MCU Rewind: ‘The Dark World’ Tries To Bring Gods Down To Earth, But Leaves Thor Aimless and Drifting
Debates about the strength of the Hulk and Captain Marvel aside, Thor is the most powerful Avenger because he is of Asgard. Asgardians are presented to the MCU viewer as the baddest-asses in all of the cosmos. They have a 5,000-year lifespan and are very hard to kill. When you have an entire race of nearly-indestructible gods to contend with, you need a truly formidable villain. Thor: A Dark World tries to give us this with the Dark Elves and the Aether, later revealed to be an Infinity Stone. This movie wants to make these gods seem like mere mortals as a way to raise the stakes, including killing a (somewhat) major character. Yet, these villains feel like deadly-but-empty threats, and the journey for Chris Hemsworth’s Thor isn’t so much a character arc but rather a straight line to Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. The best parts of the film are those featuring Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (and Kat Dennings’s Darcy, who delights in every scene). There are things to like in this film, but you have to be willing to look past a lot to get to them.
The first and most pressing problem is the inexplicable decision to have Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Algrim speak in a made-up alien language for most of their appearances in the film. So, not only do Eccleston and Akinnuoye-Agbaje have to deliver their lines through heavy make-up and electronic voice-modulation, their emotional performance is undercut because most people are ignoring their mouth sounds and just reading the subtitles. There’s not much development of these characters and their motivation to begin with. Anthony Hopkins’s Odin tells us that they want to plunge the universe into darkness but they seem to function just fine in the universe with all these photons bouncing around. There is also a cosmic event that only happens ever few millennia where all the “nine realms” line up (or something?). It’s never really clear what the purpose of that is beyond creating an easy way to travel to different planets without the bi-frost. Regardless, the Dark Elves never become much more than weird-looking monsters trying to do evil shit just because.
After the destruction of the bi-frost in the previous movie, it’s taken two years to rebuild and war has apparently broken out because of it. Of course, it’s unclear if the wars are happening concurrently on all the other realms save for Midgard or whether the realms are warring with each other. Either way, Thor and all his colorful warrior buddies are out there kicking ass and quipping. Yet, instead of revelry in their victory when they return to Asgard, Thor just broods and then goes to visit Idris Elba’s Heimdall to ask him to spy on his human girlfriend. There’s an argument to be made that cutting Jane (and the rest of the Earth-set story) from the film would have been to its benefit. Yet, this is a holdover from when Patty Jenkins of Wonder Woman fame was to be the director. She told Collider in 2017 that her version of the sequel would have been a star-crossed lovers story evocative of Romeo and Juliet. Thor would have chosen her over Asgard, inviting the ire of Odin. Some of this still remains, as Odin does not like Jane much at all. Still, at least in that story, Jane would have something to do other than being possessed by magical space jelly.
While Phase 1 is the first act of The Infinity Saga, no infinity stones really show up in earnest until Phase 2. The MacGuffin of the film, the Aether, is actually the Reality Stone. Yet, how its used in this film seems wholly unrelated to its eventual place in MCU history. For reasons that are never really made clear (despite at least three characters explaining it at different places in the film), Malekith needs to use the Aether during the cosmic event, dubbed “the Convergence” to unmake the entire universe. Yet another problem with this film, since it’s post-Avengers, is that an existence-ending threat like this should be on their radar. At the very least, one would think that S.H.I.E.L.D. would stick their nose in somehow. Dr. Erik Selvig, played by Stellan Skarsgård, is one of their former scientists, seen on television running around naked and going on about the end of the world. If S.H.I.E.L.D. could find Thor’s hammer in the first film, how do they all miss the ball on this one? In fact, the world-ending threats of the first two Avengers films pale in comparison to the threat posed by the Dark Elves. Yet, neither the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes or everyone’s favorite global spy agency even notices the giant spaceship battle happening in London.
The most compelling parts of this movie happen in Asgard, which Jane visits about halfway through the film. The interplay between Thor and Odin, as well as the arc of Loki’s journey — a large chunk of which is spent languishing in a cell — are very entertaining. The only time the threat of the Dark Elves feels like it has any stakes at all is when they lead an assault on Asgard itself. They are so ancient, the film’s logic goes, that even the Aesir are technologically outmatched. They do not come to Asgard to get revenge on the people responsible for foiling their goofy plot the last time the convergence came around. Rather, they show up because Jane is there, and she’s possessed by the Aether, which is killing her. Ironically, this is one of the poorly developed plot points that is made better in retrospect as we learned more about the Infinity Stones. It’s well-established that mere mortals just aren’t strong enough to survive physical contact with the stones. Even though the Reality Stone is a nebulous cloud of red goo, Jane Foster just can’t contain all that power. The threat this poses to Jane and the threat the Dark Elves pose to Asgard are what drives the only worthwhile arc of the film.
As mentioned above, Odin is very pissed at Thor for bringing Jane to Asgard. Once he learns she possesses the Aether, he remains more annoyed at her presence dismissing the idea that the Dark Elves still exist as nonsense. When these villains eventually attack, great pains are taken to hide Jane from them. She is left in the care of Rene Russo’s Frigga, wife to Odin and mother to Thor and Loki. In the first film, she attempted to fight Colm Feore’s King Laufey when he attacked Odin in Asgard, but he dispatched her handily. In this film, she has an epic battle with the Dark Elves, doing some impressive sword-work. Yet, she is surprisingly killed, thereby creating the only true dramatic tension in this whole mess of a story. Odin, who didn’t want Jane there in the first place, is beside himself with grief. He wants to use Jane as bait to draw out the Dark Elves, unconcerned with whether it kills her or not. His grief at the death of his wife, compounded with the betrayal of his adopted son Loki, compromises the All-Father. Thor, however, is compromised, too.
