Thor: The Dark World goes all in. The 2011 big screen introduction of Marvel Studios’ God of Thunder kept itself relatively grounded with an Earth-focused story – Midgard-focused, for you deep cut nerds – and an overarching threat to all of humanity. The Dark World, on the other hand, falls closer to The Lord of the Rings. It’s epic. The safety of the entire universe is threatened by the Norse vision of dark elves. There are hulking creatures of myth. Swords and shields and magic, but then there are also lasers and force fields and spaceships too.
Things get a little weird.
Phase 2 of Marvel’s elaborate spider-web network of big-ticket blockbusters continues with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in an uneasy alliance with his miscreant of a brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). There’s an argument to be made that the Avenger’s romantic connection with the feeble human Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is at the heart of this story, but the moments that pass between Thor and Loki are among the movie’s most captivating.
Tom Hiddleston all but steals the show as the living embodiment of Marvel’s take on the God of Mischief.
It’s ridiculously nerdy story, swimming with mouthfuls of words like Svartheim and Heimdall. A race of malevolent dark elves that predate creation want to get the universe as we know it back to the days of darkness, a time before crap like planets and humans and Asgardian dominion over all. Pulling off this feat involves recovering a long-lost power known as the Aether, and then wielding that power at the crucial moment when the Nine Realms line up, a time known as the Convergence.
At a glance, it seems like a hard story for the average person to relate to. There are many details connected to completely foreign, fantastical concepts, along with beings and locations that simply don’t fit into easily identifiable norms. That it all works and makes sense, even for those completely unfamiliar with the Marvel universe, is a miracle. Especially with a script that has no less than three different writers attached to it.
Propers then to director Alan Taylor, who keeps the story moving forward at a steady pace without losing sight of the need for careful exposition. The two-hour running time flies, only rarely stumbling on unnecessary details. The middle section feels slightly bloated around Thor’s time spent with Jane in Asgard, but the focus on their doomed relationship – she’s a puny, short-lived human, he’s a near-immortal Asgardian with god-like powers – feels like stage-setting for the larger story.
Taylor gets commanding performances out of his leads, with Hiddleston all but stealing the show as the living embodiment of Marvel’s take on the God of Mischief. His wide, toothy grin is an all-consuming presence on the screen, filled with friendly menace and conniving good cheer. He’s a danger to all, a true villain, and yet you can’t help but kinda like the guy. The only shame is that we don’t see more of him.
Hemsworth is a highlight too, seeming more comfortable in the role of Thor now that he’s had a chance to inhabit the character for a few years. There’s been real growth for this character, not just in The Dark World but in the stories leading up to it as well. He’s still relatively simple as these things go, a muscled, lightning-spewing wisecracker with a noble heart and an abiding sense of honor. There are cracks in that façade though, breaks that speak to a more complex persona. Marvel’s continuity overseers deserve a lot of credit here for threading nuanced character development across a series of movies that have all been informed by differing creative sensibilities.
An unwavering focus on epic-scale action is the indispensible glue keeping all of these pieces in place. The Dark World goes big on battle scenes, both the wide open warfare of armies crashing into one another and the more intimate hero/villain showdowns that are so essential to any comic book-inspired tale. The climax alone is a jaw-dropper, with worlds colliding around the Convergence as the balance of power swings wildly between two opposing forces.
Thor: The Dark World goes all in.
Even with all of this strife, The Dark World never feels like a grim death march. The stakes are high, no question. Characters are placed in perilous situations. Some even die. But there’s a light heart at the center of everything, a gentle sense of humor that prevents even the most dramatic moments from feeling too serious. It’s honest rather than saccharine. Natural, not forced. The first Thor did a tremendous job of keeping hold on its light heart, and The Dark World carries that foundation forward.
This is a monster next step for Marvel Studios’ Phase 2. You get all of the scene-setting you need for adventures to come – definitely stay for the entire credits – but you also get a very enjoyable, completely self-contained story that only occasionally nods very specifically toward facets of the larger Marvel universe. There are surely greater things to come for this series in the years ahead, but Taylor and his team of talented performers deliver an adventure to remember in Thor: The Dark World.
(Images and video © Marvel Entertainment, LLC)