By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 11, 2013 at 2:22PM
After rolling out first in the rest of the world, this past weekend saw the U.S. release of "Thor: The Dark World," the third adventure to feature the Norse god of thunder, after "Thor" and "The Avengers," and the eighth movie in Marvel's cinematic masterplan. As you might have assumed, the movie's a massive hit: an $86 million opening weekend, to add to the $240 million it's already taken abroad.
But unlike this summer's "Iron Man 3," it hasn't been met with absolute love. An A- Cinemascore suggests that Joe Public is having fun with it, but critical responses are more muted: we called it "the most deeply flawed Marvel movie since 'Iron Man 2' " and the film holds the lowest Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic score of any Marvel film to date. With the film now in release pretty much everywhere, we wanted to dig a little deeper into it, so as we've done with many major movies before, we've laid out what we think worked (or was Thor-some) and what we think didn't (Thor-ful) about the movie. Take a look below... and duh, spoilers ahead.
Hemsworth & Hiddleston
For all the flaws of the first "Thor" movie (let's say we weren't missing the Dutch angles this time around), there's one thing, on reflection, that Kenneth Branagh absolutely nailed the first time around, and that was the casting of his leads. When they starred in the first "Thor," Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston were, for all intents and purposes, unknowns: two-and-a-bit years later, they're two of the fastest rising stars around, and with good reason. Here, Hemsworth again proves that he's at least as important a casting coup as Robert Downey Jr. was for "Iron Man"—no part in these movies so far has as potentially ridiculous as a six-foot-something space Viking, but Hemsworth makes him a real figure, leavening the heroics with humor and honor. And while we'd question the necessity of Loki's involvement in the film at all (see below), Tom Hiddleston's far-from-unwelcome in the film. The character is by far the most complex and compelling villain in the Marvel movie universe, and gets his best showcase as of yet here: true to the nature of the character, he works best as a trickster, an unknown quantity who could tip either way, and Hiddleston walks that tightrope of ambivalence nicely. He also gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie, and even proves oddly sympathetic; no mean feat, given that he was last seen attempting to commit genocide in "The Avengers." As long as these films feature these two together (and they have strong chemistry together, which always helps), they're likely to be at least a little watchable.
It's weird to think that in a $100 million + fantasy blockbuster with alternate worlds and zooming spaceships that destroy large swaths of England that the greatest moments are also the quieter ones: Darcy (Kat Dennings) asking Thor how space is; our hero hanging up his hammer on a coat rack; and, best of all, Thor riding the subway in London (though we have to note here that to get from Charing Cross to Greenwich, you need to go south two stops on the Northern line to Waterloo, then take the Jubilee line east to Greenwich: perhaps it was meant to be part of the long tradition of Londoners deliberately giving the wrong directions to tourists for their own amusement). As we said, Loki provides many of the laughs too, and has one of the very best moments as well, a humorous interlude when he transforms into Captain America (Chris Evans), complete with a bit of Alan Silvestri's theme music playing over the soundtrack, and even Chris O'Dowd's extended cameo works nicely, even if it's rather tacked on (to be honest, we were left with the feeling that a film told from his point-of-view—the ordinary guy who falls in love, but can't get past his inadequacy over his new love's superheroic ex—would be way more interesting). The humor in "Thor: The Dark World" is the obvious highlight in a sequel that often aims for glowering darkness but instead comes across as a kind of camp blandness. Many of these moments were undoubtedly engineered by an un-credited Joss Whedon, which is probably for the best; in unifying the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he hasn't forgotten that they are often based on comic books.
The Final Set-Piece
The action in the film is, for the most part, solid without ever quite raising the pulse (we're struggling to remember too many memorable beats in that big opening battle, or the mid-movie attack on Asgard). And when the final confrontation in Greenwich kicked off, our eyes started to glaze over: clearly, we were about to see yet another superpowered throwdown without much to distinguish itself from any of the others that came before. But then something clever happens: in a canny bit of screenwriting, the tears-between-worlds conceit pays off, and Thor and Malekith (& co.) find themselves battling across the nine realms. Though clearly inspired by video game "Portal," among others, it's an inventive way to make the final sequence feel 'big' without the overwhelming carnage of "The Avengers" or even "Iron Man 3." And it's a cunning set-up, as well, introducing us to more of the nine realms than the ones we've visited before while also throwing us back to the original with a return to the land of the Frost Giants. It overplays its hand a little in places (Thor and Malekith sliding down the Gherkin is a little too broad, even for this film), but if the rest of the film was as much fun as this, we'd have had a much better time with the whole.
It's Earthier & More Grounded Than Before
The fantasy world of "Thor" was never the film's most convincing element, a slightly garish green-screen world that had a somewhat weightless feel to it. It remains true that the fish-out-of-water, Earth-set sections of the film are more effective in the sequel, but Marvel's stated aim of fleshing out Asgard and the other realms is at least semi-successful. Alan Taylor's "Game Of Thrones" background is put to good use, and an increasing use of location work makes it feel that some of these realms might conceivably be real places and not just places filled in later by visual effects technicians. There's still work to be done, but now there's at least more of a sense of Asgard as something other than "where Anthony Hopkins lives."
Stands Alone Reasonably Well
As we know at this point, the Marvel movies are continually interlocking with each other, with the various films generally leading up to an "Avengers" installment every few years. At times, Marvel have misstepped a bit when it comes to the interlocking and the Easter Eggs—"Iron Man 2" felt like it was treading water to get the pieces ready for "The Avengers," and even "Thor" had Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye awkwardly pasted in after the fact via a reshoot. But Phase Two suggests that the studio have the mix about right: "Iron Man 3" neatly dealt with the aftermath of "The Avengers," but told its own story, without obvious set up for where it was going next. "Thor" isn't quite as successful on that front (the cliffhanger ending might as well feature Hiddleston looking into camera and saying "see you in summer 2016, kids."), but it does at least pick up Thor and Loki having grown and changed from the events of "The Avengers," references earlier films without bringing things to a grinding halt, and, the conclusion aside, doesn't spend too much time foreshadowing or hinting at future installments. We don't resent the mid-credit easter eggs: if you're going to trail future movies, that's the place to do it, and while we hope "Guardians Of The Galaxy" has better production value than the brief clip we saw, it was still fun to get a glimpse of Benicio Del Toro in character.