When the MCU started, Marvel had to contend with the problem of proving their characters were interesting enough to carry their own movies. Now there is a different problem: the success of The Avengers has attracted a much bigger audience and they brought their expectations with them. The Avengers also destroyed the original purpose of sequels; no 2nd outing could hope to top the excitement of seeing all the heroes together. Marvel Studios had to carve a path in the brand new landscape they created for themselves, and Iron Man 3 showed a little stumbling as they try to find their way.
Thor: The Dark World picks up the threads of Thor’s story right where The Avengers dropped them. Thor has brought Loki back to Asgard to face justice for his many crimes. This happens to coincide with a rare phenomenon called “The Convergence”, during which the Nine Realms are supposed to align in a way that doesn’t make any sense because it was never made clear to us exactly what the Nine Realms are or what relationship they have to each other. Thor’s earth friends are brought into the story as a means of explaining the convergence, but that amounts to little more than buffet of sciencey sounding words. However, they do end up providing the only personality this movie has to offer, but are so disconnected from the rest of the narrative that the writers had to hang a lantern on it. On top of that, the movie throws in an artifact called “The Aether” which is later revealed to be an infinity stone (along with the tesseract from The Avengers). All these components combine to create a conflict that should have been bigger than what we saw in the Avengers, after all it’s not just one world being threatened, it’s all worlds, (i think? It’s really unclear how the Nine Realms work). But the conflict is instead scaled down as to not overshadow The Avengers, and becomes disproportionately small compared to the magnitude of the threat. Amidst the shuffle of the various story elements, a lot of plot threads seemed to have gotten lost, such as the love triangle presented between Thor, Jane, and Lady Sif that never goes past telling us that there is one. They also never revisit the fallout from the disaster caused by Thor’s decision to bring Jane to Asgard. Nor do they do any more than hint at the imperialistic nature of Asgard, which is a reflection of earth’s own imperialistic SHIELD. It all amounts to a movie that is frantic and absent minded, not sure what it wants to say nor possessing enough focus to say it.
This movie should have been a more personal story that showcased character development and the high drama that fueled the first Thor. Here, the characters crash through the story, leaving piles of destruction behind them, but little more that lip service is paid to really big events like the death of Thor’s mother Frigga. The death of a parent is such a catastrophic event that it should have dominated the rest of this movie with themes of loss and responsibility, especially since both brothers have varying degrees of responsibility in causing it. It is intellectually dishonest to breeze past such an important event, and it creates an emotional discord with the audience. The movie does make a little effort to respect this moment with a touchingly beautiful viking funeral scene, but then it just moves on and what we are left with is not enough.
What does work quite well is the interplay between Thor and Loki. Loki resumes his story with an even bigger denial of responsibility, blaming everyone and everything around him for his actions and their consequences. After everything Loki has done, Thor’s love for him has turned to hate, so naturally the story forces them to work together for a greater goal, cultivating authenticity in a brotherly relationship replete with resentment and bickering. Thor wouldn’t have felt so betrayed by Loki if he didn’t initially trust him so much, and that leaves Thor with a lingering hope that Loki could somehow be redeemed. This redemption comes when Thor sees Loki die after they fight the villains together and Thor promises to make sure their father knows what Loki did. The nobility of Loki’s sacrifice only lasts only a few minutes for the audience, when it’s revealed that Loki faked his death and snuck back into Asgard to make another play for power. The emotional honesty between the two brothers helps the audience buy into this movie, despite the convoluted plot or outlandish settings. Being emotionally forthright is the best thing any movie can do.
You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the villains of this movie at all. This is because they are perhaps the most boring and flimsy villains of any Marvel movie. Their connection to Asgard and Thor is tangential at best,and the only thing interesting about them is their design. Their motivations aren’t compelling, their presence isn’t meaningful, the individual members among them don’t really have any depth. The only redemption the final fight has to offer is a novelty through the addition of portals that turn a level battlefield into an MC Escher painting. When Thor wins, as we knew he would, we have no reason to care since he hasn't really gained anything.
This movie was conceived with an inherent contradiction: as a sequel set in between the huge event movies of the MCU, this must be a smaller and more personal movie, but the filmmakers tried to raise the stakes in terms of action and danger, and seemed to have directed their efforts towards making this a spectacle movie. This story lacks lacks identity; it doesn’t have the grand family drama of the the first Thor, or the personality present in Iron Man or Captain America. It feels like a half-hearted try; a place holder in the series, offering little more than cool visuals and an introduction of another infinity stone. Marvel Studios is too far along in their development to excuse a misstep like this. 3/5
Coming up next: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)