When The Avengers became the second highest grossing movie of all time with $623 million in Summer 2012, it put “Phase Two” of Marvel’s cinematic universe in a tedious predicament. On the bright side, it all but guaranteed that each “Phase Two” movie would be some kind of blockbuster, and so far that’s been the case thanks to Iron Man 3’s $400 million summer, still the highest grossing movie of the year, and the fact that Thor: The Dark World should have no problem eclipsing the original’s $180 million tally. But it also put these movies in quite a creative dilemma, for not only must they act as sequels to their respective franchises and expand their established characters and worlds, but they also must push the ideas and story elements of The Avengers and help gear up for 2015’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Unfortunately, these “Phase Two” sequels are more like “double sequels” and as a result they haven’t been as creatively successful since they lack a proper balance between Avengers-connectivity and traditional standalone adventurism. What you’re left with are films that do what Marvel does best – blending razzle dazzle spectacle with humorous romance and wisecracking characters – but that lack any sense of urgency or importance.
Take Iron Man 3 for example. It’s an exciting standalone adventure with outstanding action sequences (that Air Force One aerial rescue!) and clever, engaging twists (I’m not a big Marvel guy so the spin on the Mandarin was a delight), but when it comes to advancing the ideas and themes of The Avengers it fails rather miserably. The only bridge between the two films is Tony Stark’s increasing anxiety and panic attacks, and while that’s a plausible reaction for Tony to have following the alien invasion of The Avengers, the film never develops this anxiety and instead abandons it all together once the standalone adventure kicks off. As a result, you get a film that works on its own terms but fails to advance the Marvel universe, which makes Iron Man 3 feel like a great, breezy episode in the adventures of Tony Stark and not an important piece of the Marvel puzzle. It holds no stakes for the universe as a whole despite being perfectly entertaining and it ends up failing to have that “must-see” quality because of it.
The same goes for Thor: The Dark World, only it works in exactly the opposite way as Iron Man 3. Everything we love about Thor remains, most importantly the core cast – the brawny Chris Hemsworth as the titular demigod, the spunky Natalie Portman as love interest/scientist Jane Foster, the devilishly gleeful Tom Hiddleston as Loki, the authoritative Anthony Hopkins as Odin, and the hilarious Kat Dennings and Stellen Skarsgaad as Jane’s comic support. Hemworth and Portman share a lovely banter and their quick interplay help Thor and Jane become Marvel’s most effective on-screen romance. Stepping in for Kenneth Branagh, director Alan Taylor expands the worlds of the nine realms and beautifully renders them in all their cosmic wonder. Asgard is still a dream to behold on the big screen, and as a veteran of Game Of Thrones, Taylor proves a confident action director, staging numerous battles with a clear eye for pacing and escalating tension.
The problem here is that The Dark World’s standalone adventure isn’t all that engaging or interesting; it’s yet another scorned baddie from the past, this time the nefarious leader of the Dark Elves, Malakith (Christopher Eccelston), and his attempt to get revenge on those who wronged him and destroy the world. That means we open the movie with a lot of exposition full of jargon that goes right over the head of a Marvel noob like myself. The convergence? The ether? I’m still trying to figure out what exactly these MacGuffins are and the rules of all the wormholes that become integral to the plot and the inventive, Adjustment Bureau-like climax. It’s not that this adventure is bad per say, it does lead to many thrilling battle sequences such as Malikth’s high flying first invasion of Asgard, but none of it has any importance on the previous plot elements and ideas of the first Thor. Once again we’re left with a standalone adventure that functions as a nice, quick episode in the adventures of Thor but hardly anything with real weight or urgency. The entire first third of the movie doesn’t even include Thor as we must suffer through Malekith exposition and pick up with Jane and her scientist friends who we haven’t seen or cared about since 2011. Once the story picks up it all looks great and feels fun but it hardly packs a punch you’ll remember.
Luckily, The Dark World vastly improves where Iron Man 3 failed and is eventually redeemed by its adroit connections to The Avengers. With Loki now prisoner, the internal family struggles that come into play when a sibling tries to destroy the world becomes a fascinating plot point and it’s great seeing how the events of The Avengers changes the dynamics and relationships among Thor, Odin, Jane, and Queen Frigga (Rene Russo, given a quick moment of pleasant badassness). Whereas Tony Stark’s panic attacks were a weak attempt at linking Iron Man 3 with The Avengers, Loki’s presence in Thor 2 allows the events of The Avengers to be prevalent throughout the entire movie as characters struggle to come to terms with whether or not Loki can be trusted again and released from jail in order to help with Malekith’s defeat. As always, Tom Hiddleston is marvelous in this role and it’s about time someone at Marvel gives Loki his own damn movie! At this point, Loki is the gem of the Marvel universe and any time he’s on screen in The Dark World the movie becomes a hell of a lot more fun as Hiddleston oozes a nefarious charisma that is as creepy and disgusting as it is light and playful. Loki’s presence gives the film its meaningful spot in the Marvel universe (and one hell of a delightful surprise cameo from a fellow Avenger) and saves any of the lack of interest that comes with the standalone adventure. For this reason, Thor: The Dark World works as a successful installment in “Phase Two” despite being a less entertaining adventure than Iron Man 3.
Regardless, fanboys and blockbuster enthusiasts alike should eat this latest superhero entry right up and huge box office grosses are certainly in Thor’s future. And with one maddeningly clever cliffhanger and a great after credits sequence, Marvel clearly has many directions to take this haughty demigod and the future of its cinematic universe. As is, Thor: The Dark World is typical Marvel fare – bright, funny, quick, and full of impeccable CGI work, though you just wish the studio could find some way to blend its standalone adventures with the ideas it established in The Avengers and really give fans the “Phase Two” movie they deserve. At this point, it’s not enough for the “Phase Two” movies to be enjoyable, they have to matter and so far they haven’t hit the bullseye. Here’s hoping April’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier finds the right balance.
Review by Zack Sharf