Iron Man 3 was, in my estimation, a flawed attempt to lead into what Marvel are dubbing “Phase Two” of their cinematic universe, suffering from all of the usual signs of franchise decay, the sort of thing that becomes more and more inevitable as the sequels pile up. I worried that the entire universe, building up to Avengers: Age of Ultron and beyond, was already starting to lose its way, the sort of malaise that would be difficult to stop once it started.
So, here’s the second instalment of the Thor franchise to try and right that ship (at least in critical terms, I know how much of a financial success Iron Man 3 was). The first Thor seemed to me very much to be a sort of “loved it/hated it” type affair, a very different inclusion into the universe that fell far outside the traditional superhero fare that its predecessors, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, encapsulated. I was one of those who liked it more than hated it, though I recognised some of the inherent problems that needed fixing. Here’s #2, The Dark World, with a new director, but much of the same dynamic, to see if it can improve on those problems.
Two years have passed since the events of his first adventure, and the titular Prince of Asgard (Chris Hemsworth) has been busy trying to bring peace to the Nine Realms, while still pining after his Earth-bound love interest, scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). While she and her team deal with strange dimensional anomalies in London, Thor must reckon with his aging father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), his imprisoned but still treacherous adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the evil machinations of the Dark Elf leader Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who seeks to use a powerful ancient force to bring darkness to the galaxy – one that soon ensnares Jane.
The Dark World does just fine, with a decent story that hits the required beats without ever really threatening to break out into something too new or unique.
It is very much in the same vein as its predecessor, with many of the exact same plot threads and a general structure that has more than a passing resemblance to Kenneth Branagh’s Asgardian offering. There is another dark, evil alien leader out to get Asgard (and Earth). There is another MacGuffin that he is planning on using for the task, that the Asgardians previously took off him and tried to keep safe (only to fail). Another prologue scene that is almost the exact same as the prologue from Thor. Crash cut to sequences set on Earth, where Jane Foster, Darcy and co investigate strange goings on which lead them to re-meet Thor. From there The Dark World does an OK job at trying to break out and be its own creation, but ultimately falls a bit short. The fight scenes are in the same place, the romance sub-plot has the same feel, and even the finale has a tinge of similarity to that which ended Thor’s first adventure. If you can get over that familiar feeling, like I did, you won’t have any problems. It’s not a movie killer, just very noticeable in the early stages.
There are just many elements with the main plot that could have been better utilised, and just seem somewhat place holder-ish because they were not. The “Aether”, the aforementioned MacGuffin, is hinted to have some kind of malevolent sentience when it latches onto Jane, sort of like the One Ring from Tolkien or something, and seems to be taking over her in a fashion, but nothing is done with this implied plot hook, apart from sighing, fainting and bad dreams.
Worse is the main antagonist, Malekith the Accursed. Thor does not have a very stand-out rogue’s gallery like other heroes (a problem that other Avenger members share) and The Dark World illustrates this deficiency in an obvious manner. Malekith is little more than a cardboard cut-out bad guy, with nefarious plans to end the universe for reasons that are far from clear. He wants to bring back darkness to the Nine Realms because that’s how they used to be, or something. What advantages this gives the Dark Elves, I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter to this plot. Malekith is unquestionably evil, and as such, boring.
He’s trying to avenge his race, but he’s the one who destroyed them in the prologue. His motivations and inner drive are so portrayed in so lacklustre a manner that you cannot help but have a yawn-inducing tedium feeling whenever he is on screen. He’s there because The Dark World needed a bad guy to wrap the story around, but the director and writer seem far more interested in keeping the spotlight on Loki, than fleshing out the nominally main villain. Malekith is stoic, serious and insufferably dull. When he does something like very purposefully destroy the throne of Odin in his assault on Asgard, it’s interesting, but not enough is done with it. He just does it without the slightest emotion on his face, like “Oh, that throne, I should probably destroy that”.
I read in interviews, Christopher Eccleston talking about how Malekith has a wife and kids that are destroyed in the prologue, or something along those lines, but none of this, the kind of motivation for his actions that would have made him a bad guy with a bit more depth and who would have been a bit more understandable to the audience, made it into the final product, which is a shame. Malekith is probably the worst villain that this universe has come up with yet. All of the others, even in the poorer offerings like Iron Man 2, at least had a substantial bit of character. Compare Malekith to Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Banko from Iron Man 2. One of them has a clear reason to hate the good guy and seek to avenge himself on him, and is a charismatic character to boot, the other does not. Ditto for Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer. He’s much more like the Colm Feore’s similarly bland Laufey from Thor, but at least he wasn’t the primary villain.
