As a kid that grew up largely on the adventures of Batman, Superman, and the Justice League, I have to hand it to Marvel Studios and their cinematic universe. While the comics brand of my youth only brings out new adventures in movie theaters every couple of years, Marvel is there all the time, with a new movie practically every season and now a weekly TV show giving us a greater, expanded insight into the ongoing adventures of some of their greatest characters. While some outsiders and neophytes might call foul and say that there’s the potential for over-saturation, comics fans know better, since we enjoy all kinds of different characters, stories, and creative visions in all different corners of their fictional universes in print already. The only real fundamental creative difference is that this is being played out in full motion, with hundred million dollar budgets and complex visual effects shots giving these stories life instead of the skilled hands of writers, artists, inkers, and colorists.
And yet, after walking out of Thor: The Dark World, I couldn’t help but walk away with a feeling that it felt…small, somehow, and that feeling deeply disappointed me. When dealing with a character as monumentally powerful as the God of Thunder, and worlds so incredibly vast as the Nine Realms, I hope, and indeed expect, to be left with an unfathomable sense of scale. Instead, though, my personal viewing experience of the Thor sequel left me with a film that felt smaller than the earthbound Iron Man 3, and certainly smaller than the kinetic and powerful team-up experience that was The Avengers.
(Mild spoilers ahead.)
This is far from saying that I think The Dark World is a bad film. The cast certainly delivered (for the most part, anyway, but more on that later), and many of the effects were impressive. Chris Evans’ cameo made me laugh out loud, and Alan Taylor’s skilled direction helped give the pristine world of Asgard a bit of a grimy outer layer, which certainly felt aesthetically similar to his work on “Game of Thrones” in particular. We also got to see some interesting backstory from within Thor’s bloodline (including his grandfather Bor, a personal favorite of mine), and even greater development with Tom Hiddleston’s now-iconic portrayal of the God of Mischief, Loki. The writing and dialogue was particularly snappy, with great elements of humor and deeper looks into the characters of those considered to be the immortal pillars of Asgard. So, really, what do I have to complain about?
The first and most obvious thing that comes to mind is the blatant underuse and residual treatment given to one of the best characters created in Thor’s world in the last thirty years, Malekith the Accursed. Malekith was created in 1984 during one of the most celebrated Thor runs in the history of Marvel Comics, at the hands of writer/artist Walt Simonson. A rather fearsome and relentless foe from that run led me to expect a similarly impassioned and irresistible threat in the film, but instead, the character was depicted as rather cold, detached, and calculating. This would’ve been fine in and of itself as an acceptable interpretation on the part of actor Christopher Eccleston, except for the fact that the movie gave him very little to do in the end. There’s one impassioned character beat that makes the battle between he and Thor very personal when he slays the Thunder God’s mother in front of him, but it seemed that the only character who gave any credence to that event in the story was Loki, not Thor. As a result of the character’s overall detachment except for a singular desire to grab an extreme source of power and rule, there is very little that makes him interesting in the story, which is difficult for me to imagine in a Marvel Studios film.
On top of Loki, the films have featured terrific villains like the Red Skull (as played by Hugo Weaving in Captain America: The First Avenger), Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell in Iron Man 2), and Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges in the original Iron Man), but Malekith’s cinematic turn for me hits the lowest point of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, right next to Whiplash, and is ultimately forgettable as we head into the next elements of “Phase Two” in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy.
Returning characters from the first Thor film also failed to capture me as much as they did in their first turns, and I feel this is ultimately personified by both Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Natalie Portman as Jane Foster. Hopkins is a fine actor, and nobody could ever hope to take that away from him, but his turn as Odin in this film concerned me as soon as I heard the news that Kenneth Branagh would not be returning from Thor to direct its sequel. That might seem like an arbitrary thing to set off concern from the performance of one of the world’s best actors, but as both a fan of Branagh and of Hopkins, one of the most interesting bits of production news from the first film still sticks out vividly in my head.
While doing press for Thor in 2011, Hopkins gave an interview to Starpulse where he detailed how Branagh was able to light a fire in him for his first turn as Odin in a way that surprised even the actor himself. The article reads,
“I’ve gotten lazy over the years,” Hopkins said. “I’ve been sort of phoning it in. I’ve been around so many years, but I loved working with Ken. I’ve got a lot of muscle in me and a lot of energy. That’s a case in point where he helped me. A great director, because of his background, being a great actor, really great actor, he took on everyone. He’s fierce, absolutely fierce. He doesn’t give a damn what people say or think. He’s just fierce and that’s what he did for me. I said to him, ‘You gave me my chops back. You gave me my confidence back.’ That’s the greatest compliment I could pay anyone. That’s what Ken did just to get me to go over the edge.”
While Alan Taylor is a talented director, Branagh came from the same school of thought as Hopkins on multiple levels, particularly as one of the best trained dramatic minds on the planet. I really felt that Hopkins succumbed to the laziness he spoke of in that interview from a couple of years ago, and when comparing his performances between both films, there seems to be a great deal more passion in the original product than in the newer one. In a lot of ways, I got the same vibe from Portman. I greatly admire her work as an actress, particularly in Black Swan and V For Vendetta, but many of her scenes seemed to fall flat in similar fashion to Hopkins’, bereft of passion and truthfulness.
Ultimately, though, one of the most responsible parties for my overall disappointment with scale comes from the production design. While the first film featured grandiose sets and spaces that felt open and clear on Asgard and on Earth, everything felt compressed and far more claustrophobic in this film due in part to the heavy use of digital alteration on sets, and the lack of locations.
Thor: The Dark World is a fun movie to watch in a lot of respects, but when comparing it to the original film and its other Marvel forerunners like Avengers and Iron Man 3, it just doesn’t bring the thunder that it should. Perhaps the scale that the character deserves will return when he re-teams with the Avengers in Age of Ultron, but I can’t help but think that a character as broad and big as Thor deserved more than he was given in his latest outing.
But hey, what do I know? I’m just a comics nerd.
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