Our journey into mystery continues, as we watch the eighth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and – at least as we remembered it before rewatching – far from its finest hour. That’s right, it’s time for…
THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)
Tim: Let’s address the Asgardian elephant in the room immediately – Thor: The Dark World is generally held up as the weakest film in the MCU.
Alex: I’ll actually raise you on that, with some added personal stakes: this film begins the run where I very nearly lost interest in the MCU entirely. We’ll have to see if I stand by that as we progress through the next chunk of Phase Two, but for now I can say, definitively: The Dark World is utter bobbins.
Tim: Personally, while I always felt it was one of the weaker entries, I’d long held the opinion that it was a little unfairly maligned, a bit like The Incredible Hulk. However, going back and watching this time, it was actually a lot worse than I remembered it being.
Alex: I was holding out hope that I might be pleasantly surprised by it on this viewing. So that’s two of us disappointed. Do you want to talk through why you were let down?
Tim: My overwhelming feeling was that, with two or three more passes at the script and a bit more ambition, it could actually have been a decent film. Instead, we get Marvel indulging all its worst ‘play it safe’ instincts. We spend a lot more time on Asgard, but we don’t really learn anything about it. Darcy and Erik return from the first film, but they have barely anything to do. The villains are entirely uninspired. And visually, it’s just… dull.
I think the ‘Dark World’ of the title is the perfect symbol for this film: a barren landscape of greyish-black rock. Especially when you compare it to Ragnarok‘s Sakaar.
Alex: Honestly, I don’t think a couple more passes could have saved it, because: where’s the actual spine of the movie? We’ve talked about how the Phase One films succeed because they have such clear arcs for their characters alongside the super-sized peril, but I’m not sure Thor grows or learns anything here – he just battles the baddies, and eventually he wins.
Sometimes Marvel movies – and especially TV shows – can offset that by giving all the character development to the villain, but… frankly I could not tell you a thing about Malekith.
Tim: Malekith is definitely one of the weakest points of the film, and virtually a poster boy for Marvel’s uninspiring-antagonist problem. I don’t know him especially well from the comics, but I know Jason Aaron’s superlative run on Thor has turned him into quite the big deal. Whereas here, there’s nothing. No personality, no flair, barely any sense of what his agenda is beyond ‘be evil’.
Alex: I’m genuinely struggling to think of anything to say about him. It’s hard to pick apart why the character is a failure, because he’s hardly there. He feels almost like Laufey in the first Thor – an outsider with a grudge against Asgard, set up as the villain so the film can pull the rug from under us and reveal ‘oh, no, actually this is our villain!’ But instead the rug remains firmly beneath our feet. Also, he just looks rubbish.
Tim: Given that he’s meant to represent a force from either before the universe existed, or right after it was created (I’m not quite sure which), I wish the film had leaned into that ‘primeval cosmic power’ stuff a bit harder.
Alex: On a related note, I want to talk a bit about the Aether, this film’s macguffin of choice, which has the same problem as the baddie who would wield it. There’s no real sense of wonder, and what exactly it can do is unclear. That’s doubly disappointing given it is eventually revealed to be the Reality Stone in liquid form – which, with all its surrealist powers, was a real highlight of Infinity War. Where are all the bubbles, Tim?
Tim: It’s tough to know who to blame here. The film is pretty blatant in acknowledging that it’s an Infinity Stone, but like all of the Stones up until Infinity War, the rules of exactly what it can do are pretty fuzzy. It would be easy to blame Kevin Feige or some of the other MCU architects for not getting all their ducks in a row before starting to plant the Stones into the films. But equally, given the lack of imagination shown elsewhere in this film, it’s entirely possible that Alan Taylor just decided, ‘ugh, I can’t be bothered with that fancy stuff, just have it shoot beams of dark red’.
Alex: It’s less a problem of [pushes glasses up nose] continuity, and more just another example of the film missing an opportunity in favour of the most boring option.
And I think it’s telling that we’ve spent more time talking about a prop than the actual villain. So I want to break the rules of how this section normally works, moving away from leads and new characters to focus on someone who, for good and/or ill, reaches the crest of their MCU appearances in this movie: Jane Foster.
Tim: I know a lot of people complain that Jane Foster isn’t given anything to do in this film, but I don’t think that’s true. Sure, there’s a big chunk in the middle where she basically catches Narratively Convenient Fainting Disease, but she finds some weird spatial phenomena, she goes to and subsequently escapes Asgard, and she gets to zap some Dark Elves around in the finale. The problem, especially for an actress of Natalie Portman’s calibre, is that she’s not given anything emotionally interesting to do.
