Editor’s note: This article is presented as part of the limited article series There Was An Idea…, where every week, the Lewton Bus crew dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the run-up to Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.
I have a confession: I don’t know what Thor: The Dark World is about.
Oh, I could surely recap the plot for you, and tell you all about Thor simultaneously struggling to save Jane Foster from dark magic and the universe from malevolent dark elves, but we all know that a plot isn’t a story. The best Marvel movies find ways of marrying their heroes to perceptive political or emotional stories, using the heroes’ trials as a means of exploration and, hopefully, insight. So Iron Man 3 isn’t about Tony Stark getting revenge on a terrorist, it’s about the faulty ways America deals with it’s post-9/11 trauma and the Global War on Terror; Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t about Steve Rogers uncovering a conspiracy, it’s about the avatar of the Greatest Generation tearing down the post-war national security establishment; and Black Panther isn’t about T’Challa battling for the throne of his fictional country, it’s about the promise of black power, what white colonialists stole, and what it should look like when it’s ultimately reclaimed. Even James Gunn’s relatively apolitical Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 are about more than a bunch of misfit weirdos in space: they’re about concepts as simple as friendship and family, and what healthy relationships are like.
So what is Thor: The Dark World really about? In rewatching the film for this article, I looked high and low for the answer. I wanted to come away with some insightful reading that would spur discussion and give all of us a potential new way to appreciate what is, to many, the low point of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But I have to tell you honestly–I didn’t find it.
Thor: The Dark World has lots of potential stories floating there in the ether, but none that the film really commits to. There’s a potential story about the nearly-immortal Thor loving the very mortal Jane, and how his feelings toward her can only lead to heartbreak. There’s a potential story about Thor realizing he doesn’t want to be a prince anymore, and that he’s happier as his own man. There’s even a potential story about how these two stories might intersect and illuminate each other, with Thor weighing his devotion to Asgard against his devotion to Jane. Early on, this seems to be the story that Thor: The Dark World is honing in on–when Jane becomes host to the Aether, it’s hinted that Thor can save Asgard or Jane, but not both. Interrogating a superhero’s duality or priorities by threatening two things he cares about is old hat, but effective. Schumacher did it in Batman Forever, Raimi did it in Spider-Man, and Nolan returned to the well for The Dark Knight‘s brilliant second-act turn. But Thor: The Dark World doesn’t ultimately go there. Jane is rescued from the Aether early in Act 3 and Thor’s rebellion and treason against Odin and Asgard is totally meaningless. There’s another version of Thor: The Dark World where Thor has to fight off both Malekith and his father in the finale, and where saving Jane and saving the world seem like mutually exclusive goals until the very last moment. It’s a better version.
So what happened? Why didn’t Thor: The Dark World just go there?
Loki. Loki happened.
There’s another potential story in Thor: The Dark World, and it’s about what relationship Thor and Loki have post-The Avengers. It matters for about 15 minutes of runtime and it totally derails everything else. Tom Hiddleston is great in Thor: The Dark World, but Loki ruins the movie.
Let’s back up for a second.
After stealing the show in Thor, Tom Hiddleston held his own against the combined charisma of the entire Avengers team and pretty much became an instant fan favorite. His was a face that launched a thousand Tumblrs.
Regardless of what the second Thor movie became, it’s likely that everyone from Kevin Feige on down intended to feature Loki prominently in it. They weren’t stupid. Original director Patti Jenkins wanted to make a sequel that foregrounded Thor and Jane’s literally star-crossed love instead and, well, you know what happened. Oops. Ultimately, director Alan Taylor would focus reshoots on bringing more and more Loki into the film:
We realized how well Loki was working in the movie, and we wanted to do more with him. So it was that kind of thing, it was like, ‘Oh, we could do this, we could jam this in here’ because he’s such a wonderful guy to watch do his stuff.
So that’s basically what went wrong, if you ask me.
Because the first hour or so of Thor: The Dark World pretty much works. It sets up a fun little story about Thor bringing his girlfriend home to meet his parents. It’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, kind of, but with superheroes. And Natalie Portman shines in these moments, bringing back her supremely underrated eager schoolgirl approach:
Everyone gets a moment to shine, in fact. Rene Russo, so completely wasted in the first Thor, gets to be a badass:
And the earthbound cast, Kat Dennings, especially, get some fun lines:
But then the movie throws aside the Jane story for the Loki story and it all comes apart. Perhaps there’s a script where Thor coming to terms with both Jane and Loki would have been doable, but it’s not this one. As soon as Loki gets broken out of prison, Jane is reduced to a prop and it becomes the Thor-Loki show. It’s not that it’s bad material, mind you, it’s just not the story they devoted the first half of the movie to.
And then there’s the ending. Now, this is a pretty great finale, perhaps one of Marvel’s stronger ones. The wacky physics, the world-jumping, the one liners…
It’s all pretty good. But it doesn’t actually resolve any of the apparent conflicts the movie set up. It doesn’t resolve Jane and Thor being worlds and timescales apart. It doesn’t resolve Thor feeling uncomfortable with the throne. It doesn’t resolve Thor and Loki’s rivalry. It’s just defeating the bad guy because that’s what you do at the end of the movie.
For everyone wondering why Thor: The Dark World underwhelms, this is why. It starts as one movie about Jane and Thor, tosses that aside to become another movie about Thor and Loki, and then tosses that aside to just get through to the finale already. It’s two, maybe three movies mashed together inelegantly, with none of the potential stories developed or satisfyingly resolved.
I couldn’t figure out what Thor: The Dark World is about because it’s not about anything.
That’s not to say it’s a bad movie or that it doesn’t have its virtues. It’s a visual step-up from its more stage-y and stagebound predecessor. The cinematography is dark, but it’s got nice depth and dimension. And whatever else you can say about Alan Taylor, his Game of Thrones-esque reimagining of Asgard goes a long way toward making the overly-clean, Star Wars prequel-y city of Asgard feel like a real, lived-in place. Thor: The Dark World also served as a sort of test kitchen for the cosmic craziness that James Gunn would unleash in Guardians of the Galaxy, and the bizarre production design of the dark elves, especially, is striking. And I must admit that I dearly missed Darcy and Erik Selvig in Thor: Ragnarok. I like them so much here and in the first Thor, and think they did important dramatic work in keeping the God of Thunder from getting too disconnected from Earth. I wish they’d gotten a curtain call.
So Thor: The Dark World is about nothing. It’s a mishmash of promising plot points held together by scotch tape and an eagerness to please. But there are worse things in the world. In the end, it has a kind of sloppy charm that feels like a high-budget throwback to the “see what sticks” spirit of Marvel’s Phase One. Space is… fine in Thor: The Dark World. But maybe that’s enough.