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Review: Marvel's 'Thor: The Dark World,' With Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman & Tom Hiddleston

by Oliver Lyttelton
October 22, 2013 4:00 PM
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Thor: The Dark World

The first "Thor" movie was something of a risk for Marvel. Wisecracking Robert Downey Jr. in a (relatively) grounded real world setting was one thing, but a Viking god from space, played by a complete unknown and directed by a man best known for Shakespeare adaptations was quite another. But the 2011 film, while flawed in many ways, proved surprisingly entertaining and teed up both its title character and his villainous brother Loki for a return appearance in the team-up movie "The Avengers," which turned out to be an absolute megahit. As such, the studio must be feeling on surer ground with "Thor: The Dark World." It'll undoubtedly be a big hit, but it's a shame that the movie isn't much of an improvement on its predecessor. While it rights some of the first film's problems, it has more than a few of its own, leading to an effort that, while entertaining, is probably the most deeply flawed Marvel movie since "Iron Man 2."

Thor: The Dark World

After a very "Lord of the Rings"-esque prologue introducing villain Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and his Dark Elves, ancient creatures who are bent on returning the universe to darkness using something called the Aether during the Convergence, a once-every-ten-millennia alignment of the nine realms, the action picks up almost immediately after "The Avengers." Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to Asgard in chains, and he's left to languish for the rest of his life in a dungeon.

Meanwhile, Thor gets on with his duties keeping the peace among the kingdoms, while in London, his lost love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), heartbroken after he broke his promise to return to her, continues her research into the barriers between worlds. But when she stumbles across the Aether, Malekith is awoken, and sets out to finish what he started. His first stop? Asgard, where Thor has taken Jane to investigate the Aether that's now bonded to her.

Thor: The Dark World

As words like Convergence, Aether and Dark Elves might suggest, "Thor: The Dark World" delves deeper into hard fantasy than its predecessor, and for the most part, has found a director well-suited to that in Alan Taylor. Though best known on the big screen for mid-'90s indie "Palookaville," Taylor has made his name more recently as one of the go-to directors for "Game of Thrones," and he better sells the more out-there aspects of the story than Kenneth Branagh did. Asgard is a bit more earthy and lived-in this time around, feeling like a real environment rather than the artificial, Kirby-esque, green-screen-happy settings of the first film.

More importantly, Taylor has a decent handle on tone: the unexpected humor of the first film is back in force, and there are enough quips (bearing the unmistakable hand of script doctor Joss Whedon), gags and fun cameos that we won't give away here—the mid-credits teaser in particular is likely to have fans doing backflips—to give the film that now-trademark Marvel lightness of touch. His eye for action is solid (if unexceptional) too, with an inventive final set-piece seemingly inspired by "Portal" being the high-point.

Thor: The Dark World

And yet Taylor and the rest of the gang are cramped by a script that's severely lacking in a number of areas. The film's biggest issue is that, as a villain, Malekith is something close to a disaster. It's not that Eccleston is terrible in the part—although he seems to be about as invested and present here as he was playing the heavy in "Gone In 60 Seconds" and "G.I. Joe," i.e. not very—it's that the character is woefully under-developed.

Outside of a handful of scenes with henchman Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who exists mostly to be turned into a Predator-like creature that'll make a cool toy, Malekith barely interacts with anyone else in the film (if he and Thor exchange more than a single conversation, we've forgotten it already), which means he mostly remains a barely motivated cypher. And not an especially scary cypher, either. Despite some decent design work on the dark elves, there's not much of a threat here, and this year's umpteenth blockbuster reference to 9/11 doesn't automatically bestow gravitas in the way that filmmakers keep hoping.

Thor: The Dark World

With a relatively brisk (in modern blockbuster terms) sub-two-hour running time, we suppose the thin quality of Malekith was a sacrifice to allow more time with Loki. Tom Hiddleston again proves to be good in the part, allowing a little-boy-lost vulnerability into the genocidal trickster while still having fun with him, but the conflict he creates mostly hits the same beats as they did in the first film and in "The Avengers," and you could pretty much lift him out of the plot without impacting the rest of the film too much. One senses he's mostly here to set up a third film.

Elsewhere, you can feel the script strain to include everyone else from the first film. Some roles are expanded properly—Rene Russo actually gets something to do this time, while Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård (whose character has arguably evolved more across these movies than anyone else's) remain winning comic relief/exposition dumpers. But most others drop in and out of the film awkwardly. One of the Warriors Three gets put on the bench early on simply because there's no room for him, the hints at a love triangle with Thor, Jane and Jaime Alexander's Sif continue to be nothing more than that, Idris Elba's Helmdall gets a big action moment and then vanishes, and Portman is asleep for the whole second act, and reverts to a damsel-in-distress in the third.

