'Thor: The Dark World' Sends The God Of Thunder Everywhere, And Nowhere

(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask "How did we get here?" In this edition: Thor: The Dark World defines Marvel's "villain problem" and doesn't do much else.)

Thor: The Dark World plays like Marvel's first truly troubled production. The rush to get the ball rolling on the space-set sequel saw the exit of Thor director Kenneth Branagh, after which Patty Jenkins was hired but departed soon after, citing creative differences. It was for the best; Jenkins would go on to direct Wonder Woman for DC, which is arguably The Dark World's only lasting impact on the superhero genre. It's a messy film sprinkled with bits of fun, aiming to take Thor on a universe-spanning adventure on a larger scale than before.

But the film's existence is nearly antithetical to the Marvel formula regardless of how much it depends on its tone, replacing interesting character beats with overwrought plotting and exposition. And while it manages to deliver a romp of a third act, it commits perhaps the one shared-universe cardinal sin: its main character ends up right where he began, and goes nowhere in between.

A Misaligned Tale of Convergence

Thor: The Dark World has too much going on, and too little by way of narrative adhesive. It depends too greatly on the coming together of its disparate threads, only its various tales are interwoven not by theme or character, but by happenstance. It has the appearance of well-structured drama, but the film leaves too many elements hanging in mid-air for them to form a coherent whole. It's also an unfortunate meta-text about, well, its own narrative failings.

It opens millions of years in the past, as Bor (appropriately pronounced "bore") battles The Dark Elves during something known as "The Alignment." The Elves are vanquished amidst Odin's voiceover, one largely repeated 45 minutes later. The Elves' weapon, The Aether, is buried "where no one can find it" (i.e. left in a cave) and everything is just fine until present day. Now The Alignment is about to happen again, during which time the Nine Realms of the Cosmos (Earth and Asgard are the only ones that matter, so don't sweat the rest) come into contact, and the laws of physics go wonky.

The problem is, nothing really happens or can happen until The Alignment takes place. It centers on Earth, and if the Aether's deployment is timed right, it could... make the universe dark again? It isn't quite clear. Dark Elf leader Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) has to be present for there to be any threat at all, though he has nothing to really do otherwise. Thor & co. have to waste time wheel-spinning until Malekith decides to execute any part of his plan. With minor exception, everyone's just waiting for other pieces to fall into place, and except for Thor breaking Loki out of prison an hour in, no one seems to have a shred of narrative agency.

Jane Foster (a returning and underutilized Natalie Portman) investigates the initial effects of the alignment on Earth. By coincidence, she gets temporarily sucked into Svartalfheim, the prologue planet made of dust and green-screen, and gets infected with the hidden Aether. By coincidence, Thor happens to be talking to universal observer Heimdall (Idris Elba) at this exact moment, whose gaze fails to catch Jane during the brief time she's away. By coincidence, Malekith wakes up from his long slumber – he's later said to have some sort of connection to the Aether, but in this moment he claims to have been awoken by The Alignment itself.

Malekith and the elves invade their ancient enemy Asgard, speaking (in a made-up Elvish language) about their hatred for the Asgardians as their only motivation. It's unclear what their plan is until late into their attack – ill-defined stakes plague the film throughout – and seemingly, by coincidence once more, Malekith stumbles upon Jane in Asgard and tries to take the Aether from her. Mind you, the intent could very well have been to have him invade for the sole purpose of finding this reality-warping liquid, but his Trojan Horse henchman seeks to wreak havoc as Malekith bombs the Asgardian throne (see: damages it mildly) out of spite. These scenes would play the same if Jane hadn't been brought to Asgard at all, with Malekith re-igniting a blood feud like Frost Giants in Thor.

Coincidence driving plot isn't inherently a problem, but these threads are only ever connected by coincidence, often to no end and with no actual payoff. As Malekith's henchman destroys Asgard's underground prison, a jailed post-Avengers Loki (Tom Hiddleston) points him in the right direction, also out of spite for Asgard. This henchman goes on to kill Loki's mother Frigga, a dramatic irony that is never remarked upon or used to build on Loki's character. Few active decisions come from a place of genuine ethos, and even fewer are rooted in who these people are at their core. Coincidence is all the plot of this movie ever is.

Svartalfheim, Oh Svartalfheim

Nobody cares about Svartalfheim. Not even the characters, but it's the setting of some of the film's most important scenes. It opens on Svartalfheim, the site of Asgard's culling of the Dark Elves. Its ruins are where the Aether is hidden and where Jane ends up as she discovers The Alignment. She's an astrophysicist literally transported to the other end of the universe, yet this experience is barely remarked upon. Svartalfheim is also the only part of this film that looks truly ugly. The rest? It's quite remarkable to look at, bridging the worlds of fantasy & sci-fi with bright, magical colours up against distinct metallic technology. But it's also where the film's emotional climax takes place, adding little to drama at hand.

Not the actual climax, i.e. the climax of the plot, mind you. That involves Thor and Malekith playing and inter-dimensional game of Portal, and it's a blast. The emotional climax takes place earlier, when Loki sacrifices himself to save Thor, a character arc that would've been perfect were it not for this being revealed as a ruse, owing to the film's sequel-itus. Svartalfheim is dark, quite literally. It's often too dark to get a good look at the action, but more importantly, it feels entirely divorced from any meaning despite its connection to its natives, The Dark Elves, and their long & bloody history. Of course, that might have something to do with the Elves themselves.