Alex: As far as I’m concerned, the first hour of The Dark World is definitely Jane’s movie. It actually feels it could have made a decent spin-off from the first movie: ‘Dr Jane Foster, Scientist of the Supernatural’.
We see how her life was affected by the events of Thor, get a bit of the old Jane/Darcy comedy dynamic, and pick up with her in a whole new environment – because for some reason she’s in London now? And even outside of our nation’s fair capital, the cutaways to Asgard function as contrast to her story. The hints towards a Thor/Sif romance feel like it’s mainly there to offset Jane’s date with Chris O’Dowd – two subplots that, by the way, go nowhere.
Tim: Given Jane is an (unemployed?) scientist living in central London, I’m very disappointed we didn’t get a scene where her five housemates have to deal with Thor, Darcy and Erik Selvig all taking up the living room.
Alex: Her journey is a fairly literal one: from scientist, to observer of the weird, to actually visiting Asgard and seeing all this stuff close up. It’s kind of a flip of Thor’s fish-out-of-water situation in the first movie – another interesting idea that the movie throws away.
Tim: It’s a shame that the film doesn’t maintain her joy at seeing Asgard for much longer, because it’s genuinely delightful. Her reaction to the Bifrost is great, and while the technobabble they give her when she’s being scanned by Asgardian tech is absolutely nonsense, it’s great to see her bridging that science/magic gap that the first film set up.
Also, for a brief moment it seems like they try to make the Aether sentient, or at least tie it to her emotional state, given that sometimes it blasts people who touch her, and other times it doesn’t. Again, all these lost little plot threads that could have made for a much more interesting film.
Tim: You mentioned that this film started a stretch of movies where you grew disinterested in the MCU. Do you think that’s just bad luck, or do you think it’s due to some of the flaws in Marvel’s approach to adapting its material?
Alex: I’m not sure The Dark World‘s flaws have much bearing on any of its sister films. Not least because, to me, it simply doesn’t feel like a Marvel Movie, whatever that means.
Maybe it’s that failure to interweave a character arc with the usual smash-bang world-ending business, or the lack of strong comedy moments. Maybe it’s because the film is so disconnected from Earth, which is still where most of our investment in the MCU lies. But there’s undeniably a spark missing.
Tim: I’m not sure we can place the blame entirely on it being away from Earth, given that Guardians is about to come along. It’s more that the film never really gives us a reason to care about the plot – which is bonkers given that it is literally a universe-ending threat. It’s a bigger danger than Thanos, even, but it gets waved away with basically no fanfare whatsoever.
Alex: Is it actually? I genuinely couldn’t have told you what the stakes were.
Tim: Well, from the sounds of it, Malekith is attempting to turn all matter in the universe into dark matter? Or possibly anti-matter? Like you say, it’s never properly explained
Alex: Speaking of sci-fi nonsense: one of the things we’ve often praised about the MCU films – and this is only going to become more prominent as we move through Phase Two – is their ability to blend the superhero movie with other genres. The Dark World does that with science-fiction and fantasy, but it forgets the blending bit.
It opens on a big fantasy battle which looks lifted straight of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, without giving us any reason to care about the outcome. It’s a tale of old, but the hero leading the charge isn’t even Odin. It’s his dad, Bor, which is honestly such an open goal for jokes that I’m going to leave it be and just note that: this is a guy we never see again. The original Thor had one of these battles right at its start, but was smart enough to anchor it with a quick scene beforehand teasing the collision of this fantasy with Jane & co.
So much of the movie is like that. Random sampling of Star Trek, whenever we’re aboard Malekith’s ship. Or Star Wars – and often, not the good ones. Asgard looks significantly more like Episode I’s Naboo here, which is not a comparison I’d think you would want to invite.
Tim: The Asgardians get a little bit of a sci-fi makeover with their weaponry, which now glows lightsaber-style when it impacts, but again, that’s like the most basic way of showing ‘hey, we know they’re using swords, but they’re actually really advanced!’ Same goes for the Dark Elves’ stealth technology – surely there’s a more interesting way to show their ships turning invisible?
