Thor: The Dark World (the second Thor film, the second film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s Phase Two and the eighth MCU film overall) is generally considered the worst — or at the very least among the worst — the MCU has to offer. A quick check over at Metacritic shows that, remarkably, every single MCU movie scores above a 50. I say “remarkably” because this really is quite a feat. Critics — especially the ones “good enough” for Metacritic, which tends to only consider reviews written for major publications of some renown — tend to be quite snobbish. They understand that blockbusters have their place and will rally around good ones like The Dark Knight or Mad Max: Fury Road, but they strongly dislike the dominance of empty-headed action movies at 21st century multiplexes. When given the chance, they will pile on, like in the case of 2016‘s stupidly misguided Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which clocked in at just a 44. Or 2017‘s impossibly messy Justice League, which registered a 45.
Those movies, however, form the core of the DC Extended Universe, which is entirely different from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most people, of course, will throw up their hands and say it’s all the same thing, but the characters in each universe are entirely different and for the most part so are the actors and creative figures behind the camera. (I say “for the most part” because after director Zack Snyder had to leave during the shooting of Justice League, Avengers director Joss Whedon came in and directed the rest of it.) It’s to Marvel Studios‘ and especially producer Kevin Feige‘s great credit that all of the MCU movies are above average in quality. Having said that, Thor: The Dark World registers the lowest score thus far in the MCU with a 54; it’s one of just three to receive a score in the yellow “mixed or average reviews” range of 40-59. The other two are 2011‘s Thor, which registered a 57, and 2010‘s Iron Man 2, which also registered a 57. The rest, with one notable exception, fall within the green 60-79 range of “generally favorable reviews.” The exception? 2018‘s Black Panther, which scored a sky-high 88.
I didn’t care all that much about Thor when I originally saw it, so skipping The Dark World was an easy decision for me when it hit theaters in November 2013. Whereas Iron Man 3 was able to carry the massive amount of Avengers momentum from a year earlier to a $1.2 billion worldwide gross when it kicked off the summer movie season earlier in 2013, Thor: The Dark World managed a comparatively limp $644 million worldwide take on a $170 million production budget. Even though The Dark World was almost certainly profitable — it made almost four times its budget back — the total still must have been somewhat disappointing for Disney, despite the sequel taking in almost $200 million more than the 2011 Thor. However, there were some critical hurdles The Dark World had to overcome, and it managed to overcome those obstacles. First, Iron Man 3 wasn’t that great. Second, the first Thor film wasn’t that great, nor was it particularly popular. And third, the reviews for The Dark World weren’t that great either. That’s three “not that great”s working decidedly not in The Dark World‘s favor in terms of getting fannies in the seats.
How is the movie itself? Not bad, but it’s missing something. At first, it wasn’t clear to me what exactly that is, but after going back and re-reading my review of the first film, it hit me: what I had enjoyed about the first movie was that it didn’t take itself that seriously, at least during the stretches of the film on Earth where Thor is a fish out of water. Since Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has already spent time during Thor and The Avengers acclimating to life on Earth, The Dark World simply can’t play that card. What the film does instead is invert this dynamic and have Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) spend a large chunk of The Dark World in Thor’s home realm of Asgard. It’s not the most original idea in the world, but it’s not the worst one either. They manage to get her there in a way that’s suitably interesting: when Jane’s intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) interrupts a date Jane is on to inform her that astrophysical anomalies have popped up, Jane manages to stumble through a portal to another world.
But if you were thinking this other world is Asgard, you would be wrong. What actually is happening is a once-every-five-thousand-year cosmic event called the Convergence — when all of the nine realms align, causing portals that link the worlds together to randomly appear. Where Jane is instead transported to is the realm of Svartalfheim, the home world of the Dark Elves. I mentioned in my review of Thor that that movie opened with a Lord of the Rings-like prologue, and I can report that The Dark World does as well. Both prologues are narrated by Anthony Hopkins, who as Odin is not only king of Asgard, but therefore is also the steward of his people’s traditions, histories and lore. Here, Odin sheds light on how, during the last Convergence five thousand years ago, Odin’s father Bor defeated the mighty Dark Elf Malekith in a thunderous clash of kings. At the root of the (presumably bloody, if this were rated R) conflict is a weapon called the Aether, which, it seems to me, was to this war what mustard gas was to World War I.
If you’ll recall from history class, chemical weapons came to prominence during World War I, resulting in 1.3 million casualties. However, chemical weapons were used far less frequently during World War II (at least in combat — the Holocaust was obviously another story), mostly due to the significant update in tactics. Whereas in World War I troops stood around in trenches, militaries in World War II were fully mechanized, utilizing tanks, battleships and airplanes. Consequently, chemical weapons understandably just weren’t in as much demand anymore on the field of battle. Chemical weapons have surfaced now and again in the years since (such as in Syria), but in general their use has been rare — even by brutal dictators. Still, both the Allied and Axis powers stockpiled chemical weapons between the wars, even if they weren’t used in WWII like they were in WWI.
Well, at the conclusion of the battle at the beginning of The Dark World (i.e., the one that took place five thousand years ago), the Aether weapon is deemed too problematic to continue using — Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) had intended to destroy all nine realms with it — so Bor builds a vault-like column that safely encases the Aether inside it. I mentioned during my review of Thor that the opening battle bore some similarities to the one in the great Game of Thrones episode “Hardhome.” As luck would have it, I was reminded of Game of Thrones yet again during Odin’s opening narration, in which he describes the Aether as having the power to plunge the nine realms into darkness. One of the planned successor shows to Game of Thrones will take place during the “Long Night,” the period during the so-called “Age of Heroes” in which the White Walkers first emerged under cover of a darkness that lasted a generation.
