Marvel Studios is at a sprint now, running laps around other studio blockbusters with an effective formula of world-ending stakes and charming heroes, reinforced with a little romance and comedy. If anything, the latest entry, Thor: The Dark World, feels like a proud film, a movie that by design simply can not fail. All it has to do is hit its beats, close with a tease, and wait for the cash to roll in. Thor: The Dark World coasts by with a pleasant wave and a big toothy smile on its face.
So, yeah, it delivers. But if it delivers, then why am I left feeling so dissatisfied?
Thor, for all the criticisms leveled against it for being silly nonsense, was at least about something (I don’t agree that silly nonsense is a bad thing, but the criticisms exist). Thor was banished to Earth to learn a lesson in humility, and his big heroic moment is the culmination of an honest-to-goodness character arc. Thor: The Dark World, with its larger scale storyline of dark elves and converging realms, isn’t really about anything.
Writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely pick and borrow elements from Walt Simonson’s popular 1980s run on the title character, with elvin baddie Malekith (Chris Eccleston) and his mutated goon Algrim (aka Kurse, played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) patiently waiting for the nine realms to align so that they can unleash a weapon called the aether and throw the universe into ruin. Astrophysicist and Thor-lover Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) accidentally discovers the aether before Malekith does, forcing her to become the centerpiece of a grudge match between the dark elves and the Asgardians, who see it as their godly duty to protect the nine realms.
It’s a huge, comic book fantasy that allows The Dark World to hit moments that are closer to Lord of the Rings and Star Wars than any previous Marvel film. Fans lamenting the fact that most of Thor took place in a podunk New Mexico town should enjoy the fact that there’s precious little here that takes place on Earth. Director Alan Taylor has also upped the action for the sequel, with swashbuckling swordplay, spaceship dogfights and plenty of Thor’s hammer Mjolnir being used like the enchanted weapon that it is. If bigger is better, then The Dark World is better than Thor.
I remain unconvinced in this case that bigger actually means better. Repeat viewings will help me determine if The Dark World is just expensively produced, watchable background noise or if there’s enough narrative and character meat to be a little something more than that. It’s why reviews for good-but-disappointing films can be tricky. Sometimes you see them again and the strengths of the film shine on; other times the weaknesses are harder to ignore after the first-time spectacle has worn off. At this point, it’s hard to say which way I’ll fall on The Dark World, but the fact that I’m even thinking about this should tip that this is not an instant superhero classic.
Oddly, The Dark World reminded me a lot of the Star Trek films. Beyond space action and technobabble coupled with gentle Trek-ian humor (touching on a more obvious The Voyage Home formula of odd space folk mixing with modern Earth scientists), there’s a devotion to making sure that each of the Thor ensemble gets a big moment of their own. Sure, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor may be the star, in the same way that the Trek captains are stars, but if you’re a Loki fan or, heck, a Darci one, there’s a little important scene for everybody (even Rene Russo’s Frigga gets in a cool fight). While watching, I realized I hadn’t seen a movie that really captured Star Trek’s specific sci-fi derring-do tone since the heydey of Trek’s popularity, and it was the one thing I appreciated the most about The Dark World.
The sequel inarguably expands on the first film, fixating on Thor’s mythology while making the big moments bigger; the funny moments funnier. It’s what sequels are made to do. The danger is that when you inflate something, you get it closer to popping. For all the good Alan Taylor does in making sure that the sequel stays sure-footed, there’s still a nagging feeling left behind that we haven’t really seen a Thor film from a director who truly loves the world he’s being paid to bring to life. At least Thor: The Dark World has charm going for it. How long that charm lasts will bear out over time.
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