Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. On the one-year anniversary of Avengers: Endgame, we look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how it changed the face of superhero (and blockbuster) cinema forever. Read the rest of our MCU coverage here.
Any follow-up to the powerhouse cultural phenomenon The Avengers was going to have a tough time of it — doubly so when the movie was also a sequel to 2011’s Thor, an outlier to the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe from the get-go. Before Guardians of the Galaxy waltzed onto the scene in 2014, no one was entirely enthusiastic about grand space opera, and it shows.
Thor director Kenneth Branagh declined to return for the sequel due to the quick turnaround time, and future Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins left the project due to issues with the script. Alan Taylor (a TV director chiefly known for episodes of Game of Thrones and LOST) eventually took the helm, but the shakiness shows.
Thor: The Dark World, taking place after Thor and Loki’s sojourn on Earth in The Avengers, has to both return to space and tie in the human characters back on Earth and reference the events of Avengers and connect to the greater MCU and stand on its own as a story.
The plot is fairly straightforward: Thor must reunite with and rescue Jane when she is possessed by a dark force, and he must try to work with Loki in order to do so. But it has so many characters and moving parts to juggle that it just can’t hold together. The result is a fun muddle that seems out of step with the rest of the MCU.
As a full personal disclosure, I saw this movie twice in the theater. On the same day. (with different people!) so I’m not immune to its entertaining charms. Is the charm enough, though?
Asgardians are not particularly good at burying their pasts (as shown in Thor and, spoiler alert, Thor: Ragnarok). This time the secret that has come to haunt the royal family is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), a Dark Elf previously defeated by Odin’s father, and the Elves’ weapon, the Aether, which was hidden in another world. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is busy trying to squelch various pockets of violence within the Nine Realms, and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is imprisoned in Asgard after the events of The Avengers.
The result is a fun muddle that seems out of step with the rest of the MCU.
Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is in London to work with her old colleague Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård). It’s been two years since the events of Thor and Jane is trying, badly, to figure out what one does when they’re ghosted by a god. Jane and sidekick Darcy (Kat Dennings) follow some mysterious scientific readings to a warehouse containing a portal created by the upcoming Convergence, a time when all Nine Realms will align.
Jane falls into the portal, discovering and accidentally absorbing the Aether. This portal also makes her invisible to Heimdall (Idris Elba), causing Thor to return to Earth where they are reunited and he takes Jane to Asgard when it’s clear that the Aether is dangerous to her and those around her. Darcy just waves goodbye as this happens, since she has very little to do otherwise.
The discovery of the Aether wakes up the Dark Elves, who promptly and very successfully invade Asgard and kill Thor’s mother Frigga (a shamefully underused Rene Russo), but are forced to retreat without kidnapping Jane. Odin imprisons Jane and Thor decides to bust her out and travel to find Malekith, who will remove the Aether from Jane, allowing Thor to destroy it.
The only person who can leave Asgard unseen, though? Loki, of course.
The Dark World never quite knows how to address The Loki Problem. The breakout character of the first Thor who became the villain of The Avengers and the Internet’s darling, Loki is fleshed out a bit in this movie, but never enough. His relationship with Frigga is hinted at (she taught him magic! Show us that!), but then she dies. His relationship with Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has to wait for later, and his interactions with Thor are the real highlight of the movie but we just don’t get enough of them.
The filmmakers were clearly unwilling to leave their most popular character unused, even when it means a return to the sarcastic Loki of Thor, not the tormented villain of The Avengers or any personal growth thereof.
The Dark World doesn’t know what to do with all of its characters. Comic book mainstays like Thor’s best buds Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander, presented as a possible side to a Thor/Jane/Sif love triangle in a storyline completely dropped) and the Warriors Three are delegated to glorified cameos. Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) leaves within the first fifteen minutes! Fandral (Zachary Levi) and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) are just armored set dressing until some nice moments during the escape from Asgard sequence.
In a franchise with roughly four prominent female characters, The Dark World decides that saving Jane, saving the Nine Realms, and defeating Malekith aren’t motivation enough: Frigga is killed so Thor and Loki will have something to bond over. This trope has had enough ink spilled that there isn’t much to do except sigh and roll one’s eyes and wonder that they couldn’t think of anything else. Darcy is once more the comic relief, though also an adorably optimistic Jane/Thor ‘shipper, but the sequences with the humans leave much to be desired.
While Jane is having cosmic adventures, Darcy and her intern Ian (Jonathan Howard) learn that Selvig has been institutionalized after having been controlled mentally by Loki in The Avengers (something that we know, from Hawkeye to be a terrifying and torturous experience). Unfortunately, Selvig’s mental trauma is played for laughs, mostly lending itself to jokes about not wearing pants and providing the opening for the movie’s Stan Lee cameo.
Given that Iron Man 3 has recurring themes of trauma and PTSD, you would hope that The Dark World would put a little of that same work into showing the effects on Selvig, but no. He mentions that it wasn’t a pleasant experience, then throws away his medication. In fact, no one really has a lot to say about previous events. Jane hits Loki (“That’s for New York!”) but that’s about it. When Jane tells a gathering of gawkers that they need to run and hide during the climactic battle, one (filming the events on his phone) scoffs at the idea, “Are you joking? Thor’s down there!”, but no one seems to think that maybe Thor’s back because aliens are once again attacking the Earth.
The effect of comic book plots on comic book civilians has been handled a number of ways, from comedic (the DC Comics-based NBC sitcom Powerless) to horrifying (everything that happens on Amazon’s The Boys), and it would be nice to see any of that here. It’s mentioned that Jane doesn’t want to get SHIELD involved because she fears losing her research as before, and later Darcy can’t reach anyone for help, but this all seems less like legitimate plot points and more like budgetary restrictions on cameos. People are posting videos of Thor vs. Dark Elves on Twitter and no one at SHIELD can pick up the phone?
The Dark World doesn’t know what to do with all of its characters.
The Dark World might work better if it was simply Thor 2, one of three Thor movies and not one of a long line of connected pieces called the MCU. Just a nice self-contained sci-fi fantasy without stinger scenes or Infinity Stones. It’s fun, though; there are a lot of little character moments and humor and some good world-building of Asgard (though not enough), and it only suffers by comparison to The Avengers.
That being said, much of the enjoyment of any Thor movie comes with how much the viewer enjoys Thor and Loki as characters. It’s hard to worry too much about the paper thin villains when Hemsworth and Hiddleston are having so much fun and playing off each other so well. The way that their conversations go from measured to yelling to harmless bickering within a few minute span is something siblings around the universe can relate to.
Ultimately, the Thor films are about the budding, contentious relationship between Thor and Loki. Despite the script (and the larger risk-averse nature of the MCU) muddling their character growth, it does exist, and it shines through their scenes together. “I wish I could trust you,” Thor tells his brother as they prepare to escape Asgard together. It’s clear that Loki, on some level, wishes that too.