That is not to act as if these problems destroy any enjoyment you could get out of The Dark World. Since seeing Thor, I’ve loved the universe that it depicted, this sort of half fantasy/half sci-fi thing, where demigods fight with swords and hammer, while around them, people fling black hole grenades with abandon. It’s mythical, but likes any illusions of pretentiousness that could so weigh down a production of this type, and enjoys a preponderance of engaging bit characters, like the Warriors Three, to add a personal touch to the universe building. This is a very interesting universe, a subset of a very interesting Marvel universe, and it is presented just right, with enough tantalising glimpses of the Nine Realms, and the wealth of diversity, in both character and environment, that they bring to the table. The Dark World shows off plenty of them, and that helps.
A major issue that I and others had with Thor, was that the stuff set on Asgard was far more interesting and entertaining than the majority of the film, that was set in some back alley New Mexico town. The Dark World does better than Thor on this account, but still fails to make the Earth sections as interesting as the ones set in a higher plane. Asgard and the other Nine Realms are where, bar the finale, most of the good action sequences are, where most of the plot happens and where most of the better characters and interactions are. Earth is left to be a place for comedy to break up the seriousness, for basic plot grounding at the beginning, and for a recognisable place to finish the while affair, the opposite of what Thor did.
Because the stuff on Asgard really is a lot more interesting, plot wise and visually, than that on Earth. Yes, the entire plot revolving around the royal family still has that distinct King Lear smell to it, a Gloucester sub-plot for a fantasy setting, but it’s still a good story, even if it has been done to death before. The director, Alan Taylor, is s big Game of Thrones veteran, and you can see that in the way that the Asgardian sections are framed, full of delicious plotting, revenge, unstable rulers and unruly heirs. It helps, in that respect, that the Rene Russo character of Frigga, gets much more to do in this one than she did in Thor, where she suffered badly in the editing room. That royal family dynamic is at the heart of The Dark World, as Odin suffers, Thor chaffs, Frigga struggles and Loki broods. The interactions between that family, whose divides have caused so much of the problems evident in the Marvel universe, are easily some of the best aspects of The Dark World experience.
So good are those moments that the stuff with Malekith and his Dark Elves frequently feels like an unwelcome intrusion. Where the Asgardian family stuff is full of great dialogue, decent performances and a genuinely enrapturing nature, the Dark Elves shadowy solemnity is a distracting sideshow, one without any emotion, any real hook, or any interest.
Thor gets to have a running discussion with Odin about his role in the Asgardian Kingdom, whether he is ready for the throne, and whether he is right for it as well. Loki and Frigga have several great scenes, which allow much needed humanity to be added to the otherwise reprehensible character. Odin and Frigga have one very touching scene, just as Loki and Odin have a very angry one at the very top of the show. Meanwhile, Malekith has his short clipped sentences, his basic dialogue, his uninteresting toadies to share scenes with.
Those Loki/Frigga scenes especially are fantastically framed, using simple visual motifs to get their points across, be it Frigga’s illusions giving her a very clear tie to Loki, or the recurring image of books and their use to illustrate Loki’s mood, whether he is angrily throwing one away or patiently reading one, all tying back to his mother, who gave them to him in the first place. Its basic storytelling without spelling it out for the audience, and so much attention clearly went into this part of the production that the rest, most notably the Dark Elf sequences, suffered.
Loki really does steal the show as so many are fond of saying, but if he’s stealing it, it’s because Taylor is letting him. Thor is characterised so simply – his whole journey is about becoming a deeper, more three dimensional character than the oaf he started off as, and its only partially completed – that it is so, so easy for Loki to look amazing next to him. Loki is a great character and plays off everyone around him so well, that so many scenes in The Dark World are his, so much more than they are Thor’s or Malekith’s or Odin’s. Hell, the very first and last shots of the movie proper are lingering ones of him, so it’s not like Taylor is hiding his intention. As a villain, he’s so much better than Malekith, or anyone else that Marvel has created, perhaps because he is so different: thin, weedy, brain over brawn. All that being said, Loki gets his due and no more. Thor is still unequivocally the main character of the movie that has his name on it, with the lion’s share of the screentime, if perhaps not the lion’s share of characterisation and emotional evolution.
There are a few other plot threads talk about. There is a subtle underrunning one regarding Odin, who might be getting too old for the throne, and seems to be losing it just a little, a process that is made worse when Frigga is killed at the hands of Malekith. The Dark World then becomes a story of two traitor brothers, one doing it for all the right reasons and one doing it for others. Odin proves himself increasingly unfit for the throne, unable to check his emotions or make the right choices for the good of Asgard, and this leads to both of his sons betraying him in different ways. Loki’s seems far more permanent and important to the story of course, and this is as it should be. It help to set Loki up as the true opposite of his brother, by showing them both engaging in a similar activity, but with very different outcomes. “One son who wants the throne too much , and another who does not want it at all” muses Odin at the end, and even though it is actually Loki, his point is made. But what should, perhaps, have been added, was “ a father who probably shouldn’t have it either”.
