and character troubles I have described. The action is decent fun, but it pales in comparison to the previous two MCU climaxes, which have both been excellent. Some of it is downright bizarre, too. Why does a huge monster just leap from one planet to another only to do very little? And why are Jane and Erik Selvig running so bloody slowly whilst surrounded by an army of Dark Elves who would surely have killed them instantly?
From the synopsis you’d think this was a serious, po-faced film, but there is some fun and laughs to be had here – not all of them intentional, I feel. Beyond the great Loki-Thor stuff, there are some decent jokes and nice cameos from two other men called Chris: Captain America Evans and, of course, ‘Roy from The IT Crowd’ O’Dowd. Yet the writing lets it down a bit, with the odd clunky line and a lower hit-rate with the jokes than previous films. The jumps between Asgard and Earth, and the vastly different tones, aren’t well enough blended and, whilst they do get some laughs, Jane’s intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) and her intern Ian (Jonathan Howard) feel like they were specifically written as generic ‘light relief’ rather than proper characters.
All in all, it’s a bit of a mess and an easy film to criticise, as many people have. That said, I was rarely bored. The film is ultimately saved by Loki, forever Asgard’s strong-point, some good action, and strong performances all round.
Here is the first mention of the ‘infinity stones’ that I believe will fuel the ’infinity war’ to come. We meet a man called ‘The Collector’ played by Benicio del Toro, who I do not trust one bit. He is keeping hold of an infinity stone on Asgard’s behalf, and it is also revealed the the tesseract which drove the plot of the latter end of Phase One is one of these infinity stones. In a second sting we see Thor’s return to Earth and reunion with Jane, which is sweet if nothing else.
Where it Ranks
I had a much better time watching this than The Incredible Hulk, so it can’t come right at the bottom. On the other hand, I can’t pretend this is an especially good film, and its the weakest outing for a long time.
- The Avengers
- Iron Man 3
- Iron Man
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Iron Man 2
- Thor: The Dark World
- The Incredible Hulk