Nobody Cares About Malekith

When referring to Marvel's "villain problem," people tend to first & foremost mean Malekith the Accursed. There's no psychology, no philosophy, or even a vaguely cultural reasoning that drives this empty vessel. If he hadn't awoken, his henchmen would have re-enacted his plan in his stead, the film would've been exactly the same. But Malekith isn't the root cause of the problem. He's merely an embodiment of some of the problems, while standing adjacent to others. They say you can't have a great hero without a great villain, but you also can't figure out what your villain is meant to be if there's no underlying story for your protagonist. The reason nobody cares about Malekith, including the other characters, isn't just that he lacks a coherent philosophy. Malekith is merely a symptom.

The root of the problem is Thor: The Dark World lacks coherent philosophy itself, or any care for exploring its characters. After Malekith kills Thor's mother, the God of Thunder's enraged reaction takes place off-screen. Instead, we're shown a closeup of Thor's lightning bolt hitting Malekith's face, burning one side of it so he can resemble his comicbook counterpart, in a strange example of superficial fealty to the source material taking precedence over the story.

The approach, too, is symptomatic. Thor: The Dark World has no idea what it's about, not only because its individual parts don't connect – from a setup involving a love triangle to a payoff involving Thor repeating what he learned in the last film – but those individual parts are puzzle pieces forced to fit misshapen slots. Thor begins this entry cleaning up the realms after war has broken out. He has no time for celebrations or for relationships, and he seems content with this scenatio. The film however, is not about searching for balance, finding happiness, or even self-sacrifice like its muddled predecessor. The plot simply happens to Thor, after which he returns to doing exactly what he was doing before it began. Jane stumbles into the plot and becomes its device (the magic MacGuffin literally becomes a part of her), and rather than having to contend with mortality, or even a frayed relationship, she simply moves  from scene to scene, if not physically moved by someone else, robbed of the narrative perspective and agency she had in the first film.

Similarly, Loki is in a position to contend with the weight of his actions, given time to reflect in prison and, later, the opportunity to redeem himself. He does, in Thor's eyes anyway, as he sends an illusion to die in his stead. The actual Loki learns nothing, secretly usurping the throne and getting what he technically wanted. But doing so in secret doesn't even grant Loki a modicum of victory, given that in both his prior films, what he wanted wasn't just a physical throne, but the recognition and acceptance that came with it. The Dark World merely pays lip-service to Loki, arguably Marvel's greatest villain, unable to contend with the weight of its predecessors and unable to escape its contractually obligated setups for future installments.

And yet, the film manages to find moments of fun and genuine levity. Not only despite being about nothing, but in a perverse sense, because it's about nothing.

Falling Back On Formula 

An hour of screentime passes by. Frigga, mother to Thor and Loki, is dead without so much as a meaningful sentence. There are no feelings of anger abandonment on behalf of her children, or anything but vaguely sad faces. Loki's trashed cell is certainly a memorable image, but his emotional response to the death of the woman who taught him his tricks, granting him his very identity, takes place mostly off screen. It's here that Thor and Loki team up to escape Asgard – for reasons only half explained – and it's here that a sudden tonal shift makes the film uncannily watchable.

Were there a coherent theme driving Thor: The Dark World, some character study through a lens of guilt perhaps, Thor and Loki engaging in comedic banter mere hours after the loss of their mom would seem grossly out of character. And yet, it's that very lack of characterization that allows the film to be just another series of quips without feeling wrongheaded, because it's bland enough to be inoffensive. The film has arguably failed up until this point, but it succeeds as if by accident, contorting itself to fit a tone similar to The Avengers before moving in to a similar third act.

This isn't apologism, mind you. If anything, the film is The Avengers' opposite; rather than a climax that builds upon everything that came before it, The Dark World's Greenwich shenanigans play like the first half's corrective sequel, abandoning a tone and a set of non-ideas that weren't working, in favour of nonsensical fun.

Sandwiched between a meaningless funeral and a death revealed to be fake is Thor and Loki's jailbreak, categorized by witty one-liners and, for once in the film, an establishment of brotherly dynamic. What follows is a step backward, though perhaps a necessary one, into the first film's fish-out-of-water territory. As soon as Loki's death is revealed to be a hoax, Thor heads to Earth and hunches over in the front seat of Jane's car. He even hangs his hammer on a coat rack, the kind of visual that can only be delivered in a specifically Thor-on-Earth context.

When Malekith finally attacks, there are practically no stakes at this point. What is he trying to do? What will happen if he succeeds? I couldn't possibly tell you. That's by no means a good thing, but luckily it's spackled over by the sheer ridiculousness of Thor and Malekith falling through portals from one dimension to another as Thor's hammer Mjolnir tries to play catch up. When Thor finally makes it back to Earth, he even takes the London Underground to Greenwich until he's re-united with his hammer. Nothing particularly interesting happens from a character standpoint, but Jane, Selvig, their intern Darcy, and their intern's intern Ian do get to play around with gravity, transporting Dark Elves from one spot to another and lifting cars with their bare hands.

Granted, none of it amounts to very much. Thor swings his hammer once, and the whole story is resolved when a Dark Elf ship is about to crush him and Jane, but just so happens to fall through a portal instead, crushing Malekith on the other side. Again, coincidence. Thor goes back to space. Jane remains on Earth. If you have vague memories of a happy reunion, I'm afraid I have to inform you this major story point was relegated to a post-credits scene. Thor goes back to the other realms, though this has no lasting consequences as he's back on Earth by Age of Ultron. Loki's sitting on the throne of Asgard, though this too amounts to pretty much nothing since he's off it two scenes into Ragnarok. Unlike the mistakes of Marvel movies past, The Dark World's are too deeply rooted to be fixed retroactively. The film doesn't narrowly miss any targets that future entries can hit – it simply fails to take aim in the first place.

Luckily though, this was also the last time a Marvel movie missed the mark in any significant way. Stay tuned, folks. The Road to Infinity War is about to ramp up.