After rolling out first in the rest of the world, this past weekend saw the U.S. release of “Thor: The Dark World,” the third adventure to feature the Norse god of thunder, after “Thor” and “The Avengers,” and the eighth movie in Marvel‘s cinematic masterplan. As you might have assumed, the movie’s a massive hit: an $86 million opening weekend, to add to the $240 million it’s already taken abroad.
But unlike this summer’s “Iron Man 3,” it hasn’t been met with absolute love. An A- Cinemascore suggests that Joe Public is having fun with it, but critical responses are more muted: we called it “the most deeply flawed Marvel movie since ‘Iron Man 2‘ ” and the film holds the lowest Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic score of any Marvel film to date. With the film now in release pretty much everywhere, we wanted to dig a little deeper into it, so as we’ve done with many major movies before, we’ve laid out what we think worked (or was Thor-some) and what we think didn’t (Thor-ful) about the movie. Take a look below… and duh, spoilers ahead.
Hemsworth & Hiddleston
For all the flaws of the first “Thor” movie (let’s say we weren’t missing the Dutch angles this time around), there’s one thing, on reflection, that Kenneth Branagh absolutely nailed the first time around, and that was the casting of his leads. When they starred in the first “Thor,” Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston were, for all intents and purposes, unknowns: two-and-a-bit years later, they’re two of the fastest rising stars around, and with good reason. Here, Hemsworth again proves that he’s at least as important a casting coup as Robert Downey Jr. was for “Iron Man“—no part in these movies so far has as potentially ridiculous as a six-foot-something space Viking, but Hemsworth makes him a real figure, leavening the heroics with humor and honor. And while we’d question the necessity of Loki’s involvement in the film at all (see below), Tom Hiddleston’s far-from-unwelcome in the film. The character is by far the most complex and compelling villain in the Marvel movie universe, and gets his best showcase as of yet here: true to the nature of the character, he works best as a trickster, an unknown quantity who could tip either way, and Hiddleston walks that tightrope of ambivalence nicely. He also gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie, and even proves oddly sympathetic; no mean feat, given that he was last seen attempting to commit genocide in “The Avengers.” As long as these films feature these two together (and they have strong chemistry together, which always helps), they’re likely to be at least a little watchable.
It’s weird to think that in a $100 million + fantasy blockbuster with alternate worlds and zooming spaceships that destroy large swaths of England that the greatest moments are also the quieter ones: Darcy (Kat Dennings) asking Thor how space is; our hero hanging up his hammer on a coat rack; and, best of all, Thor riding the subway in London (though we have to note here that to get from Charing Cross to Greenwich, you need to go south two stops on the Northern line to Waterloo, then take the Jubilee line east to Greenwich: perhaps it was meant to be part of the long tradition of Londoners deliberately giving the wrong directions to tourists for their own amusement). As we said, Loki provides many of the laughs too, and has one of the very best moments as well, a humorous interlude when he transforms into Captain America (Chris Evans), complete with a bit of Alan Silvestri‘s theme music playing over the soundtrack, and even Chris O’Dowd‘s extended cameo works nicely, even if it’s rather tacked on (to be honest, we were left with the feeling that a film told from his point-of-view—the ordinary guy who falls in love, but can’t get past his inadequacy over his new love’s superheroic ex—would be way more interesting). The humor in “Thor: The Dark World” is the obvious highlight in a sequel that often aims for glowering darkness but instead comes across as a kind of camp blandness. Many of these moments were undoubtedly engineered by an un-credited Joss Whedon, which is probably for the best; in unifying the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he hasn’t forgotten that they are often based on comic books.
The Final Set-Piece
The action in the film is, for the most part, solid without ever quite raising the pulse (we’re struggling to remember too many memorable beats in that big opening battle, or the mid-movie attack on Asgard). And when the final confrontation in Greenwich kicked off, our eyes started to glaze over: clearly, we were about to see yet another superpowered throwdown without much to distinguish itself from any of the others that came before. But then something clever happens: in a canny bit of screenwriting, the tears-between-worlds conceit pays off, and Thor and Malekith (& co.) find themselves battling across the nine realms. Though clearly inspired by video game “Portal,” among others, it’s an inventive way to make the final sequence feel ‘big’ without the overwhelming carnage of “The Avengers” or even “Iron Man 3.” And it’s a cunning set-up, as well, introducing us to more of the nine realms than the ones we’ve visited before while also throwing us back to the original with a return to the land of the Frost Giants. It overplays its hand a little in places (Thor and Malekith sliding down the Gherkin is a little too broad, even for this film), but if the rest of the film was as much fun as this, we’d have had a much better time with the whole.