Then there is the romance plot. This was a big fall-down aspect of Thor, the way that Jane Foster just seemed to fall in love with the main character when he took off his shirt, one of the most poorly developed love stories in the genre. Branagh just had better things to do, I suppose. Taylor does his best to try and make that aspect of the story work a bit better, but falls short, lamentably. Foster is still pining over Thor two years on, just as he is for her, and it is never really made perfectly clear as to why. The interactions between the two are basic and not especially noteworthy, and they just have so few scenes alone, that they don’t have the opportunity to create any kind of love sub-plot that could be deemed competent.
Worse, Taylor makes the same mistakes as Branagh when it comes to the Sif character. Branagh included some small hints that she had feelings for the title character, something that Taylor continues in the opening 20 or so minutes, with Odin referring to Sif in a very direct manner, when he tells Thor to focus on what is in front of him. But then it’s all dropped, spectacularly so, and Sif is an absolutely nothing character for the rest of the production. The opportunity for a love triangle sub-plot between Thor, the woman he loves and the women he might possibly be better off with never comes to be. That’s the kind of story that has been told a lot, but can still be told well. All that being said, I am willing to forgive Taylor, considering the real life circumstances surrounding the Sif character (see below). Sometimes, you just don’t have the chance, and I would presume that they will finally do something properly with that dangling thread at the next time of asking.
Lastly on that front, the stuff set on Earth is fine for what it is, but entirely too comedic in its general structure, dialogue and visual cues to be considered of any great importance, at least until the finale. Helvig running around Stonehenge naked, Ian the intern losing his car keys down an inter-dimensional portal, Darcy interrupting Jane’s first date with new guy Richard, just about everything on Earth, before that finale, is about exposition, scene setting and making the audience laugh. Not an inherently bad thing, but not a good thing either.
The Dark World’s pacing is the same basic structure that nearly all of the Marvel films follow, with plenty of action set-pieces to keep the blood rushing. At no point could I say that The Dark World was moving too slowly, or spending too much time in one place, save for some brief moments on Earth or with Malekith. The third act especially, centred around Greenwich, was very well done, mixing in good dialogue with interesting action scenes, leading up to a great conclusion.
The Dark World’s plot, while generally better than that of Iron Man 3, does share one fault, which is a preponderance of humour moments, even during the final climactic showdown between Thor and Malekith. Some of them fit, but some of them are just distracting and suck away some of the tension that is so hard to create. I don’t really remember much of this problem pre-Avengers, so I would posit that a bit of Whedon inspiration has struck the screenwriters. Of course, Whedon actually re-wrote many of the scenes in this movie, so maybe he has a more direct involvement in that kind of stuff. Regardless, levity is for acts one two and the end of three, not in the middle of three.
A brief word on female characters, with The Dark World sporting four of note, which is generally quite high for this kind of film, though it still fails the Bechdel test (sort of). You have Sif, who is just not in so much of the movie. You have Darcy, who is comic relief and little more.
Then you have Frigga, the matriarch of Asgard. She’s excellent in this, shown as capable and commanding, even if she suffers from comic books dependence on “girls in refrigerators” plot points. She gets to stand up to Malekith, save Jane and be a very large influence on Thor and Loki, though in the end she’s still fairly subservient, plot-wise, to male characters.
And then there is Jane herself. She’s a smart, confident woman, whose struggling to get over her latent feelings for Thor and then gets sucked into a world beyond her comprehension. Since she’s melded with the MacGuffin, for a large part of the movie she’s just something for other characters to argue about and fight over, which is bad, not to mention the fainting, but she comes back into her own in the latter part of proceedings, taking an active role in the final destruction of Malekith and his scheme. She utilises her expertise while Thor uses his strength. The Dark World does not place them an on equal footing, or anywhere near it really, but she contributes greatly to the final end of the antagonist in her own right, something that I would consider very important.
It’s just a shame that she’s so besotted with Thor when the production team really haven’t done the legwork to justify it. She’s even ready to die with him at the conclusion, and they’ve barely spent the better part of two days together.
Maybe I haven’t really gotten across how much I liked The Dark World. It does one thing very well, and that is raise the stakes in a gradual and impressive way. We start out with Thor just trying to bring peace back to the Nine Realms. Then Malekith turns up again as a threat, and starts attacking Asgard. Then Thor’s mother dies, with enough work and time gone into that character beforehand to make her important (more than she was in Thor anyway), not just in her own right, but to those around her. With a brilliantly executed funeral scene following, the audience is able to experience that same sense of grief, desire for revenge and feeling that, yes, people are in deadly peril, all the way through the final fight with the Dark Elves. The twin aspects of peril and loss are illustrated very well by The Dark World, perhaps in a way that they weren’t in Thor. I’m reminded of Coulson’s death in Avengers, a powerful moment shamelessly retconned for the TV show, but was still very effective when we first saw it. Other movies in the Marvel universe, like Iron Man 3, didn’t have that.
