A 30-something man kicks some butt and treats his early success as an excuse to live like a rock star. He is haunted by a disapproving father figure. A quick-witted entourage distracts him from his demons until he must defeat a rival villain in order to validate all the hero worship. He learns that being a true hero requires teamwork and self-sacrifice. Luckily, he is guided to this realization by an overly patient, more conscientious woman who’s already sacrificed much of her life and career in order to temper his moodiness full-time.
Who am I talking about? Iron Man, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, or Thor? It’s an effective formula that Marvel Studios has mastered telling in each of its superheroes’ origin stories…and telling again in each of their superheroic sequels.
Counting Thor and The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World is the third outing for the Asgardian warrior-prince Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his deceptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Thor’s on-again, off-again, Earth girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) also returns. This time around, instead of Loki trying to topple Asgard or Loki trying to destroy Earth, an ancient race of Dark Elves is trying to topple Asgard and destroy Earth. Both at once…now why didn’t Loki think of that?
Five thousand years have passed since the Dark Elves were nearly destroyed by Thor’s grandfather, Bor. The alignment of the Nine Worlds gives them another chance to destroy the universe, but first they must find where their superweapon Aether has been hidden.
Why are the Dark Elves so genocidal in the first place? They just are. What are the Nine Worlds? We’re not told, but Asgard and Earth are two of them. How does the Aether work? However the screenwriters need it to at the moment, that’s how.
There’s a scene in Hudson Hawk, a 1991 action parody starring Bruce Willis, in which the hero leaps off a building. He survives by crashing through a roof and falling directly into the next scene. Everyone continues without missing a beat. This is how Thor: The Dark World is written. The Aether is supposed to be hidden so well that a race of high-tech, spacefaring elves who can sense it from galaxies away shouldn’t be able to find it. Out of all the billions of souls in the Nine Worlds, who do you think practically trips over the secret, universe-ending superweapon? Jane Foster, that’s who.
It’s a lazy way of shoehorning two plot elements together. Many events in Thor: The Dark World happen not because they have a story purpose, but because they’re less work for the screenwriters that way. At least the jokes are good, often provided by Foster’s intern Darcy (Kat Dennings). This is the funniest film Marvel’s made to date, which is saying something. Likewise, the open emotional wounds that Thor’s family deals with after Loki’s betrayals could have used more exposure; it’s a shame that these are discarded in favor of Thor’s “Dad disapproves of my girlfriend” subplot.
It’s not that Thor: The Dark World is bad. It’s exhilarating and enjoyable. Beat-for-beat, it’s exactly what every other Marvel film is, so it ought to be. It’s a missed opportunity to expand the scale and increase the stakes, however. ‘End of the universe’ isn’t expanding the stakes. It’s the same as ‘end of the world’ as far as I’m concerned: either way, I’m not making it out.
When you watch The Dark Knight trilogy, writer-director Christopher Nolan makes you think about the struggle between social responsibility and anarchy, and the freedoms we trade for security. When you watch the Spider-Man trilogy, Sam Raimi tells you the story of an ill-equipped, awkward, and ignored boy’s struggle to balance everyday responsibilities with a talent he loves but struggles to have faith in or find approval for – you could call it Liberal Arts Major: The Movie.
What Thor: The Dark World boils down to is one of the year’s best sound-and-light shows. The action, visual effects, make-up, and costuming all work incredibly well. Asgard is a stupendous location, and George Lucas wishes he could still direct a Star Wars battle on par with the Dark Elves’ invasion of the city.
Marvel just needs to grow up a little, to risk their Avengers characters questioning themselves, to suffer a loss and feel it beyond one scene. Thor: The Dark World has more opportunity to communicate pathos than any of its Marvel brethren, but the movie can’t run away quickly enough from any feelings more complex than ‘Thor smash,’ ‘Loki angry,’ and ‘Jane faint.’
Across eight films, Harry Potter managed to hold our attention because his world changed and expanded. He had to adapt to survive new discoveries and fresh losses. The Marvel universe and its characters need to start evolving, too. You can’t tell a coming-of-age story for a single character three times in a row and expect me to anticipate the fourth. Heck, I came back more for Hiddleston’s excellent Loki than for Thor this time. Maybe it’s time for a Loki movie.
At least he’s in touch with his pathos.
Thor: The Dark World is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence.
A version of this review appears in the 11/14/13 issue of La Vernia News.