The result is a film that is enjoyable in spots, but haphazard and ultimately unsatisfying. As with "Iron Man 3," these films are increasingly feeling like episodes of TV shows or, perhaps more appropriately, issues of comic books. For all the good gags and eye candy, this ultimately boils down to yet another quest to find a magical MacGuffin that will stop a portal in the sky from opening (seriously, has that become one of the Seven Basic Plots at this point?). And while the hardcore geek crowd may eat that up, the rest of us need these films to distinguish themselves a little more if we're going to have one every six months. [C]

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  • ted | October 25, 2013 1:10 PMReply

    quips. cheap way to get by as "entertaining". sorry, I don't buy into that.

  • Sam Clegg | October 25, 2013 9:41 AMReply

    Guess what? They are suppose to feel like comic books, because they're based on comics. Sounds like this is the film that we should be getting.

  • Smyth E. Alan | October 23, 2013 6:12 PMReply

    "...these films are increasingly feeling like episodes of TV shows or, perhaps more appropriately, issues of comic books...this ultimately boils down to yet another quest to find a magical MacGuffin that will stop a portal in the sky from opening...these films to distinguish themselves a little more if we're going to have one every six months."

    Well said. 'Iron Man 3' was a fine enough throaway (RDJ's presence elevates the material, and I liked it better than 'Avengers'), but this is pretty much how I feel about the Marvel machine altogether and it's good to see others feel that way, too. too.

  • bd2999 | November 4, 2013 4:23 PM

    In general, isn't that an odd statement? One would think comic book movies trying to get the feel of a comic book would be the goal.

  • johnnyshafto | October 23, 2013 7:31 AMReply

    Remember when the fanbois were so defensive of Marvel, they had to shut down the comments for Avengers on Rotten Tomatoes because there were too many death threats to critics who dared to give it a bad review? Now it's all "These movies suck, who likes superhero movies" blah blah blah. Have the fickle fans of nerdcore finally moved on?

  • John | October 23, 2013 4:11 PM

    It happened with both of them. Along with misogynist remarks for the first Avengers "rotten" reviewer.

  • Dan | October 23, 2013 2:53 PM

    Um the death threat thing was what happened with TDKR not Avengers.

  • Alex Porter | October 22, 2013 11:19 PMReply

    First one to say, "well all the nerds liked it, so this means nothing," gets a prize which should be a forehead slam on the desk.

  • Lord Elrond | October 22, 2013 6:39 PMReply

    I REALLY wish they could've developed Malekith the Accursed into a complex, interesting villain that viewers could maybe sympathize with. But, then again, it's Marvel, so why get my hopes up.

  • bd2999 | November 4, 2013 4:24 PM

    What comic book movie did that? Thor did the best job of it, maybe Spider-man movies. The Batman movies really did not. Just saying.

  • Dr. Sensible | October 31, 2013 4:02 PM

    Yeah, because they've never done that before... or did you already forget about Loki?

  • Monica | October 22, 2013 6:18 PMReply

    They don't care about quality, only $ $ $

  • john | October 22, 2013 6:09 PMReply

    When will these movies actually say something interesting? The good X-men movies managed to. The last three Batman movies managed to.

  • Marvel Boy | October 22, 2013 5:53 PMReply

    Nerd is not an insult Washington.

    Everybody has a bit of need or geekyness inside them.

    So go suck a Cock you pretentious douche bag!

  • Washington | October 22, 2013 10:10 PM

    In 2013 pretentious = stopped acting like a 14 year old at some point past the age of 14

    You might want to learn to not take it as a personal assault whenever people don't like the same silly shit made for children that you do

  • Josh | October 22, 2013 5:10 PMReply

    I was wondering if Malekith would be able to carry a movie as a threat. Most of my eggs are in the Captain America: The Winter Soldier Basket, really interested in how that turns out.

  • Ben | October 22, 2013 5:09 PMReply

    Jesus, Oliver, you got enough tags on this article?

  • Marvel Boy | October 22, 2013 5:08 PMReply

    The only duff film marvel have released so far is Iron Man 3.

    Everything else is fine & pretty distinguishable. If you canst notice the differences you're not a
    Very good critic to be reviewing this type of film.

  • Cassio | October 23, 2013 2:02 PM

    Go f uck yourself Washington.

  • Washington | October 22, 2013 5:23 PM

    Grow up nerd

  • CB | October 22, 2013 4:27 PMReply

    The superhero genre ended with Nolan's Batman. Now there's only cash grab, geek-pandering, badly written action comedies left. I'd say Ant-Man has potential because of Edgar Wright, but the rest give me headache.

  • bd2999 | November 4, 2013 4:26 PM

    Those movies are generally overrated. BB was good but had as many plot holes or more than Avengers, just made bigger because they are trying to be real. The DK would have failed if not for Ledger's Joker, it would not be interesting with Batman otherwise and TDKR was lazy and poorly paced.

    Granted, the Marvel fair is not oscar worthy but the stories are good and entertaining. And you obviously never saw Dredd.

  • Nolan is a overrated hack | October 22, 2013 6:29 PM

    Nolan made overly serious and silly films. The same as these. You could argue perhaps DKR was the only half-way decent film in the Trilogy. Although it has its share of serious flaws. Same with BB and TDKR.

