Thor: The Dark World (2013, directed by Alan Taylor) is a better film than its predecessor. It may be a better film than The Avengers, but that's not that hard. As fun as that film was, it had its issues. Prime among them was finding something for each member of its expansive cast of characters to do. That's not a problem for this film. It seems as if they went out of their way to make sure that each character has a function in the plot that arises naturally from who those characters are. Even Kat Dennings's Darcy Lewis gets to do something. There are a lot of better movies than this one that fail in this basic task. It's fun to watch this unfold. This film trumps The Avengers in two other respects, too. First, it passes the Bechdel Test. Second, we get that most glorious of natural cinematic wonders: Chris Hemsworth's bare torso. Note to future cinematic interpreters of Thor: this is an essential element of these movies.
This film's prelude tells the story of the Dark Elves, who attempted to undo the "Let there be light" part of creation. They were opposed in this by the Asgardians who defeated them and took The Aether, a weapon of primordial darkness from which the Dark Elves and their leader, Malekith, derived their power. Malekith, for his part, escaped, biding his time until he could reclaime The Aether. Millenia pass. In the aftermath of Loki's attack on Jötunheim, Thor and his companions are subduing the restless worlds of the Nine Realms and restoring the pax Asgardia to the cosmos. This work is almost done, and the Bifrost has been rebuilt. Thor returns home, and his thoughts turn to Jane Foster and Earth. His father is impatient with his mooning for a human woman and encourages him to look closer to hand, at Sif, perhaps. There's nothing for it, though, and he wanders to the gates of Asgard to quiz Heimdall on Jane's activities. Heimdall, surprisingly, cannot see Jane. Jane, for herself, has relocated to London and is being wooed by her co-worker, Richard. On their first date, Darcy interrupts with a piece of Jane's equipment that has suddenly come to enthusiastic life. There are quantum anomalies, of the sort they found in New Mexico, somewhere in London, and the trace them to a derelict warehouse where a band of kids has discovered that warped time and space can be fun. Jane's experience is less fun as she's sucked through a wormhole into another dimension where some kind of dark force pours itself into her. When she reemerges into her own space, she discovers that she has been gone for five hours. It's then that Thor returns to Earth for her. When she demonstrates a destructive force inside of her, Thor takes her to Asgard, much to the annoyance of his father. Fortunately, Frigga, Thor's mother, is more gentle and she and her handmaidens discover the force inside of her. Unfortunately for them, it's The Aether, and its reappearance in the universe awakens the dormant Malekith and his surviving Dark Elves, who soon lay siege to Asgard itself seeking Jane Foster and what is inside of her. After counting the cost to the Asgardians, Thor defies his father and embarks on a desperate mission to destroy The Aether, but he needs the help of Loki, who he cannot trust. Together, the brothers take the battle to the Swartalfheim, the kingdom of the Dark Elves, and the, to Earth, where Malekith intends to destroy the Nine Realms and plunge the universe back into darkness...
One thing that the first Thor movie got right was the cosmic-ness of the original comics. It was in tune with the grandiosity of Jack Kirby. This film looks elsewhere for its inspiration and settles on Walt Simonson's classic run of comics from the 1980s. Simonson's Thor is closer to the movie Thor to start with--there's a fine thread of humor running through those comics--and it's more playful with its cosmic grandiosity. You get some of that here. Simonson's Thor was also closer to space opera than Kirby's Thor, and that, too, translates. Marvel's grand plan for these movies seems to be as a gateway to its more universe-spanning properties, and it's a good way to ease into it. There's a downside, of course. This film's production design seems less awe-inspiring than the previous film's, which seems odd given the larger role scenes in Asgard play in The Dark World. Chalk this up to both director Alan Taylor and production designer Charles Wood, both of whom are picking over the leavings of Bo Welch. Taylor comes from television, so his first instinct isn't to over-awe the viewer so much as it is to just tell the story. There's virtue in this, of course, but there are drawbacks as well. Taylor is smart enough to let the technical departments do their work with out imposing a heavy auteurial hand, but no one is going to mistake him for a crackpot visionary like James Cameron or Guillermo del Toro. He's not a director whose name is likely to become a portmanteau adjective. Still, he's appropriate for the movie, because this is more story-oriented than most superhero movies.
