Released: 8 November 2018
Director: Alan Taylor
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $150 to 170 million
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Rene Russo, and Anthony Hopkins
After defeating his step-brother, Loki Laufeyson (Hiddleston) alongside his fellow Avengers, Thor Odinson (Hemsworth) has been busying fighting to maintain order across the Nine Realms. However, after his love interest, Doctor Jane Foster (Portman), becomes infected with the mysterious “Aether” and becomes a target of the malevolent Dark Elf, Malekith (Eccleston), Thor is forced to set aside his grievances and team up with his brother to confront this dangerous new threat.
Even before the blockbuster release of Avengers Assemble/The Avengers (Whedon, 2012), Kevin Feige, head honcho of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), promised that Thor would have another adventure. The team-up’s unprecedented box office success meant the MCU entered is second phase with a huge amount of momentum and expectation, but the experience of directing Thor (Branagh, 2011) left director Kenneth Branagh drained and reluctant to return for the sequel. At one point, Patty Jenkins was attached to direct but left due to “creative differences”, a decision that angered star Natalie Portman. Once Alan Taylor secured the director’s chair, the filmmakers set about progressing Thor’s relationship with Loki and expanding upon the gritty, more grounded approach to the merger of science and magic seen in the first film. Although Thor: The Dark World surpassed its predecessor’s box office with its worldwide gross of almost $645 million, the film wasn’t as well received as others in the MCU; while the performances and fantastical elements were praised, many criticised the film’s pace and weaker elements.
Like the first film, Thor: The Dark World opens with some narration and scene-setting from the wise and powerful Odin Allfather (Hopkins), who tells the story of the Dark Elves (an ancient, malevolent race from the time before there was light in the universe) and their leader, Malekith, who sought to return the Realms back to darkness using the destructive power of the Aether before he was stopped by Odin’s father, Bor (Tony Curran). Unable to destroy the Aether, Bor buried it deep in a far away Realm and Malekith disappeared for aeons to Svartalfheim at the darkest corner of the cosmos. Sadly, this time around the narration falls into the same trap that so many narrations do in that we end up hearing the story all over again when Jane arrives on Asgard; it would have been just as effective to show the opening scene without Odin’s narration and then have him fill the gaps in later, or flash back to the opening battle later in the film to combine them into one scene.
Thanks to Loki’s attack on New York City, the balance between the Nine Realms has been upset and Thor has been too busy setting things right alongside his allies to make good on his promise to return to Jane. Thor still retains much of his arrogance in battle (but then again, when he can explode a Kronan with one swing of Mjölnir, I feel a little pride is understandable) but he’s noticeably changed since learning humility in the first film; he’s far more respectful to Odin, who treats him as more of an equal for his good deeds, but the two disagree on Thor’s feelings for Jane. Odin believes that, since human lives are so fleeting, Thor would be better served turning his attentions towards his ally and comrade, Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), but the Thunder God is driven to distraction by his yearning for Jane. This actually sows the seeds for an eventual character arc for Thor in the MCU; since the first film, Thor has been groomed for and expected to take the throne but, here, we see that his adoration for Jane and Earth means that he cannot focus on the remaining Realms in the way a true king of Asgard should. We’d see the culmination of this in Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019), of course, where he abdicates his royal responsibilities and finally embraces his true self but, here, he’s at a crossroads between doing what’s right for him and doing what’s right for the cosmos.
Despite her half-hearted attempts to move on from the hunky Thunder God, Jane remains equally distracted by thoughts of Thor; however, when Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) alerts her to odd readings nearby, she can’t help but investigate in hopes of seeing Thor return to Earth. Instead, they find odd gravitational and special anomalies at an abandoned industrial district in London that render some objects weightless and transport others to another dimension. Following the source of the signal, Jane is unwittingly sucked into the Aether’s hidden dimension and absorbs the protoplasmic Infinity Stone. Their paths finally cross again when Heimdall (Idris Elba) loses sight of her in this moment and Thor returns to check on her, finding her not only as feisty as ever but also incredibly dangerous thanks to the Aether’s influence. This results in one of the best things a sequel can do and that’s taking a character tied to one world in the first film (Jane) and bringing her to another (Asgard) in the sequel; just as Thor was a stranger in a world beneath him in Thor, so too is Jane a stranger in a world beyond her here. Odin is unimpressed, nay angered, that Thor would bring a mortal to all-mighty Asgard and Jane is both overwhelmed and captivated by the technology and culture of the Golden Realm.
