MCU 8: Thor: The Dark World
Something that stands out clearly about Phase II of the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. is the fact that the movies are a whole lot less stand-alone than Phase I. The original batch of movies didn't require you to see everything that came before to understand what's happening in the movie you're currently watching. Sure, if you're going to see Iron Man 2 it's expected you would have seen the first Iron Man. If you went to see Captain America: The First Avenger, knowing that Howard Stark was Tony Stark's dad didn't deeply color your understanding of the movie. Sure, it was a nice touch, but not a necessary detail.
Going in to Phase II films, though, you better know what happened in everything that came before. If you skipped The Avengers you might be confused by Tony Stark has PTSD in Iron Man 3. And, more to the point for this article, you won't know why Loki is back from the dead after the end of the last Thor movie. Sure, in construction and design Thor: The Dark World looks like a direct sequel to the first film, but it's story is deeply colored by everything that came before, starting with the first scene. This is really where the MCU films became a series of interconnected films, sequels to each other, and not just a bunch of films that all happen to take place in the same overarching universe.
Speaking of the first scene, we begin Thor: The Dark World soon after the events of The Avengers with Thor (Chris Hemsworth returning again in the role) bringing his villainous, adopted brother Loki (also a returning Tom Hiddleston) home to face punishment for his crimes in Asgard and on Earth. Loki is sent to prison in the basement of the Asgardian castle for the rest of his life while Thor goes off, with his fellow heroic warriors, to restore peace and order to the Nine Realms.
While he's off saving the galaxy, his one-time love interest, Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, once again) has finally started getting over Thor (as it's been two years since they last saw each other), finally settling back into her scientific groove. However, when she and her interns discover a weird place in urban London, a warehouse where space doesn't seem to work quite right, she stumbles into a pocket dimension. There she finds the Aether, a powerful, sentient red liquid that takes over her body like an infection (and, as we learn later, it also happens to be one of the Infinity Stones, which will play a larger part in Phase III). Her absence is noted, not only by Thor (who comes rushing to find her) but also by the Dark Elves, murderous beings that wish to use the Aether to destroy the universe (and remake it the way they wish). Thor and Jane have to find a way to free her of the Aether, destroy it, and stop the Dark Elves in the process.
Thor 2 is a fun, but uneven, movie. Lighter in many respects than the first Thor movie, it's best quality is that the film ditches all the Shakespearean overtones and just commits to being a crowd-pleasing superhero movie. Say whatever else you will about the movie (and we will in just a sec), the film does know how to have fun with it's actors, striking a lighter tone despite the big action set-pieces, dramatic moments, and world-ending stakes.
The big problem with the film is that the villains aren't anything special at all. Thor wandering around the universe, killing fantasy creatures (to save the Nine Realms) works well -- Thor is about the only hero in the MCU stable that can get away with essentially going on a D&D adventure, and the film enjoys these moments. There are also great stakes once Jane is taken over by the Aether -- -Thor and Jane have great chemistry together (powered by their great leads), and because they clearly care about each other, you care about Jane and what's happening to her. If the "villain" could have simply been the Aether, with the quest being to save Jane from the virus taking her over (maybe even having Jane get taken over by the fluid and becoming the villain for a while), that could have made for an interesting movie with grounded stakes despite the science fantasy setting.
But that's not the story the movie pursued. Instead we have the Dark Elves, a group of actors put into heavy makeup and hobbled with gibberish language to speak. Despite having Chris Eccleston, a fantastic actor (and one of the better Doctors on Doctor Who), there's just no life to the Dark Elves. They're a race that's introduced in this movie, given a generic "let's destroy the world" motivation (without any back-story to justify it), and then set against Thor so he has someone to punch. They fill time without commanding the screen.
Not that this is a problem exclusive to Thor: The Dark World. Many Marvel films, especially in Phase II, have the habit of introducing a villain in the same film they're fought and defeated, never to be see again (for the biggest example, we need look no further than Avengers: Age of Ultron). This is really a problem with movie villains in general. The demands of Hollywood-style storytelling dictate that a villain introduced in Act I needs to be taken down by the time the credits roll. That's what audiences expect, so if you're going to have a villain in a film they either have first get introduced in that movie or groundwork has to be laid in previous films hinting at their eventual heel-turn, becoming the heavy in the same film they're defeated (in all cases except Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War).
This is why having the villains be Dark Elves instead of Loki again or a heel-turned Jane hobbles the movie. The actors are all game, the script is light and breezy, and the action is well filmed. There just isn't a strong presence at the center of the film for Thor to battle against, someone that ups the stakes and causes us to care about what's going on. The Dark Elves are a non-entity, a one-note villain that is clearly going to fail by the time the credits roll, with little effect on any of the characters we actually do care about. We can't invest in them, and thus we don't invest in the story.
Instead, we have to take our pleasures where we can. In that regard, at least the film gives us a lot to like in and around the Dark Elves. As much as the Dark Elves aren't interesting as characters, they certainly are presented as a strong force. Their action sequences, especially the mid-point battle between Elves and Asgardians, is a feast of action. It's a fast, brutal, action-heavy exchange that shows us the Asgardians aren't as powerful as we expected. It certainly helps us appreciate the destruction they're capable off, and it shows them as powerful foes to fight. But since it's mostly nameless Elves fighting nameless Asgardians, the action is pretty but shallow.
Even more enjoyable are the quieter moments, the times where the characters can just banter and bond. Hemsworth gets to stretch his performance as Thor, growing him from the petulant man-king from the first film to a nuanced guy with a charming, goofy streak. Clearly the producers realized Hemsworth's ability to sell humor and this film gives him plenty of good moments. Even better is Hiddleston, clearly relishing the chance to play Loki again, this time in a grey area between hero and villain. The two characters are written well on their own, but they have even better chemistry together, riffing off each other at every chance. These actors both get to show range, the anger between the brothers, the betrayal, and the brotherly love that still exists. They're nuanced characters that benefit from the two movies they've been in before.
And that really brings us back to the main point of contention about this film. As a standalone superhero movie it doesn't really work -- it's missing something at it's core, a better villain to bring it altogether. But as a sequel to everything that came before, a chance to continue enjoying all these characters as they continue on their various paths, the film works really well. It's noble effort, and good fun when you're watching it. The viewing experience is hollow, though, leaving the viewer wanting more from their Thor adventures.