Wolf Analysis of Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World is doing quite well for itself financially, helping insure the continued adventures of the God of Thunder and reinforcing the larger MCU at the same time. But divorced of all that, how does it measure up as a film in its own right?

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By Wolf38 - 11/17/2013
Like Star Trek into Darkness, Thor: The Dark World is darker in title than in its emotional and thematic execution as a film itself. Not for lack of low-light or ominous peril, but rather for lack of dramatic focus and lack of truly compelling character development on either side of the very blatant good/evil divide. In short, this is Thor – and Marvel Studios in general – on autopilot. All of the technical pieces seem to be present in this film, but the end result is surprisingly mundane. It is not a bad film, but it is not a particularly good film, either.

The basic premise of The Dark World is similar to that of the first Thor film – a dark, long-defeated ancient enemy of Asgard (in this case the Dark Elfdom instead of the Frost Giants) re-emerges to provide a threat. This time around, the stakes are higher as the fate of all the Nine Realms, Earth/Midgard included, is at stake. The number of significant characters in the mix is roughly the same as in the first film. Thus, the primary expression of a more epic scope is in the visuals.

Asgard itself is given a more detailed depiction, and the Earth-based portion of the story is set in London instead of New Mexico. The other setting of note is the home-realm of the Dark Elves, Svartalfheim, which may or may not be the titular Dark World. This is where the film’s first problem comes up. The Dark World is not really all that dark. It is desolate and uninviting, with soil resembling finely crushed black rock and storms raging in the nearby sky, but it does not compare to the actual darkness of the first film’s Frost Giant-inhabited Trondheim. Now, I realize that the “Dark World” is also intended to be expressed thematically, so reading too much into a physical place may be missing the point. Unfortunately anyway, the thematic punch of the film, or rather the lack thereof, is itself the biggest problem overall.

It is very easy to create a villain of grotesque appearance and malicious intent. When equipped with an arsenal of destructive technology and wrapped in a bit of mystery, said villain is all set for some striking cinematography and action sequences. But what about true drama and suspense? What about fear of the known, as well as of the unknown? It turns out that creating a truly compelling villain has just as much to do with character development as does creating a similarly compelling hero. In the case of this film, the requisite character development is in short supply across the board, but it becomes the most dramatically disabling as it relates to the lead Dark Elf, Malekith.

Christopher Eccleston is a fine choice of actor for the role. He has a distinctive look that comes through even heavy makeup and costuming, and the ability to channel an unsettling sort of screen charisma. But subsequent to Odin’s opening historical monologue about the Dark Elves, Malekith and his ilk do little more than cast malicious glares, stalk on and off of their spacecraft, and engage in physical combat with the Asgardians. Lacking is some sort of frightening insight into their psyche, other than the fact that they basically want to destroy everything that everyone else values. Certainly, that is a frightening thought, but it is also extremely impersonal. The average audience member can deduce that the Dark Elves will not succeed in this plan (we know that this film is not the end of the line), and thus there is very little actual drama in it.

There are a few plot devices ostensibly designed to inject some more personal drama into the proceedings. The primary one of these is the character arc of Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. She inadvertently becomes caught up in the machinery of Malekith’s dark designs, which puts her in direct jeopardy and naturally complicates the situation for Thor himself, due to his care for her. In a better version of this film, her story arc would be the key ingredient dramatically as well as emotionally. Unfortunately, and it is very unfortunate, Jane’s role is the most incompletely-written of all the characters. Her presence fades in and out of the story, her characterization seems inconsistent (particularly when around the Asgardians) and the screenplay does not effectively sell the idea of her personal peril as the climax unfolds.

On a more specific note, the relationship between Thor and Jane is not developed in any truly substantive way. We are well aware that they love and care about each other (in spite of the doubtful chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Portman – but that is another discussion), but more because we have been told so than that we have actually seen so. There are a couple of brief glimpses into the simmering triangle also involving Jaimie Alexander’s Lady Sif, and those glimpses are among the best moments of the film, in particular a very loaded passing glance shared between Sif and Jane. But again, there is little to no exploration beyond that.

Thus far, I have made very little mention of Thor himself, or of Tom Hiddleston’s extremely popular Loki. Yes, they are both in this film, playing key roles and doing their respective things. I am still thrilled at how well-cast both of them are for their respective characters. But after the first Thor film, and in Loki’s case the Avengers, nothing much new happens in The Dark World. Loki’s story has some typical but nonetheless intriguing twists to it, true. But again, that is just more of the same as far as he is concerned. Thor delivers some richly-voiced dialog, struggles earnestly with the manifest circumstances that surround him, and delivers heavy hammer-blows aplenty. But the character itself is not distinguished with enough compelling exploration or growth, at least not such that pushes beyond the first film. The ending of the Dark World does reveal a shift of sorts, which may bear fruit in the next Thor film.

What are the strengths of The Dark World? First of all, the visual effects are unquestionably excellent and immersive throughout, and the set and costume design is very rich as well. One does not have to try very hard to believe that he or she is actually viewing the palace halls in Asgard, or the interior of a Dark Elf spacecraft. These elements are executed so well as to be taken for granted. Digital rendering technology is really, really good these days, and the costumes and practical effects interface seamlessly themselves.

The cast is much the same as that from the first film aside from Eccleston and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as his Dark Elf sidekick Algrim. The acting talent is still the strength of this franchise, from Anthony Hopkins’ Odin down to the more briefly-seen types such as Ray Stevenson’s Volstagg. In this film specifically, two standouts are Rene Russo’s Frigga and Idris Elba’s Heimdall. Neither get much screen time, but they both make it count and contribute to the effectively immersive fantasy of Asgard.

And then there is Kat Dennings as Jane Foster’s friend/intern, Darcy Lewis. Likely to prove to be the most divisive element of the film, Darcy provides a more or less continuous line of humor throughout. I do personally feel that The Dark World leans a bit too heavily on humor for its own would-be sell of suspended-disbelief - the first film worked because it treated Asgard with majesty; that is to say, with a certain poetic/theatrical seriousness – Darcy is not really the source of problem. Neither are some of the better employments of dry wit (to paraphrase, Odin tells Frigga, “I’m still alive in spite of your worry,” and she responds, “You’re alive because of my worry.”) or pitch-perfect farce (such as when Loki takes the form of Captain America and bombards Thor with trivial banter). The problem is the one-liner-type humor that surfaces at the wrong moments, only cheapening the dramatic tension that should be building.

Oddly enough, the character of Darcy winds up being a sort of saving grace for the film. Her quirky commentary may seem a strange fit for the world of Thor, but her humor is frequently the only thing truly flickering with light during long stretches of The Dark World. In other words, it brings needed levity to what is often in danger of becoming monotonously one-note in tone.

There are some wonderful small moments in this film. One is a sequence set in a tavern and in the streets of a lower, relatively pedestrian district of Asgard, as the heroes celebrate a victory. The setting appears almost Dickensian (think A Christmas Carol) in its subtly wintry/holiday-like atmosphere, not to mention a few moments of true character intimacy. Later on in the film, there is a funeral for a significant character, conducted with beautifully poetic ritual and visual presentation. These and other fleeting glimpses of the more “human” side of Asgard provide windows, however brief, into the sort of storytelling that could really yield a great Thor film. Large-scale cosmic bombast is great, but the best tales are often the ones that are more focused on the nuances of what goes on inside people.

What I personally would like to see, should Thor get a third solo installment in Marvel’s Phase 3 (which seems likely), is a tighter, more focused story. Something that breaks some new ground in terms of plot and provides an opportunity for deeper character development. What of the obvious tension between Thor-Jane-Sif? Will we see more screen time for the Warriors Three or Heimdall? Can Loki broaden himself beyond his well-worn niche as the charismatic but repetitive troublemaker? There is plenty of potential for further exploration and new directions all around. The Ending of The Dark World furnishes a few obvious jumping-off points, to be sure. I would not mind seeing Kenneth Branagh return to the directors’ chair, although Alan Taylor seems to be at least competent and is probably not personally responsible for this film’s shortcomings.

Again, Thor: The Dark World is not a bad film. Marvel Studios, by my estimation at least, has yet to produce a truly bad film, certainly not anything on the level of Green Lantern or X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Rather, The Dark World represents, perhaps poetically, the darker side of franchise filmmaking. It is an expected and necessary installment in a continuing story, one starring characters that the audience is already attached to - but it does not offer something worthy of a great standalone film or adequately expand the continuity beyond its predecessors.

As a singular entity, this film possesses very little distinguishing character. The gears of Avengers-level plot machinations turn, but the Thorverse itself gains little for its effort. What The Dark World ultimately yields is a decent but largely mundane further chapter, one which fits alongside previous less-than-fantastic Marvel Studios efforts such as The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2. In the spirit of optimism, hopefully this chapter at least proves to provide the setup for better things to come.
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