Malekith’s plot can only occur at a specific time when the Nine Realms are in perfect alignment known as the “Convergence”, which temporally sees brief portals to the Nine Realms open up and cause all kinds of disruption and conveniently comes around at the same time as the Aether is discovered. Having fled to the further reaches of the universe with what little remained of his army following his defeat, Malekith is also awoken when the Aether is disrupted by Jane and immediately restarts his campaign to claim its awesome power. Considering how strong and complex a villain Loki was in the first film, it is admittedly disappointing to see him followed by Malekith, a character whose motivations basically boil down to wanting to spread darkness and discord throughout the known universe simply because he wants to. Indeed, Malekith is so obsessed with his plot for power and destruction that he willingly sacrificed a great number of his own people during the great war with Bor. However, I don’t really know much about the character as he’s only popped up in a couple of the Thor comics I’ve read, so all I’m really looking for in a superhero villain is someone who looks cool, is vaguely threatening, and for the hero to butt heads with (anything else is just a bonus for me), so my main gripe with Malekith is that the filmmakers completely wasted an actor of Eccleston’s talents since the Dark Elf disappears for massive chunks of the film and is mainly just seen posturing and monologuing until the finale.
It doesn’t help that Loki returns to this film and not only overshadows Malekith at every turn thanks to Hiddleston’s effortless charisma but also steals every scene he’s in. Following his defeat in Avengers Assemble, Loki is brought before his father to explain his actions; Loki is unapologetic and even arrogantly justifies his actions as simply being his divine right to conquer and rule lesser beings such as humankind. Odin, however, is unimpressed, countering that it was Loki’s destiny to die and that only Odin’s mercy spared him from that fate so that he could grow to hate him. Indeed, Odin specifically states that it’s only because of the mercy of his wife, Frigga (Russo), that Loki has been condemned to an eternity in the dungeons of Asgard rather than execution for his heinous acts. Ever the petulant child, Loki remains an emotionally complex and damaged character; he is deeply resentful of his father and brother, and yet still has much love for his mother and truly believes that he was simply doing what was destined of him to do and that his actions pale in comparison to the blood Odin has spilt in his aeons of conquest.
Although they lack the numbers they once had (largely because of Malekith nonsensically killing most of them), the Dark Elves are quite a formidable army; wielding energy weapons and grenade-like devices that cause miniature black holes that destroy everything in range, their numbers are further bolstered by Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a Dark Elf that Malekith transforms into Kurse, a monstrous being of pure rage and animalistic strength. Having infiltrated the prisoners being taken to Asgard, Kurse causes a jailbreak; though he amusingly decides against freeing Loki, the God of Mischief directs him in Odin’s direction and unintentionally causes his beloved mother’s death when Kurse delivers a fatal stab wound to Frigga after she chooses to protect Jane. Just as Frigga’s death sends Thor into a blind rage, scarring half of Malekith’s face in the process, so too is Loki distraught by her loss; united in their grief, Loki agrees to assist Thor in once more defying Odin’s decree to remain on Asgard and use a secret exit to track the Dark Elves to Svartalfheim. Seeing Thor, Jane, and their allies interacting with Loki is a source of great amusement since none of them like or trust him but are forced to rely on him, and Loki of course uses the situation to his advantage to fake his death as part of his ultimate scheme to seize Asgard’s throne.
In a surprising twist, the consequences for Loki’s brain tampering are seen in Doctor Erik Selvig (Skarsgård), who has been driven to near madness by what he saw and learned while under the spell of Loki and the Tesseract. Despite his unpredictable and wild demeanour, this proves to be valuable information in helping Thor and his allies oppose Malekith’s plot. Unfortunately, the Warriors Three – Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Zachary Levi), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) – are still largely used for little more than comic relief and to add recognisable Asgardian bodies to the fight scenes but Thor: The Dark World does manage to squeeze in a far larger role for Heimdall; he not only takes down a Dark Elf ship with nothing but knives(!) also suffers a crisis of conscience when his duties as Gatekeeper are rendered superfluous by Malekith’s looming threat. Similarly, Odin is greatly expanded upon; grief-stricken by his beloved’s death, he prepares to fortify Asgard’s defences and sacrifice as many Asgardian lives as it takes to ensure ultimate victory, once more pushing Thor into taking matters into her own hands.
In a nice change of pace, much of the Earth-bound side of the story is set in good old Blighty so we get to see London under threat from cataclysmic destruction rather than the United States, which is nice, and much more of the film takes place on Asgard. Jane’s arrival causes much consternation among the Asgardians, who believe her to be largely inconsequential and meaningless even though she possesses the Aether, with only Thor and Frigga treating her with any kind of respect and kindness. While awestruck by the beauty and magnificence of Asgard (she has, after all, effectively paid a visit to Heaven), Jane still manages to hold her nerve; she openly challenges Odin’s boorish attitude towards her and even slaps Loki right in the face for the destruction he caused in Avengers Assemble. As for Loki, he adds a great deal of comedy to the film through his witty criticisms of Thor’s plan, demeanour, and actions; he even assumes Steve Rogers/ Captain America’s (Chris Evans) form in an amusing scene and seems to live to mock and critique his brutish brother.