The center of this film is the family relations among the Asgardians: The conflict between Odin and Thor is front and center, as it was in the first film, but this film adds the mitigating influence of Frigga. We get more of Frigga than we did in the previous film (Rene Russo's part in that film was a glorified walk-on cameo). Second is the rivalry between Thor and Loki. Third is the relationship between Loki and his adopted parents. Peripheral to all of this is the rule of Asgard and Thor's romantic prospects. This has the potential to be hopelessly convoluted and it's to the filmmakers' credit that this is a bundle of sometimes conflicting motivations that are always easy to follow. Loki in particular grows in complexity from film to film and this film is content to let Tom Hiddleston steal the spotlight the same way he's stolen the previous two movies in which he played the character. Chris Hemsworth is magnanimous enough to let this happen, but he can afford to cede the stage given that the film is named after his character. And did I mention Hemsworth's naked torso? I did? Well, it bears repeating. There were audible gasps in the theater when it appeared. Mine may have been one of them. But I digress. The Warriors Three and Sif don't get as much play in this film, though Jamie Alexander continues to impress as a tall bad-ass superheroine in her few scenes. As I say, the filmmakers find something to do for all of their characters, but these four aren't nearly as integral to the plot as they were in the last film. To an extent, they've flipped their role over to the human characters this time out, which works pretty well, actually. The biggest beneficiaries of this largesse are Rene Russo and Idris Elba, who both get an action scene and more screen time than they did in the previous film.
When I wrote about the previous film, I mentioned that I might like to watch a film about Jane Foster and her friends, one in which Thor doesn't even appear. that's still true of this film. In truth, the comics' version of Jane Foster is a standard hero's girlfriend type, but these films have managed the not inconsiderable feat of transforming the character into Lois Lane. A comic called "Jane Foster: Girl Scientist" is one that I would have bought as a teen-age girl. That she has sidekicks of her own in a kind of mirror image of Thor and the Warriors Four is telling when it comes to assessing her role in this film. In some ways, she is a co-hero, just as Loki is the film's shadowy anti-hero. Certainly Darcy Lewis is a terrific comedic foil, while Eric Selvig manages to chew the scenery with aplomb. Both would be fine supporting characters even without the Asgardians. Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, and Stellan Skarsgard could have done a LOT worse for big tentpole-movie characters, because all three of them manage to hold the screen not only against Hemsworth, Hiddleston, and Anthony Hopkins, but against the big special effects, too.
Christopher Eccleston has the thankless role of Malekith the Dark Elf. In the comics, Malekith plays like a mythological version of The Joker, but in this film, he's a more straightforward bad guy: inscrutable, not necessarily evil, but with motives that are alien. This version of Malekith is a cipher. Eccleston is self-effacing in the the role, given that it's a part that buries him under prosthetic make-up that renders him all but unrecognizable. His presence does have another effect on the film, though: During the film's climax, I occasionally associated what I was seeing with Doctor Who. Where was The Doctor when you really need him? Well, he's this film's villain. This is certainly not Eccleston's fault, so much as it's a quirk of my own personality.
Most of this film's action scenes play more like epic fantasy/sci-fi than they do like superhero scenes, which is entirely appropriate to this particular character. The Lord of the Rings is rooted in the same set of myths as Thor, after all, so some elements are bound to echo each other. What is The Aether but a version of The One Ring, after all? The design of The Dark Elves reminds me of the Architects in Prometheus, for cinematic sources. I can also see elements from various sources in gaming. The barrier between games and movies grows thinner week by week. Only at the end, when Thor and Malekith face off in Greenwich does this film resemble a superhero film, and it's a much more appealing final battle than the one in Man of Steel, given that the filmmakers have space-time to play with, and supporting characters who can turn this into comedy. This franchise is generous with its action, in so far as its focus on action doesn't preclude romance. Indeed, it sometimes includes romance as part of the fabric of that action, which is appealing in a world where action films often indulge in the joyless, grim and gritty fallacy.
The film's only real misstep is the franchise-building credit cookie that follows the main cast list (the one after the end of the full credits is much more of a piece with the rest of the film). Taken out of the context of the Marvel universe, this scene is completely inexplicable. If you know the comics, then, yeah, it's full of portentous rumblings for the upcoming films, but if you're watching this as a singular movie or if you know nothing of the Marvel Universe beyond the films, it just doesn't fit and it's likely to be completely mystifying. It's a minor quibble, though, and if it's troublesome, it's easy enough to stop watching as the main credits roll.