Looking back, the first Thor movie was a marvel, no pun intended. It was the first of the Marvel Studios films not to have Iron Man in it at all, plus it was the first major step toward what we would come to know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Incredible Hulk was really its own little world, with a little Stark tacked on at the end to hint at the idea that was still forming. By the time Thor came out, the path toward a full fledged Avengers movie was on the horizon and Thor was our introduction to the next Earth’s Mightiest Hero.
Although the character is difficult to translate, Thor showed modern movie audiences a near-perfect tale of a god humbled, heroic triumph and the kick-ass design of a Jack Kirby-inspired Asgard. There was a flexibility of tone and style that showed us the fantastic was possible too in the Marvel world of science and technology; Thor even explains to Jane Foster and the audience very clearly that science and fantasy aren’t that far apart, sort of justifying the god’s association with more science-based characters. The movie had an amazing balance between so many different themes, it’s still my favorite Marvel movie yet.
Sequels to such great films can be incredibly difficult. On one hand, they can often flesh out the elements we liked from the original while trimming a bit of the fat (see Star Trek II vs. Star Trek: The Motion Picture). The second film can strike directly to the heart of the matter, rather than spend time telling audiences where they are and why they should care about the people on screen. On the other hand, reference can equal preference, and when the second movie is nothing like the first, it can fall flat if it’s not what we were expecting. Not everyone can return for the second movie, be they actors, directors or designers, so cracks can form if there’s not a consistency from one installment to the next. Others can complain if the next movie relies too heavily on the first, “continuity porn” showing up on angry Internet forums or from more casual movie-going folk. It’s a lot of concern to carry with you into a sequel.
The good news is that the god of thunder bears this weight heroically in Thor: the Dark Work. I can’t say he juggles it all effortlessly, I can’t say it doesn’t seem a little awkward and uneven at times, but all the troubles are carried in an impressive spectacle. Want to know more? Read on!
WARNING: No spoilers. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen any plot details that I might discuss, so click with confidence!
What really sells Thor: The Dark World is the character depth brought to the screen this time. There is a marked difference between the Thor we first met (a jovial child that needed to learn humility) to the Thor we saw in The Avengers (responsible and disappointed in his brother) to now, where the thunder god almost seems sad about the fighting he must do. The Avengers seemed to have taught him about collateral damage and consequence or something, and here Thor has much more purpose as a man and a hero. All the characters who didn’t have much to do in the first film are back with incredible purpose and style in the second, the standout star being Rene Russo as Frigga; holy crap, is she badass! I won’t spoil anything for you, but for a few moments, she is legitimately the backbone of the movie and certainly does as much to move the plot along as Odin himself.
The Warrirors Three are a little less doofy this time and pack in some great adventure-filled moments, although Hogun is less heard and more seen from time to time. We switched out Josh Dallas for Zachary Levi as Fandral, and while nothing comes close to how eerily comic-drawing accurate Dallas was in the role, Levi bring just as much if not more dashing-ness to his screen time. Even tiny moments like feasts after battle bring the idea home that these are more three-dimensional characters this time around. As for the villain, Malekith is stunning, ancient and unknowable in his evil and entirely alien in his performance — and his visual evolution to the more familiar Walt Simonson visage is inspired.
Jane Foster has so much more to do and has such a unique purpose in this movie, it’s probably going to be divisive among female comic fans and people looking for a more feminist attitude in their movies. One one hand, Jane is incredibly competent. She’s treated fairly and as in-characterly as possible with a lot of the Asgardians giving her a side eye but trusting her in the long run. She’s curious, doesn’t stumble into any huge pitfalls of damsel-ism and pulls her weight through most of the film. She’s a romantic interest that isn’t sappy or lovelorn; Jane’s a real human being. And real human beings among gods have to be protected, sad but true. It’s not like we expected her to don armor and go toe to toe with the ancient evil, but … in a way, maybe we did. Maybe we wanted a wondrous woman to appear on screen and if that’s the case, there’s going to be some serious disappointment. Personally, I loved her place in the pantheon and was a great character to put yourself in the shoes of as she navigated worlds that were beyond the ken of mortal man.
Everyone was so good in their roles and purpose on screen I just wish I could have seen more of … well, everything. Do I even have to tell you that Loki nearly steals the show with Hiddleston’s performance? When he’s not the bad guy, Loki gets even more time to breathe and enjoy every instance he’s on screen, and while his tricks might be telegraphed somewhat, there are fun and clever little plans all over the movie that keep you engaged and excited to see what the god of mischief is up to. Odin hangs back (even literally) in the movie, and I missed a lot of the fatherly tone Anthony Hopkins gave the first movie. He’s such a good actor that it’s a shame we don’t see more.
And then there’s Sif, who I feel will have the bulk of the deleted scenes on the DVD; there are just so many moments and glances and lines that make me think there’s got to be more to her role than we got to see. It’s not a complaint so much because, really, if everyone got all the screen time I wanted I’d be writing you from the theater right now. Some things just have to be cut for time so we can deliver the awe-inspiring action.
However, it’s not like everyone didn’t have something to do; in addition to some great character depth, there’s also a tremendous amount of purpose to everyone you meet in Thor: The Dark World. Not a single character is left out of plans both big and small, from the humans on Midgard pitching in as realistically as possible to defeat the bad guy to the great escape from Asgard Thor’s trusted companions help accomplish.
There’s a great sense of adventure in this sequel that is sometimes shadowed (pun intended this time) by its visual design. Remember how I said the first movie really worked to balance out the science from the fiction and the mythological from the mundane? This movie is having none of that. There’s a palpable sci-fi feel from a culture that was supposed to inspire ancient Viking gods. The look of the Dark Elves and their ships kept dragging my mind back to Star Trek: Nemesis (and NO ONE WANTS TO GO THERE) with their black rubber armor and futuristic-looking weaponry. There are some parts of the movie where it looks like Stark tech made it across Bifrost! It’s an odd choice stylistically but it doesn’t really infringe on the plot.
The plot is something they can’t seem to stop telling you about in the first half of the movie. The short, short version is this: Evil elves need an ancient power to bring back eternal night, and there’s a big planetary alignment that could make their evil dreams come true. This is bad. And that’s it! That’s all that really needs to be said, and it’s explained very well in a low-budget Lord of the Ring-style opening, but they just keep explaining it. Odin explains it to Thor, who explains it to Jane Foster, who explains it to Darcy. Dr. Selvig explains it to anyone who will listen, Malekith orates it to his people; there’s just a lot of people telling you something the audience should have already been in on.
Despite that, the exposition machine runs smoothly thanks to a special ingredient; the second-best thing that moved movie-goers through the plot was the levity that buoyed it from time to time. If the explanations got too long, someone would crack a joke to offset the information dump. The final action sequence has as much destruction and bombast as it does quick wit and clever timing. The humor of Thor: The Dark World gives it a lot to ground the fantastic and smooth over the rougher edges where plot or style don’t fit right, giving the movie a solid and fun feel than what I expect we’ll be getting with Captain America: The Winter Solider. If this is the big, fun action piece of the MCU, there is no better character to pull that off with than Thor.
There’s a lot to Thor: the Dark World, so much that the movie can easily become cumbersome to some viewers. Others will gladly shoulder the load of awesome adventure, style and drama that only the god of thunder can bring to the big screen.