While Thor masterfully introduced the idea of the MCU’s vast cosmic universe, Thor: The Dark World expands upon it wonderfully; as mentioned, a great deal takes place on Asgard and just the film’s very existence was further proof that there are many competing legends, stories, and warmongering races out in the galaxy just waiting for their time to strike. Accordingly, the film is much bigger and action-packed in its scope; unlike the first film, Thor is at full power for the entire movie and we get to see him and his people in far more battles than before. The opening depiction of Asgard’s war with the Dark Elves effectively set up how desperate and obsessed Malekith is with obtaining the power to achieve his goals, the prison breakout was a great way to showcase Loki’s indifference (however true or false) to the fate of his adopted people, and Malekith’s merciless campaign against Asgard made sure that both Thor and Loki would have personal stakes in the battle against Malekith. Of course, it’s not all perfect: the destruction of the Bifröst Bridge was this big, emotional event in Thor but it’s since been rebuilt and the status quo has returned as a result, which kind of undermines the first film’s ending (though, to be fair, that already happened in Avengers Assemble so I’m really not sure why a line or something wasn’t added in to Thor to downplay this event or at least plant the seeds of hope for Thor).
Still, the costume design remains incredible; of all the MCU characters, Thor may very well be my favourite both in terms of his character and his visual representation. His always looks fantastic, as do all of the Asgardians, and I really like the threatening and somewhat alien design of the Dark Elves; Malekith may be a bit of a weak villain in terms of characterisation but he definitely cuts an intimidating figure. The film also beautifully and naturally continues the ongoing sibling rivalry between Thor and Loki; Loki’s deceptive nature is key to tricking Malekith into freeing Jane from the Aether and, while he initially appears to have double-crossed his brother and reverted to his vindictive ways, it turns out that Loki was simply playing a role to give Thor the opportunity to try and destroy the Aether. So committed to this role is Loki that he even shields, an actively saves, Jane from attack and ultimately dies in Thor’s arms in an emotionally weighty scene after suffering mortal wounds to destroy Kurse. Of course, this is later revealed to all be part of a grander deception by Loki as the film ends with the twist that he has somehow disposed of Odin and taken his form as king, a surprise that the third film would unfortunately simply explain away in anticlimactic fashion rather than capitalise on the potential of Loki ruling Asgard under the guise of his father.
Of course, there has to be a big, climatic battle between Thor and Malekith at the end of the film. Having absorbed the Aether, Malekith wields incredible cosmic power that more than makes him a match for Thor’s brute strength. Easily able to take Thor’s blows, and even his lightning, the battle between Thor and Malekith rages through the Nine Realms thanks to the Convergence, which makes for a striking visual as they topple and tumble between the Realms (and, amusingly, all over London) and Malekith teleports around, renders himself incorporeal, and attacks with tendrils of red energy. Unlike in the last film, where Thor took out the Destroyer in a triumphant return to full power and bested Loki in a dramatic battle between siblings, Thor actually has help this time around as Jane, Selvig, Darcy, and Darcy’s intern Ian Boothby (Jonathan Howard) construct and place the specialist scientific equipment needed to send Malekith packing back to Svartalfheim, where he is subsequently crushed by his own ship. It’s definitely a bigger and more bombastic finale than the first film, which was obviously much more focused on Thor proving his worth as a hero and a warrior, but Phase Two of the MCU was all about kicking things up a notch and Thor: The Dark World definitely does that while still addressing and hitting the same emotional beats and themes of the first film.
Honestly, to this day I still don’t understand why people don’t like Thor: The Dark World; it’s very similar to how I don’t get why people rag on Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) but I think some of the problem might be that the first films were so well done and Phase One of the MCU was such a massive surprise in terms of success and consistent quality that expectations were maybe a bit too high going into the sequels. Now, obviously Thor: The Dark World isn’t quite as good or memorable as the first film (primarily because of how weak Malekith is) but it’s a really good follow-up to the themes and characters set up in Thor and Thor’s character progression in Avengers Assemble. I like how the scope is so much bigger, how the society and inhabitants of Asgard are expanded upon, and how well it sets up the Infinity Stones and contributes towards the larger overall narrative of the MCU’s second phase. The film is far more action-packed while still being humorous and heartfelt, developing the complex relationship between Thor and Loki while also showing how much Thor has grown as a character since the first film. Maintaining the franchise’s incredible costume design, special effects, and visual style, there’s a lot to enjoy in Thor: The Dark World and I definitely feel like it’s worth another look with fresh eyes.
Are you a fan of Thor: The Dark World? If not, what is it about the film that you dislike, specifically? What did you think to Malekith as a character and a villain? Did you enjoy Thor’s character progression and the expansion of his relationship with Odin and Loki? What did you think to setting more of the film off-world and in a location other than the United States for a change? How are you celebrating Thor’s debut this month, if at all? Whatever you think about Thor: The Dark World, sign up and leave a comment below or drop a line on my social media.