Of course, it isn’t all good on that front. Loki dies too, but then doesn’t, a repeat of his ending in Thor and an extension of his numerous illusions. Loki’s death was a powerful moment in its own right, a suitable end for that character. I could have done without some of the final words, but Loki still would have died as a man with a mixed legacy, and a better character for it, both a monster and someone with a bit of redemption. His death drove Thor on and gave the story an even greater amount of emotional weight.
But, wait, no, he’s back again. I sense that Loki will be a very frustrating character to me in future, in that I’m never going to completely buy any peril he is put in. If he can fake his death after being stabbed through the heart (and how did he pull that off by the way?) then what actually can touch him? And when he actually gets killed off, if he does, how will we know?
But that’s all OK, because Taylor actually goes somewhere with it, and so I move on to the conclusion. Having Loki seize the Asgardian throne in secret is a great move and a perfect curtain closer to the whole affair. It offers up a tantalising hook for any sequel and rounds off the recurring plot point of Odin’s succession brilliantly. Both brothers have what they wanted, now we get to see what they do with it. And just what happened to Odin? Dead, or hidden? Tune in next time to find out, and it speaks to the excellence of this ending that I really, really want to, right now, presumably three or more years before I will get the chance.
Naturally, The Dark World needs to have post-ending material, that irritating habit that Marvel refuses to kick. We get an introduction to Benicio del Toro’s rather campy Collector and some glimpses of what we might be in store for with Guardians of the Galaxy, which will presumably bring the Infinity Stones back into the picture in a big way, along with Thanos. Looking forward to that and Del Toro’s bit did its job.
And then Thor and Jane get reunited, the sort of scene that really should have been in the actual movie, and would have made the love-plot a bit more important, with it as the final scene. OK, they’re back together, and that’s great, but it still doesn’t change the fact that their relationship has been so limply presented.
On the acting front, most are doing a fine job, but others are suffering from bad scripting, non-interest or unfortunate personal circumstances.
Chris Hemsworth, fresh off his critically praised performance in the excellent Rush, is back as the charming Prince of Asgard. His Thor has grown a bit since we last saw him, having come face to face with his own irresponsibility in Thor and learned to work well beside others in Avengers. He’s a far cry from the angry man we saw in the opening scenes of Thor, flipping over tables when he doesn’t get his way. Hemsworth has shown us that journey. Now, his Thor is out to bring peace to the Nine Realms, but Hemsworth is careful not to get too drawn into the tempting hole of sombreness and brooding that such a character could become in that situation.
No, his Thor is still the same fun character he always was, with his brash confidence being a delight to watch, whether he is slinging one liners in battle as fast as his hammer, or cracking jokes in less perilous moments. Yes, Hemsworth gets his chance to show his more serious side on occasion, but I think it was well realised that this was not the best part of his game. The aftermath of Frigga’s death for example, see’s most of the grieving focus on Odin and Loki rather than Thor, with Hemsworth not really having the range to do such stuff effectively.
He also suffers on the romantic front, lacking any real kind of chemistry with the Jane Foster character, and not really getting the chance to develop anything with Sif. That’s not all on Hemsworth of course, but it is a failing. But, as the action hero, and as a slight comedic foil, Hemsworth is able to pull off the part of the Thunder God with gusto.
Natalie Portman, yeesh. She’s such a good actress, it’s a shame she’s stuck in this role, perhaps the weakest main character overall in the Marvel universe. The lines given to her are sloppy and weak for the most part, and the delivery perhaps suffers as a result. Her romantic sub-plot and its weaknesses mean she suffers much the same problems as Hemsworth, but at least he has more prominent affairs to distract from that. Foster has the bones of being an effective character, and shows that off on occasion, but in the end Portman gives a forgettable and drab performance, as a character that spends most of the running time being a moving prop rather than an active participant. That’s how it was written, and at times it seems like that is how Portman has elected to play it. On the basis of this, maybe it was for the best that Avengers decided to forgo her involvement in any way, shape or form.
Christopher Eccleston has a great fantasy/sci-fi pedigree, and he was fantastic as the Ninth Doctor. But he’s so badly utilised here, and I’m not sure whether it was the actor delivering terrible dialogue and characterisation the way he received it, or a bored actor barely trying with what he was given. Malekith is nothing special, a non-entity you could slap any name or race on and get the same effect. Under so much make-up, with such a distorted voice and surrounded by so much CGI, Eccleston was up against it from the start to make any kind of notable impact, and he fails to hit the target. Malekith is uber-serious, brooding, stoic and unemotional, the exact kind of bad guy to give to a lesser actor since it requires such little effort. An opportunity missed.
