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Marvel Retrospective: Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Posted: Posted April 1st
Edited April 1st by Jet Presto

Revisiting the Thor trilogy is a bit interesting, and sometimes very frustrating. Commonly regarded as among the weakest Marvel movies, Thor: The Dark World is in many ways necessary to get to the amazing, hilarious adventures of Thor: Ragnarok. Of course, knowing that doesn't make watching it any less of a slog. Not that it is bad. It's a Marvel movie; worst case scenario is a totally fine Hollywood action/adventure film, and that is true here. Yet at times, it feels like a drag.

Mostly this is due to a bland, generic villain out for revenge based on little more than bland, generic narration explaining everything to the audience. Thor films might always have this problem given they take place largely in a whole other world built more of magic and fantasy. There is a history that storytellers feel is only accessible to viewers if it is fed to them in many exposition dumps, usually kicking off the film. 

There is also a mixture of visual elements that work to various results. The cinematic ventures into the character have leaned more heavily on the science fiction side than the fantasy, which makes sense given the more "grounded" approach to Marvel's filmmaking in the first batch of movies. It mostly works, too. However, it can look a little bit strange when you get this big fantastical introductory scene only to follow it up half an hour later with a battle involving Asgardians with shields and spears fighting Dark Elves armed with lasers and black hole grenades. It doesn't quite work, but it also does set up the style for Ragnarok.

Similar to the first film, The Dark World features a lot of comic relief. Like, a lot of comic relief. No joke: the comic relief character has her own comic relief sidekick. Every main character outside Odin and Frigga have too many comedic beats. Even Dr. Selvig has been reduced to a raving lunatic, "comically" running around in his underwear or worse. Even Thor has a number of gags. On the one hand, it clashes with the super serious villain trying to destroy the realms. On the other, it again sets up the style for Ragnarok. 

There also isn't much in the way of action. It is pretty stiff and kind of boring. Some of that might simply be due to the limitations of filming with an actual cape. Movement is restricted, so what we wind up with are fights in which Thor basically stands there, still, just swinging his arm. The finale involves warping through portals, which is visually interesting, but still ultimately used for a joke. 

Once again, the humans and Earth make for some of the most uninteresting parts. Jane Foster somehow fares even worse. Still the brilliant genius/dumb girl character from the first film, she barely even gets the chance to serve as a supporting role. Mostly, she is brought into Asgard as a means for Thor to further explain the plot to the audience. After that, she is brought back in the end for a final contrived moment of movie science mumbo jumbo in arguably the only part of the film that she is an active agent in the story. Really, she is just there to be the love interest for Thor, with even less to add to the table than before. (It's telling that the film even ends with her sitting at the kitchen table literally just pining for him, waiting for him to return.) 

As for Thor: it's a very lateral move. Part of why The Dark World is just...blah...is that it really adds nothing to the character, nor does it even really try to say anything at all as a film. Take, for instance, that the film establishes that Thor might have actually grown enough to be a better leader than his father. Odin appears blinded by stubborn rage and over confidence. In the big argument between the two, Thor questions his father's strategy of throwing every Asgardian life at Malekith, asking what makes him different from the Dark Elf. Odin arrogantly shoots back that the difference is that he will win. We are not, as viewers, meant to trust Odin's judgment here. Indeed, we are actually meant to realize that Thor has grown enough from where he started in the first film to be a truly great leader. 

From that point on, we get confirmation of that. Thor injects a moral component into a solution that his father does not. We also see Thor backing away from the "punch your way out of it" trend he started with back in Thor. On top of that, he shows enough foresight to see the ways that Loki would try to betray him and comes up with a plan for that. And we see an additional level of compassion with his willingness to forgive his brother time and time again. All of these things are meant to show us that our protagonist has developed beyond that of the All Father. 

And yet, Odin was...right? Thor's plan didn't work, despite all the foresight and well-thought out planning. All he succeeded in doing was deliver the Aether to Malekith, which his father warned him might happen. Yet we never see the real Odin after their big argument. We do not get some sort of re-assertion that Odin is wiser than he seems, or that Thor might actually still have some way to go and more room to develop. What is the film trying to say here? Thor has more compassion than his father, but fails. Meanwhile, his father exhibits more of the problematic tendencies of Thor from before and is right. But then, Thor winds up saving the day despite any real plan. It is thematically very confusing. It feels like the filmmakers got so caught up in the idea of a quasi-heist film that they didn't really have any foresight themselves. 

It's not that there is nothing to take away from Thor: The Dark World. In fact, cinematically, it could be argued that no Marvel movie utilizes lightning and shadows quite like it. Yes, it still goes with the drab, muted colors the cinematic universe is, sadly, known for, but there are some rather breathtaking shots. The use of lightning is almost surprising in a franchise that largely doesn't often appear to care that much about the art of filmmaking. Shot compositions surpass anything in any Iron Man or Captain America picture. 

And yet, despite that, Thor: The Dark World feels exactly like a filler. It feels like it is there just so they had another money-making film that year. It is also there to do some of the unnecessary set-up for the underlying Thanos plotline, which has no real bearing on any of these movies up until Infinity War. 

For my money, it might be the worst Marvel film to date. And that makes it all the more frustrating to realize that so many things that I loved about Thor: Ragnarok work because it was built off of components I didn't like here. Thor was, early on, the strangest property for Marvel to adapt at that point. His solo films are, perhaps, the strangest ones in the Marvel cinematic universe. 


Current Rankings of my Favorites as I Revisit:

1. Captain America: First Avenger
2. Iron Man 2
3. The Avengers
4. Iron Man
5. Thor
6. Iron Man 3
7. The Incredible Hulk
8. Thor: The Dark World

There are 9 Replies

I forgot to add that bringing Jane Foster to Asgard also *hinted* at a possible romantic plot involving Lady Sif. That gets set up pretty early on in the film, and then completely vanishes. I think a "love triangle" plot wouldn't have been super great itself, but I think it would have made for a more interesting film. Almost shades more Shakespearean in the sort of political drama that would unfold if Thor decided to be involved with a human woman rather than the expected, more "suitable" Sif.

I can't tell if they were hoping to explore that in future Thor films before they just let Taika Waititi reset things, but I kinda forgot that that was one such plot thread that goes nowhere and is abandoned as suddenly as it is introduced.

Posted April 1st by Jet Presto

It's funny that you didn't touch at all on the one part of this film that I think worked: most of the stuff with Loki. His reaction to Frigga and his dynamic with Thor are highlights that for me are enough to lift this one above The Incredible Hulk (but no higher as far as MCU films go). I think Frigga herself was also pretty great, and it made me wish she had had more development in the first film. That's about all the positives I can muster about this one--there's definitely some good comedy in here, but as you said, there's an overabundance of it (I personally also think the same is true of Ragnarok, but the humor there is mostly better done and it's surrounding a much more interesting story). I believe this was also the first MCU film to mention Infinity Stones by name, for what it's worth.

I didn't like any of the Earth characters in this film, really. As you pointed out, Selvig degenerated into mostly obnoxious comic relief, and Jane was, well, Jane. Darcy is fine as comic relief but doesn't add much beyond that, and that's doubly true for her intern. Maybe this is hindsight since it worked well in Ragnarok, but I wonder if this movie might have been better served staying on Asgard the whole time. Maybe cutting out the Earth characters and the unconvincing Thor/Jane relationship would have given them more time to explore both the world and to build up a conflict in a more organic, less expositiony way. Plus, having the final battle take place on Asgard would have neatly sidestepped the whole "hey, reality is ending, so why doesn't Thor call in the Avengers to help save it" thing.

My suspicion is that setting it entirely on Asgard wouldn't solve all of the problems with this film, though, precisely because the villain is so bland. Marvel films are mostly mediocre with villains, but Malekith sits with Ronan in a class of their own as far as the least interesting MCU villains go. He's literally just a generic doomsday guy who wants to destroy reality...because? And he doesn't really have any semblance of a personality--MCU villains like Hela don't really have much more going on as far as their motivations are concerned, but at least they're entertaining while being unabashedly evil. It doesn't help that the Dark Elves are functionally similar to the Frost Giants from the first film as generic ancient foes of Asgard. The whole character, and probably the whole villain/plotline in general, really needed to be revamped for this film to stand a chance IMO.

Good observations on the whole debate between Odin and Thor in this film. Odin's arguments are barely there, and he's clearly showing far less compassion and critical thinking than Thor is. We're clearly meant to see him as being rash and driven by revenge, not pragmatic or rational (if he had any strategy other than sheer brute force, maybe, but...). So yeah, him technically being right is a bit of a mess as far as the message goes. I mean, people get things right for the wrong reasons and vice-versa all the time in real life, but that's not typically how movies work...and I don't think this was intended as a clever subversion.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a love triangle that I thought really added something to the show/movie/what have you. It's a tired trope that's often pure manufactured drama. But I suppose it would be better than Thor and Jane simply being perfect for each other despite having little in common and spending little time together. And especially better than watching Thor pine after her when he was literally just on Earth--if he was so enamored of her, you'd think he'd at least make some time to see her then. Sif is a character I kinda wish they had done more with, but I understand the actress's TV commitments make it hard to use her anymore. And I suppose it's likely that we wouldn't have gotten Valkyrie if Sif were still available, so there are always trade-offs.

Posted April 2nd by white lancer

I don't necessarily mean to say that I want a love triangle because I think those are good stories. I'm also pretty sure that there would be their own set of problems with what I imagine would have been about two women fighting for the affection of their hunky man. But I think they could have used that dynamic to flesh out the world of Asgard - the traditions, norms, cultural expectations - as well as give a little more screen time to Sif. It just seemed like Thor taking up with an Earth woman was or would have been controversial, but that plot element disappears as soon as they realize the Aether is in her and then the subsequent larger threat from the Dark Elves takes hold. But I do think there was a potentially interesting story there, especially since all three characters in the triangle - Sif, Thor, and Jane - would all be feeling mixtures of feelings. I just think that would have given more insight into the world and lore of Asgard. Not saying that should have been the focus, but I felt like they were sort of trying to set it up.

I didn't really get into the Loki and Thor stuff, you're right. It does work pretty well, and that too sets up what happens in Ragnarok. The Thor/Loki dynamic always works pretty well. It was even some of the best moments in Avengers. I didn't necessarily appreciate all the fakery at the end. I also think it gets a little confusing as to how much they planned together versus how much was Thor expecting betrayal versus Loki was playing Thor. Which in part is why it works, but when it ends the way that it did, it just sort of leaves a few, like, "What?" head scratches. But yeah, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston play off of each other incredibly well. They might easily have the best dynamic of any Marvel duo.

I think part of why the comedy works better for Ragnarok, also, is that Ragnarok is played straight up more like a comedy. Not to say it doesn't get dark: it obviously does. But even the villain has this sort of funny or goofy-ish side that is throughout her scenes. So even when it's at its darkest, there is still a source of comedy present and it doesn't ultimately take itself too seriously even in those moments. The Dark World definitely takes itself seriously.

Posted April 2nd by Jet Presto

I guess I will also just touch upon the fact that part of why I find the Dark World a bit of a slog is its reliance on tiresome tropes, particularly with its female characters. I think with a love triangle drama angle, handled well, you could inject a level of agency for Jane Foster, Lady Sif, and even Frigga that they otherwise lack in this picture. Jane's primary role in the film is to be the object in need of saving. Frigga's primary role is be a woman in the refrigerator. Lady Sif basically is used by Odin to make a point, then falls into the background like the first film.

I certainly appreciate that Frigga seems capable with a blade, and she's a great character. It was neat to see her use a trick we've seen Loki use before, so we get insight into that relationship (and her relationship with Loki is actually pretty great too, I should say). But overall, she is just there to be killed to further motivate our (male) characters. It just kinda sucks that after decades of these types of scenarios, the best they could think of to do was kill Thor's mom and imperil his love interest. So on the one hand, a lot is made about how the villain lacks any interesting motivation. On the other, a big part of it is that so does Thor and Loki. It's not that the motivation doesn't make sense. It's just that we've seen this over and over and over again (especially if you're a long time comic book reader.)

Posted April 2nd by Jet Presto

I genuinely enjoyed this movie and the comic relief characters and comedy are a big reason why. I miss Natalie Portman and her friend in Thor 3 which is why I didn’t see it in theatres to begin with. I would rank it much higher than you do. Thor 1 and 2 would be near the top for me.

Posted April 2nd by I killed Mufasa
I killed Mufasa
long live the king

Completely fair. I kind of was struck by just how much traditional comedy is in both of those Thor films. Ragnarok plays more like a typical comedy in terms of its genre, but there are a lot of jokes and gags throughout the first two Thors that make it seem very much like they thought it should be funnier. The ratio is pretty high, even for a Marvel film at that time.

The jokes don't really work for me, but comedy is almost the most subjective art out there. I can totally see why if the jokes landed for you or other people, that would elevate the film.

(And just to be clear: I do *like* the film. There is only one Marvel film that I genuinely don't like and really hate watching, and even then it's got a lot of great elements to it. I think all of these are pretty solid, fun Hollywood blockbusters.)

Posted April 2nd by Jet Presto

I'm just wary of love triangles because I almost never see them done well. In theory, I think most of them are intended to give all characters involved some development, but in practice they usually drag a movie/show down. Of course, that's assuming that the alternative is worth watching in the first place, and in this case I can't imagine a love triangle being worse. I suppose the whole potential scandal of an Asgardian prince loving an Earth woman would be compounded by the whole humans having much shorter lives than Asgardians thing. As far as Sif herself goes, I read somewhere that she was intended to play a bigger role in this film, but her role was cut down because the actress got injured. So perhaps they did intend to explore this more but were forced to change their plans.

As far as Loki goes, he's the god of mischief, so I didn't mind the fakery at the end. Seems totally in keeping with his character to have these convoluted manipulations, and it's also typical of him to aid Thor while also taking advantage of an opportunity to help himself. The setup at the end is of course undone immediately by Ragnarok, but his actions here paint him as sort of at a midway point that makes his redemption in Ragnarok pay off that much more.

The fridging of Frigga is even more problematic by how blatant it was--they weren't really all that interested in her as a character, or else they would have given her literally anything to do in the first film, so they only developed her here as a means of showing the audience why this would motivate Thor, Odin, and Loki. Maybe it wouldn't stand out so much if there were other strong female characters here, but...

Posted April 4th by white lancer

I think part of it, too, is that the first Thor film has sort of a quasi-Shakespearean feel to the story (which makes sense given, ya know, Kenneth Branagh). I think that type of story in Thor 2 would have continued that a little bit. But yeah, I'm comparing this idea in my head to what the final product actually was. There are plenty of other directions it could go in.

The thing about Loki's trickery at the end is just that we've seen it so much by then. I get that he's the God of Mischief, and I'm by no means saying he should have been killed at the end. (He shouldn't have been.) But I mean, that whole, "PSYCH! LOKI'S NOT REALLY DEAD!" was literally the end of the first film. It just feels a little repetitive to end it that way here, too.

The undoing is sort of a funny thing with Thor films. You really notice with this franchise how, despite all the talk of Marvel's planning, they still kinda totally do make things up as they go. Not that they don't have a larger plan or anything.

Thor 1 - ends with the Rainbow Bridge destroyed so Thor can't return to Earth.

Literally the next Thor film - Thor just warps to Earth like it's nothing because apparently the Bridge has been repaired off screen.

Thor 2 - ends with Loki assuming the identity of Odin, so that he may rule Asgard while his brother goes off on a sort of sabbatical.

Thor 3 - starts with Thor exposing Loki and finding Odin. Ends with Asgard destroyed and the people off to find a new place.

Infinity War - starts with Thanos and company wiping out the Asgardian ships *right* after they escaped the destruction of Asgard.

They've pretty much immediately undone however the last Thor movie ended every single time there's another one.

(I also think that I kinda prefer Loki as a villain more than I enjoy him as a sort of secret good guy. There's been a trend even in the comics of making him a heroic figure, just because people liked him in the movies. And I dunno. That redemption arc works for the movies, but I wish they didn't do it in the comics)

Posted April 4th by Jet Presto

The Thor movies in particular have been pretty bad about that, though I have to think the Loki-as-Odin plot was originally going to be a bigger one until they decided to essentially reboot with Ragnarok. And as fun as they are, the Avengers films like to toss a lot of what could have been setup for future plotlines so they don't have to explain the team getting together. Didn't happen too much in the first film outside of the Thor thing you mentioned since most of the setup was actually for the movie (and, I suppose, doesn't really bother with Fury thinking Iron Man wasn't suitable for the Avengers), but Age of Ultron has both Iron Man and Captain America as active members of the Avengers despite their films indicating that they were retiring and searching for Bucky, respectively (and also basically immediately destroys HYDRA and even kinda returns SHIELD, undoing any setup Winter Soldier might have had with those as far as the movies are concerned). Infinity War immediately gave Thor his eye back and eventually a new weapon, had Spider-Man all excited to join the Avengers even though not joining the Avengers was part of the point of his film, and had Vision suddenly all cool with the anti-Accords group. Not to mention Civil War completely ignoring the whole new Avengers lineup that Age of Ultron set up. I guess it's hard to make a real through-line when each of these movies need to be able to stand on their own, and when there are other considerations like wanting to keep marketable characters like Iron Man around.

Posted April 4th by white lancer
Reply to: Marvel Retrospective: Thor: The Dark World (2013)
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