Thor: The Dark World is the second film in what Marvel Studios have dubbed Phase Two. Phase One: Avengers Assembled was mainly concerned with introducing the characters of the Avengers to the film going public. Establishing their personalities, their powers, iconography and dynamics to the people who have not heard of them; establishing changes to their Cinematic incarnations as well as the mysteries further films might hold for the hardcore Marvel fan base. Phase Two has introductions out of the way so is free to use the full potential of cinematic narrative to deliver us great stories and spectacle, free from any expositional obligations.
Only that isn’t quite true and never will be, especially as we’re talking about Marvel films. In order for them to create the kind of universe that connects so many different films and characters, that plunders such a rich and expansive heritage, none of these films are going to be entirely free of exposition. Although they could handle it with more grace than Thor: The Dark World does. The first scene of the film is quickly over, but due to the lengthy and monotone dialogue feels it much longer. It’s the scene in which our main antagonist is introduced and his back story is revealed.
Thor’s universe naturally takes place in the least developed part of the Marvel universe, so anything that is plucked out of his comics will take much more explaining. And here it is done in clumsy five minute blocks rather than elegantly dispersed throughout the film. The second you see Anthony Hopkins prepare to pay an enormous amount of attention and if you can’t your keep eyes from shutting then at least try to keep your ears open.
This time around Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is busy keeping peace in the Nine Realms when he finds a universal anomaly affecting his Earthbound love Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Apparently she has been infected with an Extra-terrestrial force known as the Aether. The Aether is a weapon much sought after by the ancient Dark Elves, led by the malicious Malekith. Thor finds himself with no choice but to team up with his imprisoned brother Loki and go on a quest to the Dark World in order to save his love.
For all the plodding exposition we’re subjected to, it matters little when the rest of the film is made up of kick ass action sequences and some of the most amusing back and forth dialogue since the Dark Knight. Despite Thor being in a more dour mood this time round, the film realises that if you are going to make a film about Norse Gods in space, then you may as well make it as much fun as you possibly can. The film never stops being consistently entertaining, enjoyable and laugh out loud funny. Especially for geeks like me.
At the peak of this film you will find Loki. I wasn’t as stoked as some were for his return, mainly because he wasn’t being written by Joss Whedon. But the screenwriters were clearly taking notes because his trademark wit and mind games, while not as vitriolic as in The Avengers, are still as entertaining as ever. Whenever Loki is on screen the film lights up, becomes brighter, the pace quickens and the action comes together just that little bit more snap. Loki brings out the best in Thor both the character and the film, but we already know from The Avengers that Loki doesn’t need Thor to step up his game in the same way.
The scenes they share reveal the most about their characters. Loki rails against any possible humanity that might be left inside him, preferring others see only the confident dictator he believes (or would like?) himself to be. Thor struggles with his duties as a protector of the nine realms and as a brother who against all odds continues to hope for his siblings soul. Their scenes are as layered as their relationship; at times comic, tense and touching, they are both rivals, enemies, compatriots and family.
The film makers know it is this paring that is the main attraction. The focus it gets in the film comes at the expense of the other interactions, forgoing their potential. As Loki isn’t the bad guy here (oh he’s still a bad guy, just not the bad guy) the film needs to come up with someone else for Thor to swing a hammer at in the third act. This poisoned chalice is picked up by Christopher Eccleston’ Malekith, doing almost the exact same thing here as Eric Bana in Star Trek. Unrecognisable in obtrusive make up, he spends most of the film worlds away from the protagonists, as the movie busies itself with the relationship it is more interested in. As Malekith and Thor don’t share any screen time that isn’t dominated by loud noises and explosions their conflict remains largely unengaging, relying on spectacle to raise the steaks and keep the audience interested.
Another character whose development is sacrificed to the Glory of Loki is Dr. Jane Foster, Thor’s love interest from the first film. Never a very interesting character, this film at least tried to set her up with an interesting conflict against Sif, one of Thor’s fellow Asgardians and rival for his affections. Unfortunately this love triangle is squashed before it can even get going as the film decides Foster is more useful to the plot as a damsel. Sidelined for a good third of the film Foster is impotent to be noticed against the cosmic forces raging around her. Even Kat Denning’s comic relief is arguably a greater force in this films plot than its leading lady.
One other disappointment is that while Thor gives us a greater understanding to the galactic frontiers of the Marvel Universe, it doesn’t expand them in the way I was hoping the film would do after The Avengers. Aside from one cameo there is no crossover in this film, at least not like I was promised in the hype for Phase 2. Perhaps this is unfair, most of this hype was generated by forum posts and fanboy speculation after all, not any official word from any Marvel execs. Maybe Captain America: The Winter Soldier will do more to extend the Universe and introduce us to some of the more minor characters these films now contain the potential to house.
Thor: The Dark World is great cinema for those who appreciate blockbuster film making as an exercise in pure enjoyment. The film knows its strengths and optimises them, creating an often thrilling and hilarious adventure on an epic scale that transcends space and folklore. True better filmmakers may not have needed to make the sacrifices The Dark World made to create a fun blockbuster, but film that understands its audience and knows how to create a great core experience is better than a film that sacrifices nothing only to achieve less. The single character Marvel films may still be looking for a Dark Knight but they are still in no danger of ever ending up with a Green Lantern.