Tom Hiddleston is back as Loki, in a role that was fated to be of grand importance, ever since he has risen to become such a “fan favourite”. And he’s great here, bringing that wonderful Shakespearian pedigree of his to the role once more, as the perpetually unsatisfied usurper, who just happens to have somewhat of a heart deep down. Sort of. He’s changed since Thor, become so much more confident, arrogant, deeper in voice and character, no longer just seeking his father’s approval through the absolutely wrong means, but actively out to destroy him. Hiddleston’s Loki is one of the all time great comic book movie characters, who oozes treachery and charm in equal doses, the classic Edmund to Thor’s Edgar. We like him because he’s so deliciously evil, in every smirk, in every well-timed outburst or sarcastic rejoinder. We love him because his skill at creating illusions is so expertly worked into the script and Hiddleston’s delivery. When he “betrays” Thor at the meeting with Malekith, we have no problem believing it, because Hiddleston plays it so well: he’s even lying to the audience, and succeeding, which is wonderful.
And we love him because, far more than Malekith, Loki is an interesting guy, and he is interesting because Hiddleston makes him so. That rare outburst gains all the more power because Loki is so good at playing the dismissive and cool-headed fop. In fact, that’s exactly why Hiddleston’s role is so damn fantastic: he’s playing a guy who just loves to play different roles, a gigantic deceiver. Here we get to see Loki at his rock bottom level, locked up in a cage and pretending that it doesn’t gut him inside, and from there, building back up all the way to secret ruler of Asgard. I loved watching that transformation, it fit the character just perfectly, and I loved watching Hiddleston portray it.
Onto the lesser players then. Sir Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin, but man oh man, is he struggling a lot more this time. He’s playing a guy on the edge, who starts to lose it more and more when his wife is taken from him, but Hopkins really doesn’t seem to care as much about this universe as he did in Thor. Perhaps the change in director has affected his outlook on the whole production, but now Odin lacks a certain gravitas, the flair that he had in the first outing. Only in the opening scene with Loki is Hopkins really trying, and elsewhere he’s low-toned and uncaring, a really badly delivered laugh late on being a particularly bad moment. How he will get on playing Loki’s stand-in will be interesting, if Hopkins continues to perform to this low level. When he asks Thor “My words are mere noises to you that you ignore them completely?”, you might wonder if he’s speaking as himself or as his character.
Rene Russo is a lot better as Frigga, giving so much more to do in The Dark World than she was in Thor. Her protective mother character is the spark that drives Loki forward on his character evolution, and she’s even briefly able to get Hopkins to look like he actually cares about his role. Her scenes are limited, but every one of them is important and acted well, whether she is trying to get Loki to stop his pity party or standing up to Malekith.
Idris Elba, fresh from hamming it up in the disappointing Pacific Rim, steps back into the giant boots of Heimdell, who gets a bit of an expanded part in this outing, but not by much. It’s good that he gets to interact with Thor on a less grandstanding level than in Thor, but ultimately Heimdell is not a very great character in his own right. Elba does fine with him, and relishes his very own “Legolas kills an Oliphant” moment, but he’s not very important to things.
Stellan Skarsgard was one of the stand-out minor players in Thor and Avengers, so it’s sort of a shame that he’s been reduced to this level here, of the whacky comic relief guy. Skarsgard does just fine in that role, and actually seems to be enjoying himself, but what was once an important scientist involved with the most advanced technology imaginable is now a circus clown role, who strips naked and runs around Stonehenge for visual yucks.
Kat Dennings, one of those beautiful young actresses doing herself a disservice by settling for roles that are as stereotyped as this, is Darcy, Jane’s assistant, whose entire role in the film is sarcastic comebacks and comedic interruptions. Not important, moving on, though she does just fine in the role that she has, as does Jonathan Howard as her intern/dumb love interest Ian.
From there, we are on to the smaller fry’s. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is fine as Malekith’s steely lieutenant who turns into a horrific monster who no longer requires acting skill. Ray Stevenson is jolly and boisterous as Volstagg, Zachary Levi, replacing Joshua Dallas, is swashbuckling and charming as Fandral, Tadanobu Asano is almost non-existent as Hogun (he fights someone, Thor basically tells him it’s alright if he’s not in the rest of the movie, then a reaction shot late on), filling up the “Warriors Three”, some of the better ancillary roles in the universe. Chris O’Dowd is great in his brief, entirely comedic, role as Richard, Jane’s initial “love interest” (and wow, I wish those two would have gotten together). Chris Evans in a brief cameo as a faux Captain America, also does wonderfully.
Special mention will be given to Jaime Alexander as Sif. She had the potential to be an important part of this movie, but apparently suffered a serious back injury that kept her out of filming for a large part of the shoot, essentially meaning her role landed in the crapper. It’s a shame, because she really could have livened up the romantic side of the plot. We’ll never know, at least not in this instalment.
Just as in Thor, the visual side of things is very important, far more than most of the other films in the Marvel universes. The Iron Man franchise has its sleek CGI, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America had some excellent, real visual choices, but the Thor franchise is one that has to do most of its world building from scratch.
