Out of the original lineup for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor was the trickiest to adapt. It has to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe previously set up in films such as Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk to include the possibility of other worlds beyond our own. If the transition didn’t work, The Avengers wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it did. While the first film wasn’t perfect, it was much better than expected with excellent direction from Kenneth Branagh, great performances, and superb visual effects.
With the task of introducing alien worlds behind it, Thor: The Dark World has the different (and arguably more formidable) challenge of being a superior sequel. Much like its predecessor, it isn’t a perfect film by any means but director Alan Taylor (known for his work on Game of Thrones) and writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are more than up to the challenge.
Chris Hemsworth returns as the God of Thunder, who’s spent the last two years since the previous film fighting to maintain peace across the Nine Realms. Back on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) struggles to move on with her life after falling in love with Thor, who hasn’t contacted her since he left her in the previous film. When she gets infected by a mysterious substance called Aether, Thor comes back and, in a reversal of the first film’s “fish out of water” trope, brings her to Asgard in the hopes of removing the Aether before it kills her. To do this, he’s forced to form an alliance with his maniacal brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who’s imprisoned after his crimes committed during Thor and The Avengers. Meanwhile, Malekith the Accursed (Christopher Eccleston), the leader of a presumed extinct race called the Dark Elves, emerges from suspended animation to claim the Aether for himself. He intends to unleash it upon all the Nine Realms, all of which are converging for the first time in thousands of years.
Overall, Thor: The Dark World is better than the first film, which is a commendable achievement in and of itself. Despite the darker tone that sequels are virtually required to have, director Alan Taylor still manages to maintain a sense of fun and adventure, which is sorely lacking from many big budget blockbusters nowadays. The film is action packed and each set piece is expertly staged and thrillingly realized with excellent visual effects.
One of the aspects that works the best is how the world of Asgard is expanded and detailed this time around. In the first film, Asgard, as beautifully rendered and imagined as it was, felt more like an intergalactic Narnia than anything else. While it wasn’t particularly detrimental in regards to the first film, there is no mistaking that the handling of Asgard in this film is superior in every way. The sumptuous production design and visual effects work expertly together to give Asgard a level of grit and detail that not only create a world that feels as though it could conceivably exist (highly advanced technology aside) but it creates a world that easy to get invested and lost in. No doubt that Alan Taylor’s work on Game of Thrones proved beneficial in creating the world of Asgard. A whole movie or even a whole series set in Asgard with this level of work put behind it would easily hold an audience’s attention.
Unsurprisingly, the action sequences are another one of the superhero sequels’ more successful aspects. The opening battle of Vanaheim, which serves to reintroduce Thor and his band of warriors, is one of the standouts. The sequences’ unique juxtaposition of advanced alien weaponry and medieval fantasy action results in an excitingly original opening. Another standout (and arguably the best action sequence in the film) is the extended siege of Asgard. Where the battle of Vanaheim mixes fantasy elements into the superhero proceedings, the siege of Asgard goes full on science fiction, complete with force fields, turrets and battle ships. It’s one of the more epic, visually striking set pieces seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films (which, in an unrelated note, should reassure anyone who still has doubts over the future of Star Wars).
The film isn’t without it’s faults, however. Like the first film, the material on Earth isn’t particularly interesting. Despite the talent of the supporting cast (Kat Dennings, Stellen Skarsgard and newcomer Jonathan Howard), the scenes on Earth just didn’t hold my attention as well as well as the scenes that were set on Asgard and the other featured worlds.
Malekith the Accursed, played by Christopher Eccleston, was another one of the film’s weaker points. Compared to past villains from the more recent Marvel films, Malekith comes off as more of a one-dimensional bad guy rather than a complex villain, despite Eccleston’s best efforts. Supposedly, footage involving Malekith’s back-story was cut from the final film. Considering the results, it was sorely missed.
The biggest flaw, in my opinion, was the emphasis put on the relationship between Thor and Jane Foster. Despite the talent of Hemsworth and Portman, I never bought their relationship. Even though the film tries to sell them as star-crossed lovers, their lack of chemistry just didn’t sell it for me. I couldn’t help but think that Sif (a robust Jaimie Alexander) makes a significantly better match for Thor than Jane does. The film’s hint at a love triangle at least attempts to make this pairing even a possibility, which is great, but I’m sure that in the films to come, Jane and Thor will end up together in the end.
Despite this, Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman are in fine form as Thor and Jane Foster. Hemsworth skirts the fine line between oafish comedy and stern seriousness, yet never tips the line too far either which way. Even though Foster feels like little more than a plot device this time around, Portman’s winning awkward charm manages to make her likable all the same.
As Odin, King of Asgard, the legendary Anthony Hopkins is convincingly commanding and powerful. As his queen, Frigga, Rene Russo doesn’t get very much material to work with, but she does an exceptional job with what she is given. Heimdall, played once again by Idris Elba, gets an expanded role. He is consistently good, infusing Heimdall with an ageless wisdom appropriate for the character.
Which brings us to our favorite God of Mischief. Tom Hiddleston’s outstanding performance as Loki is, without a doubt, the highlight of the film. It’s a credit to Hiddleston that even though he is portraying the manipulative demigod for the third time, he can still surprise the audience by finding new layers to explore. Hiddleston never lets you forget that underneath his snark and psychopathic tendencies, Loki still has a scintilla of humanity left in his dark heart. He showcases this in an early scene with his mother, played by the underused Rene Russo. Hiddleston’s magnificent work has created not only the best villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but of any Marvel cinematic adaptation ever.
Flaws notwithstanding, Thor: The Dark World manages to be thrillingly entertaining. It successfully expands the world of the first film and in some ways, surpasses it.