Thor: The Dark World is yet another example of wasted potential. Patty Jenkins was originally the director, but after butting heads with Marvel Studios throughout pre-production, she exited the film, citing creative differences. She would go on to make Wonder Woman for DC. Whoops.
Alan Taylor was brought in as her replacement, and in theory, this should have still worked. Taylor was a director for Game of Thrones, and his expertise in creating a fantasy world fits well for the Thor aesthetic. Asgard finally looks and feels like an actual place, with several different locations such as training grounds, dungeons, bars, and gardens filled with Asgardian citizens. The designs for the film are tremendous. Everyone’s costumes look and feel much more practical and natural, the design for the Dark Elves is appropriately spooky and they’re almost always shot and lit in such a way that they appear genuinely creepy. The Dark Elf and Asgardian weapons and ships are unique and inspired, and all of them colliding during the invasion of Asgard create a thrilling, large-scale, Star Wars-esque battle that is visually impressive.
All of these appealing visuals end up going absolutely nowhere though. Thor: The Dark World doesn’t seem to really be about anything, and the film and all of its characters are left to simply spin their wheels and wait for something to happen. Thor doesn’t go through any sort of arc or change, and by the end is the exact same person in the exact same place he was at the start. The rainbow bridge is rebuilt, apparently without too much difficulty, rendering Thor’s heroic sacrifice in destroying it in the previous film totally pointless. He misses Jane and periodically asks Heimdall (the always great Idris Elba) to check up on her for him. Why Thor can’t simply go see Jane and spend some time with her isn’t clear. They say he’s been too busy stopping wars and pillagers across the Nine Realms, but then he’s shown chit-chatting with his dad and partying with his friends on Asgard.
Jane is studying the Convergence, an aligning of all the worlds that only happens once every few thousands years or so (what a coincidence!). It’s making parts of the world all funky, with spikes in gravity and portals opening up all over. Jane is in London to study the phenomenon, and this choice of location for the Earth-set scenes is also pointless and never taken full advantage of, other than one gag where Thor takes the London Underground to get back into the fight. Poor Natalie Portman is completely wasted yet again in this film, stumbling into a portal and finding the Aether, an Infinity Stone that infects her, turning her into the literal object of the film. Thor shows up immediately and takes her to Asgard. Why couldn’t he do that before?
This wakes up Malekith, leader of the Dark Elves, from an ancient sleep and he goes to Asgard to either seek revenge on them or get the Aether. We’re not ever really told what his initial goal in going to Asgard is, or if he even knows that the Aether is there. In fact, we don’t really know anything about Malekith, so he easily and instantly becomes the MCU’s worst villain. Malekith wants the Aether so he can plunge the universe into darkness (whatever that means). How the Aether can do this, or what the Aether AKA the Reality Stone does at all is incredibly vague. Malekith goes around talking about how the end is near and no one can stop him, but doesn’t do anything of significance or remotely menacing. He gets his ass kicked by Thor’s mom, gets blasted in the face by lightning, fails to take the Aether and only gets it later when Thor and Loki bring it right to him, and then is defeated by a single swing of Thor’s hammer in the finale. He has no relationship with anyone, not Thor, not Loki, not even Odin, and is just some blank, characterless bad guy the heroes have to beat.
Loki is the only one given anything to do and anywhere to go, but is then robbed of a satisfying character arc at the end. Loki is in prison for the crimes he committed during The Avengers and, presumably, the first Thor film. When the Dark Elves attack and raid the dungeons, Loki directs them toward Odin’s quarters in the hopes that they’ll take him out. That decision ends up getting his mother, who taught him all of of tricks and who he does actually care for, killed. When Thor comes by later to break Loki out of prison, we get an image of a completely distraught and disheveled God of Mischief. Surrounded by his trashed belongings, Loki, for the first time, displays true guilt and regret. When Thor gives him the opportunity for revenge, Loki jumps on it and the two of them escape Asgard with Jane to confront Malekith.
The escape from Asgard is genuinely fun, and most of that is due to Loki’s presence elevating the film and bringing some levity to it. This is followed by an actual touching scene where the brothers argue over who is responsible for their mother’s death, and Thor, with heartbreak in his eyes, says to his brother “I wish I could trust you.” Loki seemingly proves his worth in the fight against Malekith, keeping Jane from harm and sacrificing himself to save Thor. This would have been a great end for Loki’s journey, but because sequels have to happen, it turns out that his death is just a ruse that he uses to kick Odin off the throne of Asgard. Loki is robbed of actual growth and redemption, the film merely teases it and then decides to keep him exactly the same, seemingly having learned nothing. This twist and setup of having Loki ruling Asgard while disguised as Odin could be exciting, but he’s off the throne within the first fifteen minutes of Ragnarok. So much for that.
This is the main problem with The Dark World, it goes nowhere and does nothing, you don’t care about any of the characters besides Thor and Loki, and it leaves almost zero impact on the MCU, existing only to introduce the Aether (which again, we have no idea what it does) and be the first to use the words “Infinity Stone”. Kat Dennings’ Darcy is just as unfunny as ever, and this time around she gets her own intern, who does nothing, and the two share a kiss at the end, which we don’t care about. The film opens with the story of the Aether and the Dark Elves, and then this entire story is told to us again later as Odin tells it to Thor and Jane. Characters ask what happened to Selvig, and we cut to a news clip of him running around naked at Stonehenge, apparently having gone a little crazy after Loki’s brainwashing in The Avengers. Later in the film, we are shown this exact same news clip in its entirety again when Darcy and her intern watch it on tv.
None of the characters change, the stakes are way too high (not even Thanos wants to completely destroy the universe), the villain, his weapon, and his plans are incredibly vague. The Warriors Three are wasted yet again, going so far as to completely sideline one of them within the first five minutes for no reason. But our care for these characters is so little anyways that you probably didn’t even notice that Josh Dallas was replaced by Zachary Levi in this film. It looks like we’re going to get a love triangle between Thor, Jane, and Lady Sif, but then nothing comes of it and Sif is gone by the middle of the second act. Frigga, Queen of Asgard and mother of our two main characters, is someone with only a couple of lines of dialogue, someone we don’t know or care about, but is given a grandiose funeral scene that goes on forever.
Yet somehow, the film is able to keep itself afloat and prevent it all from becoming a total train wreck. As I mentioned before, everything looks the best it’s ever been, the invasion of Asgard is thrilling (Heimdall gets a really badass moment), Thor and Loki’s jailbreak is fun, and the third act, which has Thor and Malekith duking it out while jumping through portals over and over, is an original and unique action set piece that becomes a total blast. It’s not enough of a constant, but when the film decides to have some fun and insert some levity to the situations, it becomes solid for long enough to avoid being a disaster.
Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were significant disappointments in the eyes of many, and faith in Marvel’s ability to continue after The Avengers was shaken. The next film, where we catch up on what the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan has been up to, changed all that.
Connections to the MCU: The Asgardians leave the Aether in the care of The Collector, giving us our first look at the bizarre and colorful style of Guardians of the Galaxy.