It’s Earthier & More Grounded Than Before
The fantasy world of “Thor” was never the film’s most convincing element, a slightly garish green-screen world that had a somewhat weightless feel to it. It remains true that the fish-out-of-water, Earth-set sections of the film are more effective in the sequel, but Marvel’s stated aim of fleshing out Asgard and the other realms is at least semi-successful. Alan Taylor‘s “Game Of Thrones” background is put to good use, and an increasing use of location work makes it feel that some of these realms might conceivably be real places and not just places filled in later by visual effects technicians. There’s still work to be done, but now there’s at least more of a sense of Asgard as something other than “where Anthony Hopkins lives.”
Stands Alone Reasonably Well
As we know at this point, the Marvel movies are continually interlocking with each other, with the various films generally leading up to an “Avengers” installment every few years. At times, Marvel have misstepped a bit when it comes to the interlocking and the Easter Eggs—”Iron Man 2” felt like it was treading water to get the pieces ready for “The Avengers,” and even “Thor” had Jeremy Renner‘s Hawkeye awkwardly pasted in after the fact via a reshoot. But Phase Two suggests that the studio have the mix about right: “Iron Man 3” neatly dealt with the aftermath of “The Avengers,” but told its own story, without obvious set up for where it was going next. “Thor” isn’t quite as successful on that front (the cliffhanger ending might as well feature Hiddleston looking into camera and saying “see you in summer 2016, kids.”), but it does at least pick up Thor and Loki having grown and changed from the events of “The Avengers,” references earlier films without bringing things to a grinding halt, and, the conclusion aside, doesn’t spend too much time foreshadowing or hinting at future installments. We don’t resent the mid-credit easter eggs: if you’re going to trail future movies, that’s the place to do it, and while we hope “Guardians Of The Galaxy” has better production value than the brief clip we saw, it was still fun to get a glimpse of Benicio Del Toro in character.
It’s never great to get sloppy seconds on a villain, so there’s something a bit tiresome about having Christopher Eccleston as the Dark Elf Malekith after having threatened the heroes of “28 Days Later” and “G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra.” But the design and makeup on this baddie ensures that the “Dr. Who” actor didn’t have to worry about not casting an imposing shadow (or, for that matter, being recognizable). No, it’s the writing that turns Malekith into less a character and more of a blunt object, an obstacle for Thor to punch in between trading wits with Loki and kisses with Jane. The Dark Elves are said to seek vengeance after having ruled during a dark period, and with light they find themselves as outsiders, borderline minorities. But it’s an abstract concept to hang on such an openly dopey movie that owes more to “Yor: Hunter From The Future” than it does any nihilist’s handbook. Worse yet, we’re not sure how many “Thor” movies the public is going to want to see, but he’s certainly got a deeper bench than one that sends Malekith up right after Loki. Why not the Enchantress, the Executioner, the Absorbing Man, The Wrecking Crew or even Fin Fang Foom? Why not a baddie that actually makes Thor break a sweat? Better yet, hey Marvel: you could try deviating from the comics and actually inventing a character for the screen. Believe it or not, there’s an entire history of movies made that aren’t based on a comic book.
Speaking of a deep bench, the first movie did a lot of world-building in introducing the Asgardian characters—Odin, Frigga, Helmdall, Sif, the Warriors Three, etc.—given that so much of the film was set on Earth. Here, we get more Asgard action, and yet it feels like most of the characters have less to do. The film seems to acknowledge it has too many moving parts in its early moments, when Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) is, essentially, told to stay home and sit this one out because there’s no room for him. Rene Russo at least has something to do beyond standing around in the background, but is despatched early on to give some box-ticking personal stakes to the action. But the potential of Sif’s love triangle remains unrealized, and while Fandral, Volstagg and Helmdall each get a single moment in the sun, it feels like box-ticking—we let Idris Elba take out a spaceship, so now we can ignore him again. None feel particularly important to the story, and none really justify their inclusion (it’s not like, had the film done without the Asgardian characters, we would have gone “you know what that movie needed? More of Ray Stevenson in a fat suit”). If you’re going to use them, really use them: if not, spend more time on the characters that actually matter.
Someone seems to think that post-“Lord of the Rings,” it’s requisite for every fantasy movie to open with a backstory-explaining prologue sequence. Given that even when Peter Jackson tried the trick again with “The Hobbit” it wasn’t wildly successful, it’s not surprising that it’s deathly dull when it happens at the start of “Thor: The Dark World.” If you have to do some kind of inelegant exposition dump to introduce your villain, at least try and make it look and feel like it’s not directly ripping off “Fellowship of the Ring,” but the rather drab design work and uninspired battling feel like a pale shadow of its inspiration.