    Marvel is not trying to make "Batman" they are trying to make films with the broadest appeal possible. So there is something for everyone to enjoy. Unfortunately they made some bad decisions when it came to director and writing in this particular situation. TBH - I was expecting this. Thor is tricky due to the kind of comic it comes from, and sequels tend to try to compound on the plot threads taking to much focus from what people want to see.

    The strength of Thor is not that he's a compelling or interesting character - its what's happening to him & to those around him. We all know how he will react. But we're really watching it for the relationship between him and Loki, Jane Foster, and the other Marvel universe characters we've gotten to know. We want to know how these events will connect up in the "master plan" Marvel clearly has. I'm not a comic fan per se. But I enjoyed the first Thor and it has a lot of rewatchability. We'll see how this one goes. Critics don't always get it 100% right.

  • Marvel Boy | October 22, 2013 5:19 PM

    The superhero genre did 'not end' with Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy & neither are these films cash grabs.

    Nolan's Batman films are not the be all & end all of the comic book movie genre & whilst some people will say it is one of the best trilogies out there, I felt that The Dark Knight Rises lacked heart, had far too many plot holes & a lot in it to make it a flawed Batman / Nolan movie. The first two however were great, but rises let it all down a little bit, so not a perfect trilogy IMO like people claim.

    As for Marvel, Yes, Iron Man 3 was terrible & I blame that on both Shane Black & Drew Pearce. Bad choice of director & pair of writers. Should have been left in Jon Favreau's Hands as it was his baby & he should have completed the trilogy.

    However, the rest of the marvel releases have sufficed so far with Avengers obviously still being the best movie. The next potentials to top that will be down to Captain America 2, Guardians of The Galaxy or to too itself with Avengers 2.

  • jesse | October 22, 2013 4:41 PM

    What's so wrong with action comedies? It's a C rating here so it's an enjoyable meh.

    Better than having a half hearted superhero film that's overly dramatic to the point of comedy.

  • lori | October 22, 2013 4:21 PMReply

    God when will the comic book movies die already?

  • bd2999 | November 4, 2013 4:29 PM

    When will romantic comedies and stuff die? It is just a new way to present the same action story. Nothing wrong with that. I have not seen a very original movie in a while. It just happens that people forget the last good one and claim something else original.

  • Nolan is a overrated hack | October 22, 2013 6:31 PM

    When people stop shelling out money to see it.

  • BEF | October 22, 2013 5:57 PM

    It's hard to "embrace the greatness" when Hollywood has changed it's entire studio system to tentpoles or tadpoles (I small films they don't fund that they purchase at festivals, which means to make a middle budgeted movie the industry has to have an already certified prestige auteur or ... someone else is footing the bill and it'll take years to do that, while the studios ignore new stories and pump out a new franchise movie every two months ... Marvel TV, etc ... this is a fad that will end. People will get bored of the same exact thing over and over. 80s pop gave way to grunge, gave way to boy bands, gave way to indie pop ... movies will follow suit soon enough)

  • Peter | October 22, 2013 5:50 PM

    Never and hopefully it stays that wY

  • Josh | October 22, 2013 5:11 PM

    Its hard to kill off characters that are approaching seventy years old. There's always a new generation that gets attached.

  • Marvel Boy | October 22, 2013 5:10 PM

    They won't be going anywhere for a long time yet, just because it might not be your cup of tea or film genre, it would seem the rest if the general audience are becoming fans / getting into these movies as much as comic book readers.

    Sorry to burst your bubble!

    Just embrace the greatness.

  • CARY | October 22, 2013 4:17 PMReply

    why so few words on thor and the actor playing the title character. Isn't it supposed to be his movie?

  • jack | November 11, 2013 12:45 PM

    Hiddleston/Loki is elevated in these films because the actor is a stronger screen presence. I'm not saying Hemsworth is bad as Thor, he's actually quite good, but Thor has always been the straight man to other characters. It's simply not part of the character to have him quippy and whatnot. Hiddleston has been stealing virtually every scene he's in for these films, so he's earned his value and his popularity.

  • bd2999 | November 4, 2013 4:31 PM

    Elle and Cary, Hiddleston is apparently not in as much of the movie as many thought. It is Thor's show and from all accounts so far is one of the bright spots of the film. Loki may be somewhat more interesting because he does not have the baggage a hero has. He gets his own arc and does not have to save the day, he just does his own plans.

    It is to the bonus of the movie to have two good actors in primary roles.

  • Elle | October 22, 2013 5:02 PM

    Chris Hemsworth proved he can act, given the right material, such as he did in Rush, but let's not pretend Marvel cares for a moment. Tom Hiddleston will get the bulk of praise, partly due to his talents but also do to the fact that the filmmakers went out of there way to make this the Loki show (script and direction). Yes, he is a fan favorite with a vocal, protective internet fan base, but sometimes fan service isn't always good thing.

    I pray there is a day Chris Hemsworth can build a reputable career not built on the back bone of Thor and that as loved as Tom Hiddleston is as a Loki, he can be appreciated for more than that role.

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