I mean, the actual camerawork without the aid of CGI is great, with some excellent views of London and Greenwich to feast your eyes upon, and the more small scale stuff is handled competently, though with some generic choices, like the recurring flashback decision for Thor’s plot to escape Asgard, or Thor and Loki walking behind pillars for transformations. But it is in its stunning computer made vistas of alien worlds that The Dark Worlds succeeds most ably.
Asgard looked wonderful in Thor, and it has been expanded upon and improved here, with a greater complexity in the city and the designs, creating a feeling of a much larger and more real world. We get to go outside the city, see massive monuments to Asgard’s past heroes, see some of the Asgardian military in action using something other than swords and shields. Asgard has its markets, its training facilities, its docks and its looming capital, and so much has been done to make it a living, breathing place.
And there are others too. The titular “Dark World” is a gloomy, oppressive desert littered with burned spacecraft. Vanaheim is a more traditional fantasy setting with a vaguely Mongolian feel. And even the previously trod locale of Johtenheim get’s a run out, and looks as good as ever. They’re basic in comparison to Asgard of course, but they are the best locations for the scenes that took place on them.
One thing I want to give major kudos to The Dark World for is its action sequences. You worry that, eight movies in to this overall franchise, things might start to get a bit repetitive on that front, but The Dark World brilliantly creates some dazzling fight and action set-pieces to get the heart racing. Small scale stuff from the start, in the prologue and in the Vanaheim battle, more for exposition and setting characters like Thor up than anything.
But then comes the Dark Elf assault on Asgard, a really stunning sequence. The Dark Elf ships are these unique looking flying swords that swerve wonderfully in the air as they zoom in on the cities defences, part Star Wars, part The Dambusters. The Asgardian equivalent, laser toting longboats, are equally cool looking, and the combat between the two provides something that is truly fantastical, and just perfect for this universe. It leads on and is supplemented by some decent ground combat bits, with the terrifying looking Dark Elves taking on the gleaming Asgardian warriors, as light swords and black hole grenades clash. The Dark Elf ship smashing through the palace and leading to that battle evoked thoughts of Flash Gordon, just with better CGI. The follow on, with Thor’s escape from Asgard, was an extension of that, giving us more glimpses of some of these wonderful ships.
That’s all lead-up to the finale in Greenwich and London, a climax I really loved. Taylor is clearly mindful that he can’t just go about and destroy London in the same way as New York and non-New York were in Avengers and Man of Steel respectively. So, he holds back. The Royal Naval College in Greenwich, a great and very beautiful location to have such a battle, gets a right dose of course, but we don’t get to see London burning.
And that’s just fine, because the finale is choreographed and framed just right regardless, from the arrival of the Dark Elf ship, War of the Worlds-esque as it descends on London, to the final destruction of Malekith and his vessel. Having the combatants zip between Realms as they fight allowed the whole thing to seem wonderfully fresh and fast paced, with that degree of randomness raising the stakes and meaning that Taylor could keep things visually interesting. Malekith is a disappointing villain to be sure, but he at least provided one half of a memorable battle scene, although it could have done with a little less humour at points. Case in point was a brief shot of Thor and Malekith rolling down 30 St Mary Axe, without musical accompaniment suddenly, as their brief yells are carried away. I laughed, but it wasn’t the time for it, and the sudden vacuum of sound was also a bit distracting. Tension-killing in other words, a problem Iron Man 3 had with its final battle too.
The production stuff, the real stuff I mean, is also great. Thor and Loki’s respective costumes still have that fantastic quality, and the Asgardian and Dark Elf get up matches their wearers and the surrounds admirably. The “Kursed” make-up and costume was very well designed, creating a tangible sense of menace in its user, a melding of artificial and biological.
There are some negatives to mention on the visual front. The Aether was a rather drab looking effect, more Prototype than anything else, and it lacked sufficient menace as a semi-sentient MagGuffin. I happened to be in a position to catch both the 2D and 3D versions of this film, and I can safely declare that the 3D version adds nothing to the experience – the 3D trailer for Gravity beforehand had more impact in that regard, than the entirety of the film that followed. 3D remains, for me, the sort of thing that is mostly useless, a cash grab that has stuck around more for its success on that front than genuine cinematic reasons.
It’s a very good script, for the most part. Everyone, bar Malekith and Jane Foster to an extent, are written very well. Thor is the charming oaf, more Shrek than the dashing prince, and that’s perfect. Loki is the manipulative schemer, and everything that he is given to say speaks to that fact. Odin has authority, Frigga has love, Selvig has whacky zaniness. I suppose Thor is a bit too action hero declaration-like at all times, with firm “I will find a way to save us all” type language most of the time, but it just sort of fits with him. The real Shakespearian stuff is given to others, and I mean that in a very real way: there is a deliberate Shakespearian edge to all of the proceedings, just as in Thor, which is not pretentious, but pervades just about everything featuring Asgardian characters. Odin is Gloucester, Thor is Edgar, Loki is Edmund, I suppose Jane is Cordelia and Malekith is…Albany? OK, maybe it doesn’t stretch that far, but you get my meaning. The script is weighted with that kind of idea, of a neo-fantasy Bard spinning the words.
