Thor might be seen as the stuffy older brother of the Marvel film franchise family, but Thor: The Dark World proves that there’s plenty of adventure and jolliness to be found in stories about a Norse space god. I enjoyed the first film in the franchise well enough, but like many others I found it to be a bit too origin-heavy and melodramatic. I suppose The Dark World has more than its share of melodrama, but the many lighter asides help balance that out.
You have to give Marvel credit for going whole hog with their goofy cosmology that they’re lifting almost verbatim from the comics. The idea that the Norse cosmology of Nine Realms connected by the World Tree Yggdrasil is in any way comprehensible in conjunction with modern astronomical systems is absurd, but I have a wry admiration for the producers who insist on keeping this conceit going. In The Dark World the Nine Realms are under threat of annihilation by the Dark Elves, a race from the Realm of Svartalfheim, who existed before the current universe, and yearn to plunge all the Realms back into the primordial darkness. The Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) was the leader of the last attempt at darkening the universe by using the artifact known as the Aether, and he was driven to the stars by Odin’s father Bor in a military campaign. Every five thousand years or so the Nine Realms align, giving Malekith the opportunity to try destroying the universe again. It just so happens that this alignment is beginning right now…
Thor has been busy keeping the Nine Realms orderly after the events of the first film. When the rainbow bridge-slash-wormhole device Bifröst was destroyed in Thor, the Realms ceased to benefit from the Asgardians’ beneficent ruling power, and began a quick descent into civil unrest. Thor and his armies are run ragged putting down rebellions of monster armies, and he hasn’t had time–or permission–to visit his human lover Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). That changes when Foster happens upon a hole in reality, one that transports her to another world, where the Aether is waiting to be released. This is the first of a few overly convenient plot devices that get things moving in the film, but when you compare this to the thin gruel of characterization and plot in The Avengers, this movie almost feels like Shakespeare. Which is ironic, considering that Kenneth Branagh is no longer involved with the franchise.
Actually, the comparison to Shakespeare is not without its merits. The Dark World is a melodrama operating on multiple levels: the grand and courtly paradise of Asgard, and the ridiculous comedic realm of Earth, with some dark fantasy realms in between. It’s not unlike many Elizabethan tragedies in the way it transitions between the “high” and “low” players on the stage. On Asgard and the other space worlds, we see betrayal, family conflict, jealousy, battles, and political intrigue. On Earth we have light comedy, romance, humiliations, and screwball humor. It’s surprising how well it all works together. Not that The Dark World is actually anywhere close to the level of Shakespearean drama in terms of artistry, but it’s good that the filmmakers have ambitions.
Chris Hemsworth is solid as Thor, with plenty of opportunity to flex his dramatic and comedic muscles, in addition to his, well, actual muscles. Natalie Portman is decent as Jane Foster, who was sort of a bland character from the beginning, and basically becomes a plot device in The Dark World. Tom Hiddleston has little to do as Loki in the first half of the film, but his interactions with Rene Russo as his mother Frigga and with Anthony Hopkins as Odin are a strong highlight. Christopher Eccleston is surprisingly bland as the movie’s villain, considering some of the more flamboyant roles he has played in the past. Kat Dennings as Foster’s assistant Darcy Lewis gets more than a sidelined role this time, and provides the bulk of the movie’s laughs.
Thor: The Dark World is fun, ambitious, ridiculous, spectacle-ridden, full of plot holes, and a pleasure to experience. Your mileage may vary depending on how serious and logically consistent you want your superhero movies to be, but for what it is, The Dark World is not a bad movie. I would love to see more attempts at creating superhero films that don’t rely so much on silliness and melodrama, and with Hollywood recognizing the financial potential of the genre, maybe some day we will. There are plenty of good superhero comics just waiting to be adapted, after all.