To be more precise about the history presented in The Dark World, Malekith “sought to transform our universe into one of eternal night. Such evil was possible through the power of the Aether, an ancient force of infinite destruction.” Since when do comic book movies acknowledge such matters this existentially? This is more akin to Oppenheimer’s quoting of “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” from the Bhagavad Gita after the success of the Manhattan Project. I would revise my mustard gas analogy, but given what happens to Jane during her sojourn on Svartalfheim, I think I’ll stick with it. Jane comes across Bor’s column containing the Aether and infects herself after reaching into it. Thor is alerted by Heimdall (Idris Elba) that Jane is no longer visible from his guard post at the end of the reconstructed Bifröst — which I must again point out really does look like the Rainbow Road track in Mario Kart — and quickly transports himself to Earth.
By this time, Jane has passed through another portal as a result of the Convergence and is back on Earth. After a quick and amusing reunion, Thor whisks her off to Asgard, marking the end of a somewhat prolonged beginning. Script-wise, this seems to come both too late and too early, since at this point the film is far from over. In fact, Jane arrives in Asgard just in time for Malekith and his Dark Elves to invade. That’s right: Malekith may have been defeated in the prologue but he and some other Dark Elves still managed to escape, placing themselves into hibernation until the next Convergence; when the Aether infects Jane, Malekith and the Dark Elves awaken. After a brief Star Wars-y siege of the palace — one that is strangely reminiscent of the palace on Naboo in The Phantom Menace (a force field is even deployed as a means of protecting the palace) — Malekith and his lieutenant Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) kill Thor’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo), who dies protecting Jane.
Meanwhile, Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), fresh off his stint as the big villain in The Avengers, is locked up in the Asgardian dungeons. If my summary of the plot seems pretty herky-jerky for introducing this development so late and essentially burying the lede, it’s because the movie itself basically does the same, though not in the same way. Following the prologue, Loki is brought before Odin, is sentenced to imprisonment in the dungeons, and stays there for an hour. Following Frigga’s murder, Thor pays Loki a visit and convinces him to help him avenge their mother’s death. After another Star Wars-y sequence somewhat reminiscent of the pod race from The Phantom Menace, Thor, Loki and Jane break out of Asgard and find themselves on Svartalfheim, where Malekith and his cronies fled earlier after the siege. The board now set, the pieces move accordingly toward a suitably spectacular, CGI-laden conclusion.
At the helm this time is director Alan Taylor, whose lengthy résumé includes directing episodes of not just the aforementioned Game of Thrones, but also Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Rome, Lost, Deadwood, Six Feet Under and The West Wing. Without question, he’s an A-list director when it comes to TV. Here’s the thing though: directors who make a name for themselves in TV rarely cross over to have success directing movies, mostly because directing for TV is a lot different than directing for film. On a TV show, the director comes in and executes the vision of the writer/showrunner; TV directors, by design, don’t leave their mark on episodes they direct and more or less serve in a supporting role. With a movie, the director is the captain of the creative ship and is responsible for all of the creative decisions.
The MCU, however, is somewhat new territory since it’s a series in movie form, and producer Kevin Feige is the equivalent of the showrunner. In this context, Taylor is not as much of a left-field choice — he’s essentially doing what he’s always done, just on a much larger scale. And he does just fine with The Dark World — the film’s weaknesses are more due to its scripting than its directing, since the story turns out to be a bit amorphous. The biggest issue? Jane is never really in any palpable danger even though she has been “infected” with the Aether. Although Odin claims the Aether will kill her, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Let’s be honest here: the Aether exists as a way to get Jane from Earth to Asgard (so she can be examined by Odin’s crack medical team) to Svartalfheim (so she can be inadvertently cured when Loki tricks Malekith into drawing the Aether out of her) and back to Earth for the climax. The seams certainly show if you watch the movie knowing that this is their way of shoehorning Jane into the story’s events.
The problem is it’s cheap. Before we really get used to Jane being infected with the Aether, she doesn’t have to deal with it any longer. Instead, we have to gear up for a climax that is kind of hard to care about: Malekith unleashing the Aether in Greenwich, England, which (and this is legitimately amusing) is the center of the Convergence. (At last, we learn why the plot demanded that Jane be in London in the first act.) As with Iron Man 3, there isn’t a particularly compelling need for this movie to exist, even by escapist entertainment standards. What we wind up with is certainly functional, reasonably well made and of the highest technical proficiency, but it does take itself a bit more seriously than its predecessor, which I find to be to the film’s detriment. I’m not entirely sure why, but somehow this shift in tone makes the Aether and Malekith and everything associated with all that seem more arbitrary and interchangeable than it all otherwise would be.
If you are interested in reading about how Thor: The Dark World looks and sounds on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, I would recommend checking out the review on Blu-ray.com. Whereas the first Thor film was shot on 35mm film, The Dark World was shot entirely digitally — depending on the scene, it was shot at 2.8K or 5K — and finished on a 2K digital intermediate. The resulting 4K image is an upscale of that finished 2K image, and it’s worth pointing out (as I do in most of these reviews) that a true 4K image of the film will never exist since it was initially completed at 2K. That being said, Disney does a better job with its UHD transfer for The Dark World than it did with its UHD transfer for Thor. Although Thor looks fine in 4K, it’s been tampered with to look like it wasn’t shot on film (and more closely match The Dark World‘s digital look). The Dark World doesn’t suffer that same fate since it was shot digitally in the first place and of the two is the one to watch in 4K. (Disclaimer: the screenshots I have taken for this review are from the standard Blu-ray disc. At this time I do not have a way of doing screenshots from 4K Blu-ray discs.)