Alex: I think where the film does succeed, it’s because its fantasy is more specific. The magic loom that serves as Asgard’s answer to the Bacta Tank. The supernaturally sudden rainstorm that greets Thor’s return to Earth, and the drifting circle of dry earth around him and Jane. The warehouse of glitching physics. All that stuff is cool, because I haven’t seen it elsewhere.
Tim: When I said earlier that the film needed two or three more script passes, the area I mostly mean is world building. Yes, there are a lot of deeper problems in terms of giving Thor, Jane and the others decent character arcs, but I think you could have at least made this into a more fun, interesting film, and pretty easily. The conceit of the Convergence, of this great universal cycle, the appearance of the Aether and the nature of the Dark Elves as creatures from the dawn of the universe all feels like it could tie together much more elegantly.
I’d love to have seen a version of this where Malekith and his forces are much more alien, much less understandable. The villains of the first Thor were Shakespearean – kings and princes squabbling for power. I think it would have been great to have a villain who is basically uninterested in all those notions, and is pursuing much more abstract goals, a little like Thanos. Instead, we muddy those waters, and Malekith seems to be half about restoring the universe to how he wants it, and half seeking revenge on the Asgardians.
Plus, with more alien villains, you open up the possibility of a weirder Aether too, and getting some of those good good bubbles.
Alex: So what you’re saying is: it’s ripe for Sequelising?
Tim: If only there was a podcast where such opportunities could be explored…
Tim: You’ve mentioned the big battle between the Asgardians and the Dark Elves at the start, and, like you said, there’s a lot about it that’s very sub-Lord of the Rings. The portentous, exposition-heavy narration. The fact that we have no emotional stakes in the battle
That said, there is an adolescent part of me that really enjoys this section, perhaps because it’s the first time we’ve really seen a grand battle at this scale in the MCU. The bit of my brain that used to pose action figures, and later went on to spend far too much money on Warhammer lights up at this kind of thing, especially as it quite elegantly sets up some of the differences between the Asgardians (melee fighters, use the Bifrost to strike deep into enemy lines) and the Dark Elves (more ranged fighters, with the Kursed as big tanky monsters).
I guess what I’m saying is that if Games Workshop got the MCU license, my wallet would be significantly lighter.
Alex: My own version of that – and this probably speaks to the kind of genre fiction that I loved as an adolescent – is the abandoned London warehouse where physics has gone all wacky. Where gravity doesn’t work right, and staircases contain recursive portals, and some higher power accidentally input the weight of a grain of sand where the weight of a lorry was supposed to be.
I said earlier that it’s nice to see some fantasy imagery that doesn’t feel nicked from elsewhere, and that is actually a slight lie in this case. It’s almost identical to the Animatrix short “Beyond”, right down to the kids who have found this joyfully non-Euclidean hotspot. But that feels like a much cooler, weirder place to be borrowing from.
Alex: It’s only just occurring to me that this is exactly the kind of Reality Stone fun that I was longing for earlier. Except… is it actually caused by the Aether, or the planets-aligning Convergence stuff?
Tim: I believe all the spatial/gravity weirdness comes from the Convergence, as we don’t really get those effects explicitly associated with the Aether. The Convergence means Jane is able to stumble across the Aether, although it’s never quite clear where it is that it’s been hidden all these years.
I do like that some of that weirdness reoccurs during the final battle, but it feels like they really could have pushed the envelope further with that kind of stuff.
Actually, though, my final Infinity Gem comes from that segment. As Thor and Malekith disappear through the various portals, Mjolnir – which is attempting to fly back to Thor’s hand – suddenly takes off into space. It’s like it’s just got new GPS co-ordinates and has to make a U-turn.
It’s a fun little acknowledgement that, yes, all these places are meant to be out there in space somewhere, and it also brings to mind some great moments in comics, including a recent-ish one where Thor threw Mjolnir around a sun to build up momentum.
Alex: So… kind of like a really big, long-range trick arrow?
Tim: When you think about it, everything is a trick arrow
Alex: Not everything, Tim. Just everything good.
And on the topic of not everything being good… While to date we’ve exclusively used Infinity Gems to highlight parts of each film that we really enjoyed, the original concept for this section was to pick moments that summed up our feelings of the film as a whole. Which is a long-winded way of saying… I couldn’t really think of two nice things to say about Thor: The Dark World.
So I want to pick up on the thing that most disappointed me about the movie on first viewing: its use of Greenwich.
