Thor The Dark World Revisited

(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.

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