Do comic book sequels suffer from the problem that the origin story for superheroes is always the most interesting? This is the not necessarily unwanted problem that Marvel Studios now have, after the success of developing the films leading up to The Avengers and beyond. Iron Man 3 tried to close the circle for Tony Stark, but what to do with Thor 2?
First, the prologue exposition dump – the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), trying to destroy the universe during a convergence of the Nine Realms long ago using the power of the Aether, stopped by Odin’s father Bor and the armies of Asgard, and believed to have been all killed but actually sacrificed by Malekith so that he can wait in a suspended animation with the small remaining number until such time that they can do it all again. Meanwhile, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is imprisoned in Asgard for his crimes in The Avengers, still oozing charisma as Anthony Hopkins barks at him (and everyone else) as Odin.
The film sees Thor (Chris Hemsworth, still good as Thor – sincere in an otherwise ludicrous character, playing the honesty of the character with dignity although allowing humour to come through) after the events of The Avengers, returning order to the Nine Realms with the help of the armies of Asgard and a very big hammer. He’s more mature and pines for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who is trying to forget Thor by going on a date with Chris O’Dowd in the Oxo Tower but not doing a good job, and Thor only goes to see her in person when she gets into trouble by accidentally becoming the physical host for the MacGuffin, I’m sorry, I mean the Aether, which reawakens Malekith and his quest to destroy the universe. This leads to Thor bringing Jane back to Asgard, which leads to Malekith attacking Asgard, and then to Thor having to turn to Loki to help him save the universe …
The final act is set in London’s Greenwich, which looks good on screen, but I was happiest that it was set in a grey London – no attempt to pretty things up with sunshine, which would have been the most fantastical element of the film. It also allows for the best gag in the film, when Thor is deposited on the platform on the Jubilee line of Charing Cross and has to ask someone if he can get to Greenwich from there (London pedant alert: Charing Cross is no longer on the Jubilee line and it certainly wouldn’t be ‘three stops’ to get to Greenwich from there). The humour punctuates the third act quite unexpectedly – the subtitle of ‘The Dark World’ is quite apt with all the death and grimness in the first half of the film – but there are some much needed laughs, such as Stan Lee’s cameo and the antics of Stellan Skarsgard’s Erik Selvig (although there’s a great laugh from an unexpected cameo earlier in the film). This is an unusual approach considering that Thor is fighting to save the Nine Realms, but it works well and demonstrates the successful balancing act the film achieves.
For the most part, this is an enjoyable piece of blockbuster spectacle, mixing sci-fi and fantasy trappings to create an entertaining superhero film. It certainly looks impressive (well, it did in 2D – do I even have to mention that I watch these films in 2D any more?) – the epic quality of the battle in the prologue, the earthiness of the early fight on one of the Nine Realms, the grandeur of Asgard, the spectacle of the Dark Elves’ assault on Odin’s palace, the beauty of the funeral after the attack – and it doesn’t hang around, telling the story in less than two hours in an entertaining fashion, and provides humour within the darkness.
However, the film isn’t without flaws. Allegedly, Natalie Portman had to be convinced to come back for the sequel, but she doesn’t get a lot to do to convince her it was worthwhile – she accidentally becomes the host for the Aether, which gets her into the plot, but then she’s mostly damsel in distress until the third act. The treatment and use of women in their films is something that still confounds Marvel. Jaimie Alexander’s Sif is barely in this film, Rene Russo’s Frigga is given much more to do but suffers from other female-related action story problems, and Jane, who is supposed to be an intelligent scientist, is a weak character in this film. It’s still mostly a boy’s story, with the emphasis on the relationship between Thor and Loki, which is admittedly an interesting one (I don’t think anyone’s complaining that they went back and shot additional Loki scenes to increase the entertainment provided by the excellent Hiddleston), although it means that the supporting cast as a whole is playing second fiddle (the Warriors Three are little more than extended cameos in the jailbreak of Loki, although Idris Elba’s Heimdall gets a nice action piece when Malekith attacks Asgard).
The other issue in this film is the memorability of the main villain. The Marvel films have generally been good at making the bad guys interesting: Loki in Thor and The Avengers, the Red Skull in Captain America, the various villains in the Iron Man films (even if I don’t particularly like Mickey Rourke in Iron Man 2). Malekith is not interesting – he’s somebody who wants to end the universe, and that’s as much character as he’s given, which is a shame for someone with Eccleston’s talents; he at least provides good haughtiness and grandeur to an otherwise bland destroyer of worlds.
However, Marvel still does best what nobody else does: creating the shared universe of the comic books in the movie universe and setting up future films. There is a nice set-up for what will presumably be the third Thor film, and there are two credit stings – one mid-credits (which I won’t spoil but will say that the tone and feel of it jarred with the rest of the film – director Alan Taylor wasn’t responsible for it because it is the connection to the Guardians of the Galaxy film and thus directed by its director James Gunn, which makes me wonder how he will achieve that very specific tone that will be needed to make Guardians of the Galaxy work – and will have non-Marvel fans heading to the Google machine) and one right at the very end, to reward those people who stay through the near 10 minutes of credits. I enjoy what Marvel is doing, even if the individual films aren’t all brilliant. Still, Thor: The Dark World is a diverting piece of cinematic superhero entertainment, if not as good as The Avengers or Thor.