Cal returns to Asgard for the latest chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Is it better than the first film?
With Iron Man 3 having kicked off Phase Two of Marvel’s highly lucrative superhero franchise, 2013’s Thor: The Dark World represents the next piece of the cinematic puzzle that’ll culminate with another Avengers extravaganza in 2015. Directed by television veteran Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Mad Men), this second screen outing for the God of Thunder is a suitably lavish fantasy adventure, but, while fun in places, it’s not an entirely satisfying addition to the Marvel canon. Taylor reportedly clashed with Marvel executives over the film’s tone and content, and there’s evidence of creative battles all over the finished product. It does possess a sense of grandeur at times, but for the most part The Dark World feels entirely made by a committee, in need of a stronger creative vision.
Picking up in the aftermath of The Avengers and about two years after the events of the first film, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has brought his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to face justice in Asgard. With Loki imprisoned under orders from King Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Thor becomes concerned with bringing peace to the Nine Realms, but the universe is threatened with the re-emergence of the Dark Elves, led by the vengeful Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Meanwhile on Earth, Thor’s mortal love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) becomes an unwitting vessel for an ancient evil called the Aether. With Asgard under siege and Jane in danger, Thor reluctantly teams up with Loki to prevent the realms from falling into Malekith’s hands.
Above all else, The Dark World is marred by its lack of substance and humanity. 2011’s Thor was deftly handled by director Kenneth Branagh, whose background in dramas perfectly prepared him for the task of humanising these characters. Unfortunately, the ensemble in this sequel is less interesting. Thor is inherently a one-dimensional character, an aspect that’s increasingly apparent throughout The Dark World. Whereas the first movie introduced an absorbing arc for Thor, part deux is less interested in such depth, rendering this an exceedingly surface-level experience. There’s so much exposition to explain the elaborate mythology, hence the lack of a human touch results in leaden pacing between the colourful action scenes. Moreover, the film feels too emaciated at about 110 minutes. The war between the Nine Realms is especially underdone, as this aspect does not feel as substantial as one would expect. Still, The Dark World does have its charms. There’s a welcome smattering of humour throughout, probably thanks to Joss Whedon’s emergency script polish at the eleventh hour. Plus, the movie closes on a cliffhanger of sorts, which brilliantly builds anticipation for future Marvel productions.
Fortunately, The Dark World springs to life during isolated sequences, in which Taylor imbues the production with the same brand of grittiness that defined Game of Thrones. The scene is set with a terrific opening battle sequence which makes good use of Taylor’s GoT experience with its medieval vibe and forest setting. It’s over a bit too soon, to be sure, but Taylor orchestrates the set-piece with a sure hand, displaying smooth mise-en-scène that’s carried over to other parts of the picture. The climax in London is also notable, as it’s both thrilling and enjoyably comedic. Another huge asset is composer Brian Tyler (Iron Man 3), providing a score that’s suitably rousing and intense, not to mention epic with its orchestral disposition. However, despite mostly competent production values, some of the CGI is strangely obvious and shoddy, and the Dark Elves look cheap. In fact, the villains as a whole are underwhelming, with only Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje making an impression in a minor henchman role.
One of the biggest charms of The Dark World is the return of several actors from the original film. As the God of Thunder, Hemsworth could hardly be better cast. Well and truly comfortable in the role at this point, the Australian beefcake has plenty of charisma and gravitas, making him an ideal protagonist. But it should come as no surprise to learn that it’s Hiddleston’s Loki who walks away with the entire movie. More scenes featuring Loki were filmed in post-production, and it was a wise choice. Hiddleston is a playful villain, charismatic and unpredictable, and he savours every snarl and wisecrack. Indeed, a lot of the humour stems from Hiddleston, who clearly had a ball playing the role. Also returning here is Hopkins, always a pleasure on-screen as Odin. He is somewhat underused, but Hopkins is great, giving the king a thunderingly powerful demeanour. Portman is good here too, while Kat Dennings is an utter delight in her expanded role as Jane’s friend Darcy. Plenty of other performers also return, including Stellan Skarsgård as Dr. Erik Selvig, Idris Elba as Heimdall, as well as Ray Stevenson and Jaimie Alexander as a pair of Thor’s friends. Suffice it to say, all of them hit their marks effectively. Chris O’Dowd has a nice cameo, too, making the most of his limited screen-time.
Ultimately, Thor: The Dark World falls towards the lower end of the Marvel spectrum, somewhere between the fun mediocrity of Iron Man 2 and the dismal misfire of The Incredible Hulk. While it does admittedly deliver well enough as pure entertainment and contributes a decent amount to the Marvel franchise mythology, it’s still pretty messy, and a considerable step down after the first Thor. It’s not terrible by any means, but it’s below the usual Marvel standard. Be sure to stay all the way through the end credits for two additional scenes: a mid-credit tease, and a sly post-credits wrap-up complete with a gag.