Whatever germ of a good idea existed in the films of the extended Marvel universe has been completely extinguished with Thor: The Dark World. The writing was on the wall with the nonsensical plot-line and retread themes of Iron Man 3 and the drab disappointment of The Avengers, but those films had the luxuries of Robert Downey Jr. in front of the camera with Shane Black and Joss Whedon behind. They may have been dull, but at least they came with the odd chuckle now and again.
The Dark World does not have that luxury and is the Marvel equivalent of Green Lantern, a soulless and drab film that aims for the lowest hurdle of storytelling and still can’t clear the mark. It’s gross and general critical response is proof that the audience for these films isn’t interested in any kind of quality entertainment or evolving story. Instead they are empty reassurances that the characters they watched in better films still exist and will be back in the future. They’re feature-length Skinner Boxes with diminishing returns, and I have to wonder when people will stop consuming this empty nourishment and move elsewhere.
The film starts sometime before the events of Thor and after the events of The Avengers. Anthony Hopkins’ voice gives the details of a race of Dark Elves that did battle with Asgard and hoped to harness an ultimate weapon to destroy their rivals. Already the basis of this plot has elements appeared in Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers, and also the upcoming Guardians of the Universe. It’s no wonder the heroes of The Dark World seem bored as the Dark Elves managed to harness but one of hundreds of devastating weapons – what’s one more to add to the mix?
Through a series of contrivances too rote to elaborate on, the secret weapon slumbers before imprinting itself on Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) lady-love Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). This provides Ms. Portman with the unenviable role of being poisoned by a plot that requests she walk around in various states of dazed, either through puppy love or disease, and do as little acting as possible. It doesn’t provide the same kind of material for an embarrassing gaff reel as Halle Berry’s superhero efforts, but these films should have something better to do with their Oscar winners.
Instead the likes of Hopkins and Stellan Skarsgard are left to spout dialogue from an especially bad Shakespeare fan fiction in increasingly bland environments. I wasn’t sure how The Dark World was able to lessen its visual appeal from the empty corridors of Thor’s home world, but the endless gray skies and charred landscape recall a construction yard more than an alien battleground. There’s a few images that look decent in stills, but seem to have been ripped straight from the comics as an inspiration for a shot rather than acting as guides to build visual grammar for the film.
The director, Alan Taylor, is a terrible choice to bring this superhero film to the screen. He has directed episodes of Mad Men and Bored to Death, shows that deal with existential alienation and a lot of dialogue - not vast cosmic battles. There are moments where he does not seem to know what to do as he pulls the camera far away when characters are making powerful declarations and tends to zoom in on actions like a frown or holding hands. That might work in a story about people struggling to connect, but all the lines of hatred and love from the previous film are still intact. This visual confusion translates into fight scenes that mash characters together like an eight-year old with action figures and a depressed worldview. When I was eight I constructed a five–foot tall robot and had my toys stage an epic battle against the plastic monstrosity – surely at least one member of the production team had a kid to take design ideas from.
All of the performers tune their ability to the lackluster presentation. Hemsworth still struggles with being heard over the soundtrack with his dull readings while Hopkins emotes just enough to let the audience know he received a paycheck for this. I was hoping that Christopher Eccleston would be able to add some manic energy to the mix, especially with Skarsgard still mucking around with what’s left of his sanity, but there is little he can do trapped behind the mask of makeup and requirements of being a mostly silent villain. The rest of the supporting cast, containing the mighty Idris Elba, Jaimie Alexander, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, languish as little more than props.
Which brings me to an overarching problem with The Dark World's imagery. It's not hard to take the associative steps needed to get from the Dark Elves - who fly around in giant crosses, wear white masks over white skin, and want to purify the universe - to one of America's most notorious racist groups. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) continues on as the most popular character from the Thor line because he's actually the hero who actively yearns to topple the might is right arrogance of the Asgardians, Hiddleston's charisma is just a nice bonus. The only reason the Asgardians, who certainly have no problem requesting the lesser folks to stand back and pay lip service to Thor, are the heroes is because the Dark Elves are more overt with their attempts to correct the universe. I don't expect the films to ever acknowledge this directly, but it's distressing that these stories end in a return to the status quo of the mighty Asgardians doing as they see fit with the universe.
The refusal to acknowledge that regressive status quo is why the Marvel films continue to suffer. I watch them because their existence is unique - we rarely see so many films that actively build on one another to appear as a living universe. It's just not an evolving one and the success of the model allows recycling of the same basic film we watched six years ago. I'll keep on in the hopes that Thor picks up the hammer and decides to throw Asgard into chaos, but for now I'll have to sit and stew as "the right ones" lead the way.
Hopefully someone will keep Loki out of that damn room next time.
Directed by Alan Taylor.
Screenplay written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely.
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, and Christopher Eccleston.