Well, that was a vast improvement.
For me, Thor has always been the least successful of Marvel’s Phase 1 movies. This is not to say that it didn’t have any strengths, but, overall it was a disappointment. However, when I first saw the preview for the sequel, I found myself upgrading The Dark World from “possibly theaters, probably video” to “damn, I’m excited.” And having watched the film last night, I am happy to report that I was not let down this time around.
The film opens with a prologue recounting a battle in the ancient past between the Dark Elf army of Malekith versus Asgardian warriors under the command of Bor, father of Odin. Malekith controls a substance called Aether (very loosely defined as similar to anti-matter) with which he wishes to plunge the universe into total darkness (you know, your typical megalomaniac supervillain scheme). Bor defeats the Elves, and takes possession of the Aether, ordering it buried deep away and forgotten. As usually happens, Malekith and his power source fade into the mists of legend.
After that, the story settles into the present day and catching up with the characters from the first film and/or The Avengers. Loki is brought in chains before Odin, who condemns him to perpetual imprisonment. Thor and his comrades in arms are pacifying The Nine Realms, while Jane Foster is making half-hearted attempts at moving on with her life. Not that the Thunder God is doing any better than her in that regard. Soon, though, Heimdall notices something (or more precisely an absence) that spurs Thor to defy his father and rush to Jane’s aid.
It seems that Jane has not only uncovered the Aether but become its unwitting host. Thor takes her home for assistance, only to draw out the remnants of the Dark Elves, who commanded by Malekith descend upon Asgard. From here, the plot twists and turns several times (as to be expected from any story that relies on a trickster god for assistance), but never grows convoluted. Each step of the narrative feels organic, fitting naturally with what came before it. As we have come to expect from Marvel movies, there is a good amount of humor intermixed with dire happenings (Loki’s string of impersonations is hilarious). It is again to the writers’ credit, as well as director Alan Taylor, that they are able to balance such tonal shifts in their screenplay. This is a superhero narrative that respects your intelligence. The fact that the main screenwriters also wrote the upcoming Winter Soldier film has me increasingly optimistic for that sequel.
The writing of the first Thor film was a problem, but the biggest flaw to me was the production design which looked like a Vegas version of Middle Earth. In others words, really tacky and derivative. The Dark World is a significantly more impressive looking movie, especially when you realize that they did not trash the old designs but reworked them. It is in the details, such as the interior of Heimdall’s observation post, where the creative team shows what they can do. Where before there was merely bland CGI, there is now an actual sense of wonder. Another highlight is a scene where Odin, flips through an old illuminated manuscript, each of the pages containing a bit of enchanted motion, some of which is quite subtle, but all of which is beautiful. This is a film full of striking images. (Disclosure, I saw the movie in 2D).
Yet, it is in the design that my one critique of the film rests. I would have preferred much less advanced science, and more pure fantasy elements. I love sci-fi, but it seemed out of place at times, no matter how good it looked. The design of the Dark Elves was super, especially their blank masks, but at times I felt like I was watching Storm Troopers invade a rebel hide-out. Similarly, the look of the Elves’ ships may have been nice, but they felt more befitting a Star Trek adventure. This mix of technology and magic muddies the waters a little; the one time I had to explain something to my fiancee was Loki’s shapeshifting. Amidst all the ray guns, she had forgotten that he possessed legitimate sorcery.
As I said, though, this is my only real complaint about the film. The performances were uniformly strong. Chris Hemsworth continues to grow into his role; I’ve enjoyed him increasingly with each appearance. For me Natalie Portman was one of the weakest parts of the first film, but she worked better this time around. However, just like in the previous movie, Kat Dennings’ Darcy pretty much steals from Portman every scene they share. Darcy is given more screen time in the sequel and Dennings handles it expertly. I was left wishing there was some way they could import her into SHIELD for a jolt of personality. All around the female characters were given more to do this time. Frigga and Sif both have strong moments. I was especially pleased to see Sif doing something of substance, even if, I wish her role, along with The Warriors Three were larger. (Also, when are we ever going to see Balder?) Stellan Skarsgard’s Erik has a small but important part. The writers found a great way of depicting his character’s coping with what happened to him in The Avengers.
Then, there’s Loki. Loki has long been one of my favorite Marvel villains. Until a few years ago, my primary interest in Thor stories would be when he appeared. In The Dark World, Tom Hiddleston continues to prove that he has mastered the character: funny, devious, charming, indignant and five steps ahead of everyone else. I don’t want to say too much about him, for fear of spoilers, except that fans of both the actor and the character should find Loki role in the narrative quite memorable.
Finally, I will simply note that rumors were correct: there are two credits sequences in the film. Stay until the very end; it’s worth it.
Marvel’s Phase 2 had gotten off to a rocky start with two disappointments (Iron Man 3 and SHIELD). I was starting to wonder if the spark had faded. Well, it’s back now. And now having seen the Winter Soldier trailer on the big screen, I have a stronger hope that we have even more great stuff ahead of us.