Marvel Studios will mess up. They will make a movie that can be described as a misstep or — even worse — a mistake. They’ll be accused of rehashing what’s worked in the past and all the goodwill they’ve earned on the big screen will be called into question. That’s just a fact, as every franchise has its “Final Frontier,” or “Phantom Menace,” or “Batman Forever.” The Marvel Studios chain of films will falter, because that’s just what franchises eventually do.
But “Thor: The Dark World” proves that that fateful day is nowhere near our movie theaters. In fact, I’d say that “Thor: The Dark World” confirms that Marvel Studios is halfway through a rousing victory lap following the game-changing “Marvel’s the Avengers.” “The Dark World” conveys a daring sense of confidence and swagger never before seen in any big screen franchise. Marvel Studios is operating with Beatles-in-their-prime level efficiency and they show no signs of slowing down; their “Sgt. Pepper’s” and “White Album” still lay ahead.
The way that Marvel has gone about securing their claim as the modern era’s most dominant film franchise is incredibly fascinating and — again — truly Beatle-like; they’re not simply recycling the hits of yesteryear, for every new Marvel movie adds new genres and influences to the mix, allowing for each standalone sequel to burrow even deeper into the unique niche that each hero calls home. This unprecedented approach to sequels has resulted in films like “Iron Man 3” and “Thor: The Dark World,” two films that feel drastically different from their predecessors.
Prior to Marvel’s Phase Two crop of films, superhero movie sequels were very predictable. They would feature the same director, and therefore much of the same tone (“Spider-Man 2”). They’d up the action considerably and start throwing more characters into the mix (“X2: X-Men United”). They’d up the number of villains, even at the cost of a coherent story (“Batman Returns,” “Spider-Man 3”). They’d get relentlessly dark (“The Dark Knight Rises”). Even though the old formula for superhero sequels resulted in films arguably better than the first ones, you have to admit that most of them offered more of the same. The post-“Avengers” Marvel sequels are dismantling preconceived notions of the superhero sequel.
“Thor: The Dark World” marks a major departure from the character’s first solo film. 2011’s “Thor” was a briskly paced action-comedy romp, with heavy-duty Shakespearean speechifying taking up just as much space as the wacky fish out of water comedy. “Thor” successfully introduced the concept of cosmic Vikings to an audience weaned on the incredibly down-to-earth Tony Stark, turning what could have easily been the fledgling franchise’s first big stumble into a success. The sequel keeps the first film’s hearty humor firmly in its grasp while pumping up the weird to eleven.
With the audience already on board for all things Asgardian, director Alan Taylor and screenwriters Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely pack the film with the most Kirby/Simonson-inspired Norse mythology we’ve ever seen on the big screen. Numerous realms are visited, Norse spaceships dogfight through cityscapes, more time is spent off world, and the action hits nearly Helm’s Deep levels of intensity. This tonally doesn’t feel like the same movie as “Thor.” No element in “The Dark World” feels like it was recycled from the first “Thor” film out of fear that the audience wouldn’t be on board this time around. Marvel’s confident that audiences will get it. This movie feels like the kind of Thor film Marvel’s probably always wanted to make, and now their success means they can actually make that film.
To get a real sense of the confidence Marvel’s Phase Two is exhibiting, just compare “Iron Man 3” to Phase One’s “Iron Man 2.” The sequel to 2008’s “Iron Man” played out like a run-of-the-mill superhero follow-up. The same director tried to amp up the same elements that made the first film work, while adding in a number of villains to mess with our hero. A chief complaint amongst fans regarding “Iron Man 2” was that the film felt like too much of a rehash of the first movie.
Fast-forward to the mini-franchise’s first — and possibly only — post-“Avengers” film, 2013’s “Iron Man 3.” The third “Iron Man” film felt as different from its prior two films as “The Dark World” does from “Thor.” “Iron Man 3” was a superhero film draped in the dirty hoodie of a rough-and-tumble ’80s action movie. Who would have thought to take Tony Stark in that direction? And who would have thought that the character’s transformation from billionaire playboy to tech-savvy John McClane would have gone over so well at the box office? The film’s massive tonal overhaul proved to be a hit with both audiences and critics, thus kicking off the victory lap the studio is now running.
These sequels are proving that “superhero” is not a genre of film itself, but merely a type of character that resides in films of many different genres. “Iron Man 3” has pretty much nothing in common with “Thor: The Dark World,” not in the same way that the superhero films of the early ’00s all tend to blend a bit together in hindsight. With each new Marvel movie, the studio redefines what it means to be a “superhero movie,” as each successive piece adds genres like “action” and “fantasy epic” to its repertoire — and pretty soon the studio will stake a claim in the “political thriller” genre.
However different the latest “Iron Man” and “Thor” movies are from what’s come before, it really feels like 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is poised to obliterate the movie-going crowd’s notions of what a Captain America — and of what a superhero film — can be. The teaser and new trailer for the film possess a level of politically aware tension previously unseen in the Marvel superhero films, as well as a creeping sense of dread that feels as if it was pulled straight out of the political thrillers of the ’70s. This movie is the sequel to the Indiana Jones meets Rocketeer throwback caper that was 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger”?
Marvel could have easily made this new round of sequels in the same vein as “Iron Man 2” and every other superhero sequel that came before them. Instead, they’ve taken big chances with their directorial choices and decided to double-down on what makes each one of their solo heroes special. They could have made sequels where Tony Stark didn’t confront intensely personal emotional demons, or where Thor merrily goofed around Midgard for ninety minutes, or where Captain America thwarted a foreign menace for the good of the red, white and blue. They didn’t. They’re not going to.
This is Marvel’s victory lap, and long may it last.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).