It is in the interactions, especially with Loki, that the script really hits just the right notes. His argument with Thor on the longboat for example, just one part of a recurring argument over his own faults. Or his conversation with his mother, as he rants and raves about his birthright and the lies he was brought up believing, leading him to reject his mother just at the wrong time. Thor agonises about Loki, telling him “I wish I could trust you” after one flare up of their argument, leading to Loki’s reply, evoking his anger at his mother’s death, an anger directed internally as much as it is externally: “Trust my rage”. He tells his father “I do love our little talks but…I really don’t.” Upon being told over and over that if he betrays Thor, he’ll be killed, he offers “Apparently there will be a line”. “I didn’t do it for him”, he sorrowfully tells Thor as he lays “dying”, a final reach out to his mother, and maybe to Thor as well.
As with the film generally, the script on Asgard is of a far better quality than the stuff on Earth. That includes most of the romantic dialogue between Thor and Jane, which is insipid and lifeless, not least when she declares that his battling for the Nine Realms is “as excuses go, not the worst” for his absence. As previously stated, the humour lines are funny, but badly placed in parts, a failure of editing perhaps more than writing. You also might wonder if scriptwriters would have been better off using the time that was spent developing a functional Dark Elf language on actually making the Dark Elves worthwhile characters.
It isn’t the best word play that Marvel has come up with, but it does make for a better sequel. In fact, now that I think about it, this is actually the only other direct sequel for a Marvel property of this universe, other than the very disappointing Iron Man 2, and The Dark World beats that hands down, with a much better script to work with.
Brian Tyler has crafted a very good score for The Dark World, matching his previous work in the universe on Iron Man 3. It may not have all of the majesty of Patrick Doyle’s work on Thor, but is still great in its own way. Plenty of callbacks here to the likes of Howard Shore in the sort of fantasy music Tyler is going for, but he still manages to make it his own in a score that is memorable and emotive.
The main theme is a swelling, bombastic fantasy epic that repeats often, and good use is made of the basic Thor and Loki themes. The Dark Elves lack the same musical attention, mores the pity, but in most respects the soundtrack is able to accentuate and improve the visual and the acting with its presence.
Of special note is the funeral sequence, “Into Eternity”, which is scored with a great soloist, this initially subtle and understated violin assembly, before becoming louder and more triumphant in its grief, very suitable for the Viking funeral that was being portrayed, all while maintaining a similar note structure to the main theme.
Moving right along to themes then. It is fair to say that the main one of The Dark World is revenge. The entire plot revolves around this, from Malekith’s scheming to Loki’s rage. Malekith is, I suppose, the primary actor of this theme, wanting revenge for the death of his world and most of his race. This single-minded approach leads him to commit great acts of destruction and all just to leave the universe as dark as it was when his race ruled, hardly a very worthy goal. He deliberately destroys his own people for a chance to hit back at the Asgardians, sacrifices his loyal lieutenant to get a more potent weapon for the cause, and then prepares to drag all of the Nine Realms into destruction with him. Why Malekith is so obsessed with his cause is not revealed particularly well, but if we can say nothing else about the character, it is that he signifies that old maxim, one used deliberately by Eccleston in interviews, that a man seeking revenge should dig two graves, one of them for himself. Malekith’s desire to avenge himself on Asgard simply leads to his own destruction, and the very final end of his people.
But there are other characters who are also revenged obsessed. It fills Odin with illogical declarations and bad planning, a stubborn refusal to do anything but place his own people in danger, a plain comparison to be drawn with Malekith’s earlier actions. The difference is that Odin has Thor to try and set him on the right path. Thor also seeks revenge, as does Loki when subsumed into the scheme, but they seek it for purer, more understandable reasons. They both want to avenge Frigga, but Thor also wants to save the universe from Malekith – Loki is just along for that sheer emotional rush that demands satisfaction, to answer for his own part in Frigga’s death. For part of the second half, he’s ready to take it on anyone, but once he has it, he’s able to easily slot back into his past role.
Thor is driven by a need for revenge (which also ties back into the general Norse feel of the whole movie), but also by love, another key theme. I might have had problems with the way that the love sub-plot was presented in The Dark World, but I can’t deny its importance to the general plot. Thor loves Jane, hit by a thunderbolt since the events of Thor, and can’t give up on the idea of her, even when better options might be said to be nearby. Jane, for her part, can’t give up either, and when given the opportunity to do so, she essentially cuts and runs. The two are far from a perfect match, but I suppose there is an intended intensity there, that shows how much of a persuasive and important thing love – this sort of blind, passionate inflaming love – can be.