The Generic Story
Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before: an old villain re-emerges, intent on destroying the world. After he kills someone close to him, our hero(es) must stop a magical MacGuffin from falling into the wrong hands, and close a portal in the sky. Yes, “Thor: The Dark World” has exactly the same plot that you’ve seen in a dozen other films of this type. There’s been some talk of the Marvel movies switching up genre, with this being more of a hard fantasy film than a superhero picture, but the filmmakers have confused setting with genre: this is the same old plot served up in slightly different clothes. In our interview with him, Kevin Feige said “People would say, ‘How much longer is this comic book fad going to last?’ And my answer always was as long as they’re different, as long as we keep surprising people, as long as they don’t become redundant, it could last for a long time.,” and he has a point. And while we hope that “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Guardians Of The Galaxy” and “Ant Man” will provide more variety, there’ll need to mix it up a lot more than they do here if audiences aren’t going to start to get tired of this stuff. For all the ‘you must save the world’ going on here, the stakes feel alarmingly low, and that’s ultimately not very engaging.
Loki Isn’t Necessary
Everybody loves Loki. Well, at least a substantial fanbase does: Tom Hiddleston‘s become a fan favorite after his villainous turns in both “Thor” and “The Avengers,” and given that the latter was the third-biggest movie of all time, it makes sense that Marvel would bring him back here. But while the texture Loki adds is welcome, he’s really not integrated into the plot very well. He sits out most of the first half in a prison cell, and Thor needing him to escape Asgard simply feels contrived. Soon after that, he’s ‘killed off,’ only to return in a not-very-surprising twist ending. It would take one rewrite in a screenwriter’s lunch hour to remove the character from the film entirely (e.g. “Helmdall, you’re the gatekeeper, you must know another way out of this place”), which would at least free up the real estate to develop a proper villain. It seems like Loki’s presence here is simple fan service, and of course, to set up a third movie with that final scene, and that’s simply not a good enough reason for us.
The Second Act
Not only is the story generic, but there’s also not really that much of it. The first act has at least a laudable sense of mystery, the third has some satisfying payoff, but the second act is nothing but busy work: the equivalent of stalling for time. Natalie Portman at least has the good sense to spend most of it asleep (not the best use of an Oscar-winning actress, we’d volunteer), but poor Hemsworth and Hiddleston have to trudge around the world’s least interesting planet to set up an obviously telegraphed shock (if you really thought Loki had cut Thor’s arm off, congratulations on seeing your first ever movie), and a death that ultimately has no stakes. It drags terribly, it’s drab on screen, and it’s decidedly lacking in the wit that leavens the film elsewhere.
While we’re glad that Marvel employed a photographer with a tripod with three legs of the same length for the sequel, we can’t say we’re particularly enamored of the photography here. Kramer Morgenthau takes over from the original’s Haris Zambarloukos, and while it’s handsome enough in spots, it’s a rather drab and dour affair, visually, for much of the film. Morgenthau and Taylor have both worked on features, but TV is their bread-and-butter, and while that works to the benefit of the film in terms of grounding it in a kind of reality, it also makes it look rather flat, quite often. Despite what felt like 70% of the first “Thor” taking place in the same New Mexico street, somehow Branagh’s film had a more cinematic scope. This sometimes feels closer to “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D” than it does to “The Avengers.”
Thomwhere In The Middle
The female characters
Natalie Portman brought up the fact that “Thor: The Dark World” passes
the Bechdel Test and, on the whole, has a number of seriously strong
female characters. Portman’s Jane has more to do this time around, even
though she frequently looks bored and for the second half of the movie
is possessed by some evil goop from another galaxy. Kat Dennings fares
better; she gets all the best lines and has a hunky love interest in the
form of her sub-intern. One thing that holds seemingly limitless
potential, but doesn’t get developed nearly enough, is a potential love
triangle between Thor, Jane and Sif (Jaimie Alexander), an Asgardian
warrior who is also super adorable. Having the “office wife” idea
transposed to mythological proportions is a brilliant one, and giving
the two female leads some conflict and tension is more than necessary;
it’s downright ideal. But there were clearly a few threads of “Thor: The
Dark World’s” storyline that had to be shaved down, and this
relationship was one of them. Yes, “Thor: The Dark World” passes the
Bechdel Test, with some of the better female characters in the Marvel
Cinematic Universe, but if the Sif/Jane/Thor love triangle could have
been developed further, it would have made this superhero saga truly
So, what do you think? Do you have think “Thor: The Dark World” threw down a hammer of quality or did it swing and miss? Was there anything they could’ve done better? What did they get right? What can Marvel fix for future movies? Let us know below. –Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor