Nobody Cares About Malekith

When it comes to Marvel’s “villain problem,” Malekith the Accursed is front and center. There’s no psychology, no philosophy, nor even a vague cultural hatred driving him. If he hadn’t awoken from his slumber, his henchmen could have enacted his plan in his stead; Thor: The Dark World would be exactly the same without him. However, Malekith isn’t the root cause of the film’s problems. He’s merely a symptom.

They say great heroes need great villains, but great villains can’t be written if their heroes have no underlying story, nor any outlook that needs to be challenged. At the core of these ill-defined character ideologies lies the fact that Thor: The Dark World lacks a philosophy of its own. It has no idea what it wants to say, and in the process, has little care for exploring its characters, a central story flaw that bleeds into its filmmaking.

After Malekith kills Thor’s mother, Thor’s enraged reaction takes place off-screen. Instead, the film cuts to a closeup of Thor’s lightning bolt as it strikes Malekith’s face, burning one side of him so he can slightly resemble his comicbook counterpart. It’s a strange example of superficial fealty to the source, and it takes precedence over what ought to be one of the film’s most affecting moments.

Thor: The Dark World has no idea what it’s about, so it never has any idea which of its scattered pieces to highlight in the edit. At one point, it sets up a love triangle involving Thor, Sif and Jane, which it never pays off. At another, it pays off Thor’s journey from the previous film — a lesson he already learned.

The Dark World begins with Thor cleaning up the other realms after war has broken out. He has no time for celebrations or relationships, and he seems begrudgingly content. The film however, isn’t about Thor searching for balance or finding happiness, or anything that might justify this setup. The plot simply happens to Thor, after which he returns to exactly what he was doing before.

Jane stumbles into the film and becomes a plot device. The magic MacGuffin becomes a part of her, slowly killing her from within. But rather than having to contend with mortality (or even a frayed relationship with Thor), she simply moves from scene to scene. That, or she’s physically moved by someone else while kidnapped or unconscious. The result is Jane being robbed of the perspective and narrative agency she had in the first film.

Similarly, Loki is in a position to contend with the weight of his actions. He’s given time to reflect on the events of Thor and The Avengers as he sits in prison, after being arrested by his own family. Later in the film, he’s even given the opportunity to redeem himself. He does so in Thor’s eyes, but both his death, and the appearance of his character arc, turn out to be illusions. The actual Loki learns nothing. He secretly usurps the throne while disguised as Odin, and gets what he always wanted — or so it would seem.

Capturing the throne in secret doesn’t grant Loki a modicum of victory. In both his prior appearances, what he wanted wasn’t just a physical throne, but the recognition and acceptance that accompanied it. The Dark World pays lip-service to Loki, one of Marvel’s greatest villains, but the film is both unable to contend with the weight of its predecessors, and unable to escape obligatory setups for future sequels.

And yet, the film somehow 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 screen time passes. Frigga, mother to Thor and Loki, dies without so much as a meaningful sentence. Her children feel neither anger nor abandonment beyond her funeral scene. Loki’s cell is trashed, but the scene where he trashes it — his emotional response to the death of the woman who taught him his tricks, granting him his very identity — takes place mostly off-screen. Immediately after this skimmed period of mouring, Thor and Loki team up to escape. They do so for reasons only half explained, but it’s here that a sudden, almost wrongheaded tonal shift makes the film momentarily enjoyable.

Were there a coherent theme driving Thor: The Dark World, some character study or perhaps even an undercurrent of guilt, Thor and Loki’s comedic banter, mere hours after their mother’s death, would feel grossly out of character. And yet, it’s their very lack of characterization up until this point that allows the film to devolve into yet another series of quips. Prior to their breakout, the film is bland enough that this jarring shift is inoffensive.

Some of the action scenes succeed as if by accident. The film contorts itself to fit a tone similar to The Avengers, despite telling a wildly different story; for every one of its narrative missteps, it features at least one enjoyable action or comedy beat. Frigga’s meaningless funeral is followed by Thor and Loki’s jailbreak, a scene rife with rapid one-liners as the duo re-establishes a brotherly dynamic. Shortly after, there’s yet another Marvel death fake-out, though this is followed by the film’s fish-out-of-water segments, as Thor hunches over in the front seat of Jane’s tiny car and hangs his hammer on a coat rack. The tone is terribly inconsistent, but the goofy asides feel like a reprieve from all the stilted drama.

When Malekith finally attacks, there are practically no stakes. What is he trying to do? What will happen if he succeeds? I couldn’t possibly tell you. But as luck would have it, even this gaping narrative hole is spackled over by the sheer ridiculousness of Thor and Malekith tumbling between dimensions, as Thor’s hammer Mjolnir tries to play catch-up. Nothing particularly interesting occurs from a character standpoint, but Jane, Selvig, their intern Darcy and her own intern Ian do get to play around with gravity a bit, transporting Dark Elves from one spot to another and lifting cars with their bare hands.

Does any of this matter? Your mileage may vary. It’s fun, but none of it amounts to very much. Thor swings his hammer exactly once, and the whole story is resolved when the Dark Elf ship about to crush him and Jane happens to fall through a portal instead, crushing Malekith on the other side. The coincidences never cease, and no one including Thor makes any impactful choices.

Thor goes back to space, Jane remains on Earth, and that’s pretty much the end of it. If you have vague memories of a happy reunion between the two, I’m afraid you’re thinking of a post-credits scene. Thor’s return to protect the other realms is of no lasting consequence, since he’s back on Earth in the very next film (Avengers: Age of Ultron). Loki sits on the throne of Asgard, though this too is inconsequential, since he’s taken off it just two scenes into Thor: Ragnarok.

Unlike the mistakes of past Marvel films, which were eventually course-corrected within the larger narrative, Thor: The Dark World’s issues are too deeply rooted to be fixed retroactively. The film, like the Alignment at its center, may as well have passed by without anyone taking notice.

***

Expanded from an article published April 11, 2018.

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