It can very well be argued that 2011’s Thor may actually be the most important film in the modern-day Marvel cinematic universe. It’s definitely not the best film, but it is the most important.
The reason for this is simple: while Captain America and the Iron Man films mixed a bit of sci-fi with their action, it was Thor that had the toughest challenge of all: to introduce a character that was basically a god with numerous powers very much beyond the scope and scale of most of the regular Avengers. Thus, mixing the real world with the magical — and making it all completely believable to a mainstream audience — is a tricky balance that, if it failed, would’ve completely negated the believability of Thor as a character, much less make the set up for 2012’s The Avengers that much harder a concept to swallow.
Thankfully, by taking a bit of a left-field choice and hiring Kenneth Branagh as director, Marvel scored a genuine hit with Thor. Not only did Branagh manage to blend the magical and the real in a completely believable way, but by basing the story off of Shakespeare’s Henry V, the audience would assuredly be able to connect with the characters, which is exactly what Marvel did (additional props needs to be given for the starmaking casting of Tom Hiddleston as Loki, a role he completely imbues with every fiber of his being). Thor, Loki, and Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) all had significant roles in The Avengers, so a sequel to Thor was not only inevitable but expected. Branagh was out, Game of Thrones helmer Alan Taylor was in, and anticipation for another epic chapter in the story of Asgard was well under way (to top it all off, Eminem spent a surprising amount of time rapping about Asgard on his latest album).
Yet Thor: The Dark World proves to be a shallow follow-up to its predecessor, featuring a remarkably bland villain and very little in the way of proper character development. It’s not a bad movie, but even with its universe-at-stake plot, the only thing that winds up connecting with the viewer — as is proving to be the case — is the relationship between Thor & Loki.
The plot of this movie centers around a mysterious force that predates time called the Aether, which was attempted to be used by a race known as the Dark Elves before the warriors of Asgard were able to stop them. The pre-time creature Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) tries to recapture it, and when a series of events leads Thor’s love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, expertly playing an actress who phoned it in so that she could just cash her paycheck and move on) to contract the Aether, events are set in motion that bring her to Asgard and Asgard itself to fall under attack from the Dark Elves, forcing Thor to team up with an imprisoned Loki, still facing widespread rejection from his actions that threatened Earth in The Avengers.
Little is given to Malekith’s motivations, and thus he does not a scary/interesting villain make. The Thor franchise is becoming notorious for thinking that we care about the secondary characters it so readily tosses about. But given how little screentime they receive, it shouldn’t surprise anyone how little we care about Hogun, Volstagg, or a greatly underutilized Zachary Levi as Fandral. A brief subplot develops about the unrequited attraction Sif (Jaimie Alexander) has for Thor, but it is abandoned almost as quickly as it it’s brought up.
While the original Thor really played up the family drama card to great effect, a greater emphasis is given here to Thor’s parents, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Frigga (Rene Russo). A devastating attack from the Dark Elves ends up (spoiler alert) offing Frigga, but as with the rest of Thor’s entourage, she is given so few scenes to actually exhibit a personality we are just left not caring when she is murdered by Malekith’s own warriors. Although this event is meant to make a catalyst for the unlikely alliance between Thor & Loki, we are left pretty bored and unattached to the bloody proceedings.
The great thing about Loki’s tentative peace with his brother is that unlike the rest of the movie, Loki’s presence actually introduces an element of the unpredictable: viewers genuinely do not know what he’ll do next, much less when and how he will betray Thor. It’s for this very reason that Loki & Thor have so much dramatic pull together: if anyone is going to kill or betray Thor in spectacular fashion, it would be Loki, and it should be as no surprise that every scene they have together crackles with dramatic tension. Every other scene in the movie plays the same tired-and-true tropes we’ve seen so many times before, and although satisfying to some, Thor: The Dark World leaves more shrugs than gasps, and does not serve as too good a tithing for the reception of this franchise going forward.
The special features on this release are predictably piecemeal, as actors and producers give praise to the story and the crew and everything you’ve already heard in every DVD, ever. The featurette dealing particularly with the relationship of Thor & Loki is worth noting, as not only does it discuss the brothers’ noted rivalry, but also features some audition footage from Hemsworth and Hiddleston, the latter of whom beefed himself up as he initially auditioned for the part of Thor himself. The short Marvel Universe-set “One Shot” on this release, All Hail the King, features Ben Kingsley reprising his Iron Man 3 role of Trevor Slattery, and due to the way this short actually appears to set up larger events, it is an absolute joy to watch, and may very well be the best takeaway from this set.
Ultimately, Thor is a tricky character to bring to the screen, but as the first movie and The Avengers subsequently proved, Thor and Loki have a cinematic rivalry that’s one for the ages. With Thor: The Dark World, that rivalry is quite literally the only thing that is keeping this franchise afloat, and unless more daring moves are made in the future, one has to question how badly people will still want to see Thor bring that hammer down.