The Dark World also has an important and far ranging theme of roles, and the roles that we play. Thor agonises over his role and place as the heir of Asgard, whom his father wants to take the throne as soon as possible. It’s an enormous burden to take on for a man who only wants to save the Nine Realms – especially Midgard – from harm, and in the end he rejects this role, the son who does not want the throne at all. Thor, a man of action, cannot fulfil the role that he has to fulfil if he is tied to a throne. He’s seen the way that Odin has become warped by his role as King, with no more objectivity, and fears the same thing happening to him.
A different sort of Kingship role is what places Malekith in his position. He is a very different kind of King to Odin, and his position in that role leads to widescale death and destruction, most of it very unnecessary. His servants are like loyal cult followers, his Kursed lieutenant willingly sacrificing himself for the cause with no expectation of living to see the end of it. That kind of role is a very subversive one and proof that, as Odin says, Kingship is not meant for everyone.
Loki is, as ever, the trickster, and revels in that role. He wants a grander one though, and has thoroughly convinced himself that he deserves one, almost as compensation for the lie he was told about his birth. He gets it in the end, finally, but only when utilising his key strength of deception in the cause of further mayhem – it remains to be seen just what kind of a King Loki will turn out to be. To be satisfied is, by his own admission, not in his nature, and doubtless Loki may soon begin to chaff under the role he has grabbed, with the weight of the Kingdom, and his deception, on his shoulders.
Even the bit characters have their roles to play, ones that they stick to – the watchful guardian, the boasting brawler, the dashing swordsmen, the Valkyrie, the mad scientist. For a film and universe concerned with old myths and legends, it is a story where everyone has a role for them and a role that they have to play in the story that is unfolding, one they are locked in to, unable to turn away. It is practically destiny that Loki would end up with some kind of throne, that Thor would be able to break free of his royal chains, and that Malekith’s own hubris would destroy him. Pre-destination of a sort I suppose, though I admit that I might just be reaching a little.
Lastly, I would mention a recurring theme, in this movie and the original Thor, of proving oneself, a theme that is wrapped around the two brothers and the birthright that they share, that ties back into the Shakespearian quality of things. Odin, very openly, declared Thor unworthy of his title in Thor, and that movie was about Thor proving himself once more capable and deserving of that position. But now, in The Dark World, Thor is trapped, at the beginning of the movie, in this limbo of wanting to make his father proud and prove himself good enough for the throne still, while really wanting to be the kind of man who can walk away from all of that responsibility and be with the women he loves. Only with the death of his mother, Loki and the defeat of Malekith does he prove, to himself, more than anyone, that he is a good enough man, and important enough, to seek his own path. He’ll still defend Asgard, but he is enough of a champion that he cannot be tied to that place.
Loki wants a throne, something that, as his father told him in Thor, he was born to have, just as his brother was. On the outside, he acts as if he has nothing to prove, nothing to justify, no excuses that he has to make for his behaviour. On the inside though, he is in turmoil, locked in a cell, shamed by the one Asgardian that he actually cares for in any real way, and with no way out. Through Thor’s adventure he finds a way for a partial redemption, even if it is made all so false by his actions towards the conclusion. He regains all of his confidence, arrogance and sneering attitude through the defeat of the Kursed and subsequent usurpation of the throne. Loki was never really gone, but he’s proven himself worthy of his own name through The Dark World, so he is most definitely back at the end.
So, moving towards a conclusion then. I read around opinions that The Dark World is a “hole-filler”, a movie designed to just keep the Thor character and his universe ticking over before the next big team-up in Age of Ultron. I would disagree with that. I think that The Dark World is a fine movie in its own right, one that does a good job of continuing the Asgard story, providing its key characters with an environment to interact and to grow, and that leaves us all with an enticing finale that is sure to get people in the seats for whenever Thor: The Slightly Darker World is released in three to four years time. That movie has a wonderful base from which to start off on, and with the right villain – someone like the Enchantress I would imagine, who is a far more charismatic character than Malekith and who will interact with Thor better – along with Loki, you have the bones of a decent enterprise in place already.
The Dark World has set that future up, but has done more than enough to make itself an entertaining romp through this section of the Marvel universe. Some of the acting talent need to do a bit better (or be given better material to work with), the structure is a bit too similar to Thor and anything related to romance needs a swift kick up the behind before it becomes truly dreadful and negative. But The Dark World is doing just about everything else right. The action scenes and sequences are immense, the CGI is oh so pretty, most of the performances are fantastic and the general plot is a suitable continuation from both the first Thor and Avengers.
“Phase Two” is well underway as we speed towards Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The Dark World has done a great job of getting the Marvel ship back on track in terms of quality after the average nature of Iron Man 3, and thanks to the work of Taylor, Hemsworth and co, I am looking forward to future instalments in this universe with far greater optimism. When Tony Stark’s tale finished up in such a bland and disappointing fashion, I despaired, but it turns out that, for Marvel, there is a God. Of Thunder.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).