Thor’s plan almost reflects a regression to the Thor of the first film, the battle-hungry boy who thought he could smash all of his problems. He believes that he can also use Jane as bait, let Malekith separate her from the Aether, and then destroy them both with his lightning. This is, also, a terrible plan, and as the movie shows us it goes precisely the wrong way. Nonetheless, as Thor plans to defy his father, he breaks out the expert in that trick: Loki. There is an excellent sequence in which Thor and Loki banter, but the latter eventually drops his illusion. Loki is a mess, filthy and bedraggled, and apparently he smashed up his entire cell in a fit of rage at the news of his mother’s death. There’s also a fun sequence when Loki is taunting Thor with what illusion he should disguise himself in. For a few moments Loki takes on the appearance of Steve Rogers, delivering a fantastic cameo from Chris Evans.
Hiddleston’s Loki shines in this film, as always. His is the only storyline with any true pathos, made even sadder in hindsight because we now know he wasn’t in his right mind when he attacked Earth. He’s locked away in a cell, forbidden from seeing the real Frigga. So, instead, he creates an apparition of her to talk to, argue with, and who ultimately forgives him. He’s been abandoned by his family and his former friends no longer trust him. There is a series of scenes where Thor’s tiresome companions all threaten to kill him if he betrays Thor. This is played for laughs, but they are compounding Loki’s suffering, leaving him the path of the shadowy villain as his only recourse.
Since the authors of almost every one of these critical reviews of Dark World offers up their own version of a Thor sequel they’d have liked instead, I will too. At the end of Avengers, Thor and Loki have to use the Tesseract to teleport back to Asgard. The movie I would have liked to see is that journey home. Perhaps the Tesseract doesn’t work the way it should or Asgard has some kind of teleportation protection necessitating a roundabout way of going home. Either way, a kind of “road movie” with Thor and Loki reconnecting and understanding each others’ points of view sounds far more compelling to me, than what we got.
Of course, Loki actually proves himself trustworthy — of a sort — on the battlefield with the Dark Elves. He pulls off a ruse with Thor, and then protects Jane selflessly. He’s given a death scene in which he and Thor truly reconcile, and Loki offers up that he still loved his brother. This is then undercut a few moments later, when the film reveals that Loki is actually alive and sneaks back to Asgard. Ultimately, this is a good thing, because more Loki is better than less. It also sets up Thor: Ragnarok in a fantastic way. However, the twist doesn’t really serve this story. In fact, rather than post-credits scene introducing The Collector played by Benicio Del Toro (and revealing that both the Aether and Tesseract are Infinity Stones), the Loki reveal should have been contained outside of the movie proper.
With (soon-to-be) 22 movies to choose from in the MCU, people love creating ranked lists of the best and the worst of these films. While I doubt I could ever pick a single favorite MCU movie, I think that Dark World is unquestionably the worst one. This is not to say that it’s a “bad” movie, a term I find useless in a critical sense. In fact, this movie is enjoyable to watch, even with all of its problems. The costumes and design of the film are breathtaking, and the performances from all of the actors are great. Weird and problematic storytelling is, honestly, as much a staple of the comic book world as origin stories and capes. Dark World is a weird and awkward movie, but one that holds your interest, even if you are rolling your eyes every few minutes. I want to give a second shout-out to Christopher Eccleston and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje for their performances. The characters’ motivations were one-dimensional (pun intended) and their plan was convoluted to the point of being nonsense. Yet, both of these actors played the hell out of their roles. Just like Ben Kingsley in Iron Man 3, they weren’t given much to work with, but these actors made these roles better than they had any right to be.
The real problem with this movie is what makes it such a departure from Thor. In the first film, the Thor we meet is genuinely unlikable. He’s arrogant, overly-aggressive, and entitled to the point of being a whiny child (just with a deep voice and a ripped upper-body). Throughout the film he changes so drastically, that he’s almost a different person by the end of it. In this movie, Thor has no character arc. Yes, he fears for Jane’s life and that makes him reckless, but even then he assumed he’d still be able to save everyone. Thor goes through no significant change in the story, save for deciding to live on Earth with Jane Foster (thereby being present for the Avengers sequel). This lack of an emotional journey means that one of the most powerful and compelling Avengers is a flat and boring character in his own movie. There are hints of potential throughout the movie for something resembling an emotional journey. The tension between Thor and Odin could have been mined for so much more drama. The suspicion that Thor has for his brother could have been better utilized to raise the stakes (and given Loki a chance to more explicitly show that, this time, he was on the side of the angels). Instead, all we get is a brooding god who is just as wholesome and heroic at the end of the movie as he is at the start.
One last thing that Thor: The Dark World introduced into the MCU was the opening fanfare for the Marvel Studios logo. While it still featured the flipping “comic book pages,” the intro logo added its own theme which is one of the more memorable pieces of scoring in the MCU. This version of the opening would remain unchanged until 2016, when they added stills and short clips from previous films. Of course, if we’re talking about triumphs in film scoring, the next film in the saga is one of the highest. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a very important film and not just for the eerie, tonal theme that accompanies the Winter Soldier’s appearances. This was the first film helmed by Joe and Anthony Russo, who went on to make Civil War, Infinity War, and Endgame. This is also the movie that really brought Cap into the modern era, by setting him in a spy thriller which pits him against his best friend and the agency he works for.