When it comes to super-hero movies, Marvel Studios has it figured out. Over at Warner Bros., where all things D.C. Comics are produced, they’ve relied on hiring notable filmmakers to bring their Batmen and Spidermen to life in stand-alone trilogies. Movies widely varying in quality and style are the result. They’ve yet to create anything like the “universe” Marvel has been busy defining for years. Maybe with their next Superman movie? Where he’s going to beat up on the newest Batman? Played by Ben Affleck?
Right. Good luck with that, Warners.
Meanwhile, Marvel, to their credit, decided we no longer live in the ‘80s. You don’t make one trilogy, ditch it, and move on to the next. You make movies like you write comic books. You tie all of them together. You have characters from one franchise make cameos in another. You bring everyone together in The Avengers, the story of which impacts the individual characters’ future stories. And no matter who you bring on to write and direct, you make sure every movie is interchangeable in look and feel and style. In short, you create an all-consuming movie monster of a franchise that never has to end, so long as they don’t run out of superheroes. Have you have looked at the world of comic books? They will never run out of superheroes.
Thor: The Dark World is, I suppose, a sequel to Thor, but it’s just as much a sequel to The Avengers. Not that you have to have seen either to get it. They’re not making The Godfather Part II here. It’s not a complicated story. Do you need to know why Loki is imprisoned at the beginning of the film? No. You hear he did something bad to New York and that he betrayed his family. Do you need to know what went down between Thor and Jane? No. They had a thing, he left.
But if you have seen the other films, it all feels connected, however tenuously, however unimportantly. All of the Marvel movies take place in the same universe. That’s the important part. That’s the feeling all of these movies (this is the eighth) are meant to convey. And they do.
So Loki and Thor walk down a hallway, Loki pulling an illusion gag where he turns Thor into a woman and himself into Captain America. Captain America? Hey! He’s one of the Avengers! And so on. Not to make fun of it, by the way. It’s kind of a funny gag.
The plot of The Dark World is both self-contained and surely full of bits and pieces relevant to the future of the universe at large. There’s an angry Dark Elf named Malekith (an unrecognizable Christopher Eccleston) who, in the prologue, which takes place some thousands of years ago, tries to destroy all light in the universe with a swishy bunch of red goo called the Aether. The elves are defeated by Odin’s dad, who, unable to destroy the Aether, sticks it in a magic rock for safekeeping and stashes it someplace mysterious. Unbeknownst to him, Malekith and some other elves survive in suspended animation.
In the present, Odin’s son Thor brings peace and harmony to the Nine Realms, which you either know all about or you don’t—in either case you’re fine—and everything’s looking peachy. But lo! And hark! The Nine Realms are about to align in a rare Convergence, during which portals will open up between the Realms at random.
One such portal appears in London. After tossing in some shoes and car keys, plucky scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) stumbles into it and finds herself in the secret chamber with the Aether. Bad luck, that. The Aether flows inside of her. This, we are told, is bad for one’s health.
The Dark Elves sense the Aether’s reawakening and reawaken themselves, intent on fulfilling their mission of endarkening the universe. They attack Asgard, shiny home of the gods/aliens/whatever Thor and his pals are (again, understanding the fine points is irrelevant), and almost capture Jane and the Aether, but for Thor bopping Malekith in the face with his mighty hammer.
They’ll be back, though, the elves. Odin wants to fight to the death. He’s mad. Malekith killed Odin’s wife, Frigga (Rene Russo, who I’d completely forgotten existed; she remains completely unconvincing as an actress), and everyone’s pretty torn up about it.
But Thor has a better idea. Going behind his dad’s back, he frees Loki. He’s got a plan. Which plan is akin to Luke Skywalker’s plan a the beginning of Return of The Jedi. It amounts to going directly to the enemy and shouting, “Get him!”
Various complications ensue, leading to a final showdown in Greenwich, where the entire Nine Realm convergence is centered. Thor and Malekith duke it out, flipping through portals all the while, effectively battling across all Nine Realms, tumbling in and out of them at random, until one of them (hint: Thor) is victorious.
And you know what? It’s pretty cool, that final battle. I’ll go one step further still, one I bet you didn’t see coming: the whole movie’s pretty cool. In the current world of Marvel superhero movies, this is easily as entertaining as The Avengers, and actually has a more straightforward, far less bloated story. Granted, this is not a high bar I’m talking about, but The Dark World jumps right over it.
In its particulars, the story’s logic is totally perplexing. It’s the kind of thing that normally trips me up in movies like this. That and the nonstop action sequences. Maybe I was in a mood not to care. Or maybe I was bewitched by the charming Tom Hiddleston as Loki. He owns the movie. Every scene he’s in sparkles. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is fine, despite his affected “ancient god” accent, Anthony Hopkins is stately and powerful as Odin, Portman doesn’t have much to do, but I guess she does it well enough, Kat Dennings as Darcy, the comic relief human, is kind of funny, and Stellan Skarsgard gets to run around naked and insane.
What more can you ask from one of these things? It’s a hell of a lot better than Iron Man 3, even without Robert Downey Jr.’s wisecracking.
Yet I see that The Dark World, outside of nerdy movie sites, is getting fairly beat up out there. The New York Times sent out their fourth or fifth stringer to see and hate on it. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 66% so far. Not so hot. Iron Man 3 scores a 79%? That’s what Robert Downey Jr. gets you.
To be clear, if the idea of seeing any Marvel superhero movie baffles you to your core, I am not recommending it. But if you see some and skip some, seems to me this one is far more amusing than most. Take that for what it’s worth. Also of note, I saw it in 2D, because I’m not a sucker.
As always with the Marvel flicks, there’s a scene hiding at the end of the credits. In this case, it’s part romance, part dopey joke. The more interesting tag comes midway through the credits with the appearance of Benicio Del Toro as some dude called The Collector. If I read comics, I bet I’d know who he was. But I don’t. I do know he looks great and plays creepy and evil better than anyone else in the movie (aside from Loki). I hear he’s going to show up in the next Marvel something-or-other.
So there you go, people. I’ve just more or less favorably reviewed a movie in which a magical flying hammer plays a decisive role. It’s a weird world we live in. Someone oughtta sell tickets.