I’ve been a South London resident for the best part of a decade now, and after we first moved down, Greenwich quickly became one of my favourite places on Earth. So I was pretty thrilled to discover that a Marvel movie was using it as a setting (something our lad Kieron Gillen did really well in his Uncanny X-Men comic around the same time). Especially because of the way I discovered this: on a Thames boat ride with my family, seeing white flashes in the sky and hearing booms of what sounded like thunder but, as we pulled into the dock, realised was some bona fide Movie Magic.
Everyone always mentions the Charing Cross Tube gaffe and, you know what, I can actually live with that. But on a larger level, the scenes in London fail to give any sense of where they’re set or take advantage of the scenery. The final battle lacks the kind of spatial clarity that can make an action scene really sing, and that’s inevitable because of the portals – but it doesn’t take full advantage of the constant displacement they provide either. After the battle, Odin tells Thor: “The alignment has brought all the realms together. Every one of them saw you offer your life to save them.” But I never got any sense of that.
And that, for me, is The Dark World‘s problem in a nutshell. There are these occasional flashes of light, but they’re just that – flashes, which don’t tie into the greater narrative, or last long enough to be truly enjoyable on their own.
THE OFFICIAL T+AKTMCU RANKINGS
1. The Avengers (2012)
2. Iron Man (2008)
3. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
4. Iron Man 3 (2013)
5. Thor (2011)
6. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
7. Iron Man 2 (2010)
8. Thor: The Dark World (2010)
1. Iron Man (2008)
2. The Avengers (2012)
3. Thor (2011)
4. Iron Man 3 (2013)
5. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
6. Iron Man 2 (2010)
7. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
8. Thor: The Dark World (2010)
- Coming in under the two-hour mark, The Dark World is one of the shortest MCU offerings. But it certainly doesn’t feel it.
- The large creature that Thor smashes with a hammer blow early in the movie is a Krogan. I hope Korg never found out what the God of Thunder had been doing to his cousins.
- This is the first MCU film where SHIELD has absolutely no impact on the plot, and is barely even a blip on the radar, only mentioned a couple of times in throwaway lines.
- Fashion Statement(s) of the Movie: Darcy’s fall/winter look, complete with a hat in my beloved colour of aubergine, and Jane’s farmer look, with red wellies. Both, notably, firmly Midgardian outfits.
- I’m surprised that at no point does Natalie ‘Queen Amidala’ Portman exclaim “hang on, haven’t I been here before?” while she’s swanning around the more aquatic areas of Asgard.
- What exactly happened to Erik Selvig between films? I guess being mind-controlled by a god of mischief will mess you up, but we don’t (thankfully) see Hawkeye running around historical sites in the nud.
- The retreat of Malekith’s army after their attack on Asgard seems to be entirely predicated on Frigga’s unwillingness to tell them where Jane is, and Jane’s remarkable ability to hide behind a pillar three metres away. Convenient, really.
- I like that Thor has taught Mjolnir to go around buildings, rather than through them, at this point in his dealings with Midgard. He still messes up the windows on the Gherkin, but given that he was mid-fight, we’ll forgive him.
- The mountain that forms Loki’s secret exit from Asgard appears to have veins of Rainbow Bridge material running through it, suggesting it may be connected to the standard way of getting off-world.
- Fashion Disaster of the Movie: It’s kind of cool that they try to find a way of expressing ‘he’s had a rough time’ that’s a bit more goth-rascal-appropriate than the usual five o’clock shadow but Loki’s greasy dirtbag hair is Not A Look. Clearly Asgard’s prison allow books, but not conditioner.
- Here’s a question to ponder: is Loki’s entire sacrifice play a ploy to elude Thor and take the throne of Asgard, or is he actually wounded, then wakes up on Svartalfheim and decides to make the best of a bad situation?
- Malekith appears to inexplicably grow to giant size at the very end of the film, but given that he’s by himself and surrounded by swirly Aether nonsense, it’s kind of hard to tell. Either way, what’s going on there
- The actual quickest way from Charing Cross to Greenwich is an eight-stop journey with a change, followed by a lengthy walk, or a four-stop journey on the Overground, again with a change. Depending on whether surge pricing kicks in during Dark Elf invasions, Thor might have been better off with an Uber.
If you enjoyed this piece, and want to support the site, please visit patreon.com/timplusalex to help us make more stuff – and get access to exclusive articles, ebooks, mixtapes and more while you’re at it.