Thor: The Dark World (2013): Written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely. Directed by Alan Taylor. Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, and The Doctor. Running Time: 112 minutes. Based on the Thor comic series from Marvel.
If there’s anyone worried that Marvel has already played the best hand they had with last year’s blockbuster hit The Avengers (and I was certainly one of them), let this film be a reassurance for you, because if it’s anything to go by, they’re just getting warmed up. Thor: The Dark World is easily one of the best non-Avengers films of the Marvel franchise thus far, on par with Ironman I and Captain America, and matches Pacific Rim beat-for-beat as one of the best action films of 2013. I went in expecting creative and visually stunning fights and elaborate set pieces, costumes, and settings, and got all of it in spades, but the cherry on top was the refreshingly high level of self-aware humor written into the script, which makes the whole spectacle its own special kind of fun.
The beginning of the film offers a long-awaited explanation as to why Thor was not available for the Mandarin conspiracy in Ironman 3- the destruction of Asgard’s portal and the havoc wreaked by Loki’s invasion of Earth led to war throughout the Nine Realms, so he and his merry mates have been busy restoring order to the various worlds under Asgard’s control (it’s left unsaid whether or not these worlds are directly ruled by the Asgardians). They finish with a final battle and celebrate heartily, but Thor is, of course, still distracted by thoughts of his favorite feathered Animagus. He finally returns to Earth for her when she is briefly transported to a nether world in…..space….somewhere…..and comes into contact with a material called the Aether, a relic from the beginning of time capable of returning utter darkness to the universe (why did Star Trek get a “Darkness” related title again? Was there any reason at all for that?). The Aether imbeds itself in her, which both endangers her life and awakens the Dark Elf Malekith, played by our beloved Ninth, who had previously attempted to use the Aether to destroy all existence, only to be stopped by Thor’s grandfather. Now, he rebuilds his forces and prepares to strike directly at Asgard in order to regain the Aether and make a fresh attempt at destroying the Nine Realms.
I’ll stop the plot synopsis there, because otherwise I’d have to jump into spoiler territory. Not that there’s much to be spoiled anyway- Malekith is as one-note a villain as any we’ve seen in other Marvel films, which does deprive Eccleston of the chance to really liven up the screen. However, there are more than a few well-played twists in it (nothing terribly complicated, but nothing mind-bogglingly stupid), so I’d personally recommend seeing it cold. As always, the most interesting character on screen is Hiddleston’s Loki, primarily because he’s still having far more fun with his role than should be legally permitted. Seriously, every time he comes on screen, his sheer joy at being able to just run around and do Loki-esque things is physically palpable. Not that the rest of the cast is bad- Hopkins and Hemsworth are as wonderfully pompous and overblown as ever, and each of the side characters get their moments (Thor’s Asgardian friends are finally given smidgeons of personality). Everyone on set is clearly enjoying themselves, but from the first minute onward, there’s no doubt as to who’s show it really is. The lone exception is Idris Elba as Heimdall, one of my favorite side-characters in this universe, who gets a lot more screentime than he did in Thor, along with a brief but fantastic scene where he single-handedly takes down an entire enemy spacecraft. Hiddleston has the most raw charisma in the film, but damn, does Elba have presence.
I compared this movie to Pacific Rim because they are very much cut from the same cloth- both are massively overblown action extravaganzas that, while taking place in interesting universes, never stray far from basic stories and characters, and never tell us more than they need to. These films don’t care to be analyzed, they’re just having fun. And Dark World is nothing if not several barrels full of fun. It is far from perfect- there are plenty of minor holes in the story, and lots of miraculous, Deus ex Machina plot devices that come along at just the right times. What saves the film from them, though, is its unabashed self-awareness. Each cliché is accompanied by a hilariously casual gung-ho attitude- everyone knows the game, and they’re just happy they were invited to the party. When the inevitable Thor-wants-to-do-something-his-father-disapproves-of-and-thus-must-commit-treason bit comes along, his friends jump into the rule-breaking pool with him with almost indecent gusto; “For Asgard!” casually proclaims one of Thor’s inexplicably British companions, as he effortlessly vaults himself through the air to attack a flying skiff.
Mention must be made of the movie’s set pieces, especially on Asgard itself. We didn’t get to see a whole lot of the place in the first Thor movie, so it was nice to get plenty of shots of the characters flying through the city, which takes plenty of motifs from Gondor in LOTR, but in just the right amounts. As a longtime fan of both fantasy and sci-fi, I got a kick out of seeing its fusion of fantasy-style costumes, architecture, and weaponry with sci-fi space technology- even the spaceships Malekith busts out look like detached towers from the land of Mordor. I’m also a sucker for anything involving space in general (which is partially why I’m still head-over-heels for Gravity), and in one of my favorite sequences of the year, we get to see what Thor and Natalie Portman see as they travel to Asgard via the Bifröst Bridge.
I won’t spoil their contents, but since the total number of hidden credit scenes is different for each Marvel movie, I will merely confirm that there are two scenes after the movie, not just one- the first is halfway through the credits, and the other is at the very, very end, so yes, definitely stay all the way through. Honestly though, you should stay through the credits even if there was no second scene, because even without them, this is one of the best action movies of the year, and all the many grunts who toiled away on the effects teams deserve at least a moment of collective recognition. Thor: The Dark World is big, flashy, and silly as ever, and God bless it for that. If we never let the silly in once in a while, what a drab, drab world this would be.