Ahead of 'Avengers: Infinity War,' we revisit one of the most maligned Marvel movies
As we count down to the long-awaited uber-team-up Avengers: Infinity War (out May 4), EW’s Marvel Movie Club is preparing by revisiting the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in the weeks leading up to the mega-sized movie. EW will revisit one Marvel movie a week, every week, to reassess its powers and hopefully answer important questions along the way like “What was The Incredible Hulk?” “Does Nick Fury wash his eye-patch?” and “Is there a point to Hawkeye?” This week, we look at Thor: The Dark World.
Marvel Movie Club has now moved from Phase One, when everything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still new and fresh, to a Phase Two, which arguably was more hit-or-miss. The next two films are on our list (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy) are two of the most memorable movies in the entire MCU, but Thor: The Dark World was much maligned. EW critic Darren Franich ranks it dead last, calling it “an incoherently plotted misadventure” and “the Batman & Robin of the Marvel Cinematic Universe” (thankfully, no one ever pulls out a Thor-branded credit card here). But revisiting Alan Taylor’s film these days certainly makes for an interesting viewing experience, not least because it contains more inklings of the glorious Ragnarok to come than you may have assumed.
Watching Thor: The Dark World in 2018 really shows just how much time can pass in five years. Since the Infinity Stone at play in this Marvel Cinematic Universe installment is the Reality Stone, perhaps it’s better to speak of Thor: The Dark World as the product not of a different time but a different reality — albeit one that seemed much closer in 2013. Here, for instance, the main point of reference for the fantasy genre is still Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, not Game of Thrones or Adventure Time. So everybody takes themselves extremely seriously, and Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith has to spend the whole movie speaking some gobbledygook “dark elf” language. As a Tolkien superfan, allow me to make the simple point that Jackson’s fidelity to all those fantasy languages in Lord of the Rings made sense because linguistics was a huge priority for J.R.R. Tolkien; outside of that context, it just comes off as unnecessarily confusing.
Now that’s settled, let’s do a quick rundown of The Dark World’s plot, in case anyone out there skipped it or forgot about it. Like Iron Man 3, The Dark World begins by picking up the pieces after The Avengers. Following the battle of New York, Thor delivers the defeated Loki to Asgard, where their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, who sounds like he read all his lines for this movie in one take) sentences his prodigal son to an eternity in the dungeon. That doesn’t take Tom Hiddleston off-screen for too long (his adoptive mother, Frigga, who shares Loki’s talents for illusion, makes visits to his cell) which is lucky, because this movie absolutely wilts without him. I’ve ranted before about how overrated I find Hiddleston’s Loki, but even if his whiny indignation doesn’t live up to the relentlessly Machiavellian Loki of the comics, he still offers much-needed charisma.
While Loki is in prison, the Nine Realms start to converge, and Thor’s Earth-bound love interest Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) unwittingly takes possession of the Aether, a mysterious artifact with reality-shifting powers. That does indeed make it the Reality Stone, one of six omnipotent Infinity Stones — named as such for the very first time, in fact, in this film’s post-credits scene that also introduces the Collector (Benicio del Toro) to the MCU. Malekith and his fellow dark elves want the Aether’s power in order to transform their blighted realm of Svartalfheim, so when Thor brings the Aether-infected Jane to Asgard, they follow close behind. Malekith kills Frigga (Rene Russo), a death which would have had more emotional impact had her character been more developed, but at least she gets to go down swinging, Obi-Wan style. With a traumatized Odin clearly out of his mind, Thor decides to free Loki. Hiddleston’s pronouncement of the sentence, “You must be truly desperate to come to ME for help” is the best bit of acting in this whole movie — so much so that it was used in the trailers even though it’s a huge spoiler. That’s how much this movie leans on Loki.
Thor, Loki, and Jane infiltrate Svartalfheim, where they hatch a plot to trick Malekith intro destroying the Aether. Someone really should have done a better job of explaining the whole “Infinity Stone” thing to them. The Aether is indestructible, so Thor and Loki’s grand plan just allows Malekith to steal it and make his way to Earth. Thor eventually stops Malekith in an admittedly pretty cool reality-jumping battle, thanks to the astrophysics know-how of Jane and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), but a newly redeemed Loki appears to die in the attempt. In reality, of course, Loki uses his illusion powers to take Odin’s place, setting the stage for one of the funniest scenes in Thor: Ragnarok.
Speaking of Thor: Ragnarok, it’s hard not to compare The Dark World to its much more popular sequel. Looking back at EW’s MCU ranking, you’ll find the second Thor movie in dead last, but the third Thor movie in the top five. We’re not alone in that; Ragnarok made hundreds of millions more at the box office than The Dark World, and it currently has a 26 percent-higher rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Taika Waititi’s take on Thor was crowned as Marvel’s funniest movie to date, and its humor did feel like a break from its Marvel predecessors, even the witty ones.
But that humor didn’t come out of nowhere. The weirdest thing about watching The Dark World now is seeing how desperately it was trying to be funny. Kat Dennings and Chris O’Dowd both show up as comic relief characters. Thor rides the subway. Erik Selvig, fresh out of his many traumatic tribulations in The Avengers, delivers an astrophysics lecture to his fellow mental institution patients (leading to one of the best Stan Lee cameo lines: “Can I have my shoe back?”). Best of all, at one point Loki shape-shifts into Captain America, allowing Chris Evans to play Loki for a few glorious minutes (“Wanna have a rousing discussion about Truth?”).
But only four years later, some of The Dark World‘s attempts at humor have aged badly. For instance, while Thor is riding the subway (a humorous visual gag), at one point a woman pretends to fall on him so she can cop a feel of his chest. Dennings’ character spends the entire movie ordering another intern (Jonathan Howard) around, only to make out with him by the end. It’s debatable whether this kind of comedy was ever that funny, but it certainly feels worse in the era of #metoo. Even the jokes about unpaid intern labor were probably much funnier in 2013, when everyone was still talking excitedly about “an Uber for everything.” These days, Uber has been hit with hundreds of sexual harassment allegations, and the gig economy is celebrated only in dystopian subway ads.
Perhaps that’s the unexpected side effect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Now that we’re 10 years deep, you can see the American zeitgeist changing over the course of the filmography. In that respect, Thor: The Dark World remains interesting, but it’s still a middling fantasy movie with a few good Hiddleston moments. Going forward, let’s all agree: more Ragnarok, less Malekith.