Thor: The Dark World
Release Date: November 8, 2013
Director: Alan Taylor
Writers: Christopher Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (screenplay); Don Payne and Robert Rodat (story); Stan Lee and Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby (comic book)
Stars:Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston
MPAA Rating: PG-13
In a surprisingly candid interview with The Huffington Post‘s Mike Ryan, Thor: The Dark World‘s director Alan Taylor conceded that his film was front-loaded with exposition in order to get the setup out of the way so that the film could get to the action, an approach that was clearly not his first choice.
“I think my impulse is always to sort of trust the audience and to not feed it too directly,” said Taylor. “But, obviously, there’s a very successful model for these things that seems to work very well. So, who am I to quibble?”
I bring this up not just because it is refreshing to hear a director speak so candidly about the process of making a big budget Hollywood franchise film, but also because I think it speaks to the making of Thor: The Dark World as a whole. It’s clear that Taylor is a creative and talented director who has an unique approach to making a superhero film, but because these Avengers films have become such big business, he’s only going to be given so much freedom to express that creativity. Ultimately, there is a formula to be followed and Taylor or any other director will only be able to add minor tweaks and flourishes to that formula.
The film opens with that lengthy exposition that Taylor talked about. Via voiceover, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) explains that before the universe was created, there was darkness. And in that darkness lived the dark elves. They liked things better back then and would really like to return the world to nothingness. But they can only do this when all of the nine realms in the universe are in perfect alignment, which only happens once every few hundred years, but, as luck would have it, is slated to happen again right now.
From there, we pick up sometime after The Avengers. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is imprisoned in Asgard for his crimes. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is traveling around the nine realms with his crew to remind them who’s boss.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) stumbles across a wormhole that transports her to another realm. While there, she is possessed by the Aether, the mysterious force the elves must wield in order to bring the universe back into the darkness. Jane’s discovery of the Aether awakens Malekith (Christopher Eccelston), the leader of the dark elves, and his followers, who try to track her down. Thor gets to her first and brings her back to Asgard.
The plot sounds overly complicated, but essentially it boils down to this: Jane Foster is in possession of a McGuffin, which a powerful villain wants control of. Thor will do whatever he can to protect her and save the realms. Unfortunately, he has to turn to Loki, the brother who betrayed him, for help against Malekith. Lots of punching and hijinks ensue.
The powers that be at Marvel and Disney know what they are doing with this franchise. As Taylor alluded to, there is a “very successful model” for these films. And Thor: The Dark World is careful to follow that model. It has a lot of action, a romantic subplot (or two) and a nice dose of comic relief. It’s not earth-shattering. However, Taylor does a good job making the film stand out, even within its limited parameters.
For one thing, he makes amazing use of lighting and color to make the film visually stunning. Aesthetically, it may be the best film in the Marvel universe. Taylor plays around with contrast a lot. The Aether is represented by a dark red cloud. Malekith has a pure white skintone. The realm where he confronts Thor is a desaturated, barren wasteland. There were so many moments in the film where I just found myself taken by the beauty of a particular shot or moment. It’s quite an achievement.
Taylor and his crew also do an amazing job with the climax of the film. When the nine realms are all aligned, more wormholes are opened, making it easy to pass from one realm to another. Taylor makes the most of this, finding a very fluid way to stage the action as Thor and Malekith pop around from world to world with no control over where they’ll end up. It’s a creatively-written final battle that is made even better by the way it is shot and composed.
The acting in the film is solid all around. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki continues to be the best thing in the Avengers universe, though I must admit watching the film I missed the way his dialogue sounded when Joss Whedon was writing for him. Chris Hemsworth is a perfect Thor and he makes a really wonderful straight man. And it goes without saying that Anthony Hopkins is brilliant as Odin. I also really love Kat Dennings, who provides most of the comic relief as Jane’s intern Darcy.
There are two actors that feel misused. The first is Christopher Eccelston as Malekith. For one thing, Eccelston is unrecognizable in the role because of all of the make up. On top of that, the character is so dull and underdeveloped that I’m surprised they bothered to get an accomplished actor to play the part. He feels like a slasher movie villain, traveling around wreaking havoc with very little humanity or personality.
The other misused actor is Stellan Skarsgård as Erik Selvig. The writers clearly were unsure what to do with the character, so they decided to make him crazy following the events of The Avengers. The first time we see him, he’s on television in his underwear causing public mayhem. He was such an integral part of The Avengers (his technological expertise saves the day), so it’s disappointing to see him relegated to (bad) comic relief.
Still, in spite of those two missteps, the film still works. It doesn’t live up to the highs of The Avengers, but it’s one of the stronger solo hero films thanks to some inventive cinematography and strong performances from the cast, particularly Hiddleston.
And, as always, make sure that if you see the film you stay through to the end for not one, but two Easter Eggs during the credits. They are both fun, though the Marvel film universe has gotten so complex at this point that I couldn’t tell if the first Easter Egg was setting up the next Avengers movie or the next Thor movie. In either case, the film being teased will no doubt follow the established “very successful model.”
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.