Thor: The Dark World is a film with infinite ambition. (Yes, true believers that was a pun, a borderline, spoilerish pun.) It swings its mighty uru mallet at the stars and connects, not with a cosmic grand slam, but a bases loaded double. Yes, there are flaws but–let me put it to you this way. Two-thirds of the way through the film, I scanned the audience. All of the cell phones were off, all of them. This doesn’t happen. If anything should be held up as a marker of the film’s success, it should be that, an engaged audience. Why though? It does all the basics well: dialogue, plot, acting. We’re talkin’ the tri-force of Hollywood film making; but the setting, relationships, and directing imbue the film with more comic book for-the-gusto than even Whedon’s The Avengers.
The nuts and bolts of the film are straightforward. Loki is in jail. Thor protects the nine realms. Jane Foster is investigating unexplained holes in space-time. Malekith, the Dark Elf wants to make the universe go boom. Add 1 part love triangle 2 parts rock’em, sock’em action pieces, and ladies and gentlemen, we have a movie! It’s a craftsman’s script, focused on laying out the plot points, the twists, the character moments and does it well. There’s a silly bit with Stellan Skarsgard in tighty whities that allows the audience to catch its breath before the final showdown.
I don’t have much to add about the performances of the primaries here as their work in various Marvel projects has been analyzed over and over, but I do have one small observation to contribute. As Hammer Film’s House of Dracula forever bound Peter Cushing to Christopher Lee, The Dark World binds Hemsworth and Hiddleston. There’s no way the two can be in the same film outside the Marvel Universe without glowing Asgardian awe pushing its way into the frame. Since George Reeves was defined by his role in the Superman TV show, actors have feared the power of superhero roles to typecast them with a big scarlet letter “S.” I think Hiddleston is up to the task. Hemsworth, I’m unsure of. But I wouldn’t wish Reeve’s fate on any actor.
Observations on Hiddleston and Hemsworth aside, the setting nearly upstages them. The Asgardian aesthetic has evolved dramatically since the first Thor film. This is Asgard a la Star Wars. It is not an ancient mythic city of gods. It’s a golden slice of Coruscant served up on a cloudy Bespin plate. The dark elves attack, not on flying horses or bizarre beasts of burden, but as hold overs from the rebel alliance. Their spaceships reminiscent of Jedi’s B-wing fighters. I’m impressed. There’s a clear attempt to not only blur the lines between science and magic, but to position Asgard as part of the larger Marvel cosmos. Thor isn’t just a superhero film. It’s space fantasy, and a trial run for a Marvel project that will likely test audiences’ suspension of disbelief, The Guardians of The Galaxy.
In addition to, and perhaps compounded by, the gutsy design choices, Thor: The Dark World is remarkable in one other regard, its representation of female relationships. Critic Meredith Borders observers The Dark World is one of the few popcorn fests to pass the Bechdel test. What does that mean? It means the women aren’t defined exclusively by romantic relationships. They are active participants, drivers of the story. They think as well as feel. Granted, I think the results are hazier than Border’s interpretation. Foster represents the film’s intellect, but she is also damselled. Helpless for a chunk of the film, she’s chased by Malekith, but it’s her scientific know-how that leads to his defeat.
Director Alan Taylor deserves a lot of credit for the film’s success. Yes, producer Kevin Feige should be lauded for taking chances with Marvel properties, but it was up to Taylor to make this work, to synthesize these disparate ideas into a unified whole. Mixing norse mythology with science fiction is by no means a guaranteed winner. Would critics accept it? Would audiences? Taylor answers “hell yes!” to both questions by making it a film about relatable characters and situations. It’s up to the director to take those nuts and bolts elements and turn them into a well oiled machine, and when that happens, a film can make the bold ambitious choices Thor takes and make them work.
The final battle is the best in the short history of superhero cinema largely thanks to Taylor’s discipline, balancing the basics with the wondrous. It is a fight that is epic in scale yet funny, the sort of inspired film making that requires risk. It is the sum total of everything right with Thor: The Dark World. You care about the characters. You’re invested in the stakes, and you know exactly what’s going on. When Thor portal hops from library to rocky wasteland, you know exactly where he is. When he ends up on a London subway, you laugh. When the good guys win, you cheer. It’s not often we see ambitious blockbusters, most of them are staid, anodyne affairs. Thor: The Dark World isn’t just a fun film, it’s an eloquent thesis for the success of the Marvel movie universe: big dreams tempered by film making basics.
By David Arroyo