Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I will reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply under appreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption!
Curiously, my pick this month is also a much maligned sequel with the word “dark” in the title, but Thor: The Dark World (directed by Alan Taylor) is a much more comedy-inclined installment than Star Trek Into Darkness. The tone is unsurprising given the overall feel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which thrives on a delightful mixture of both humor and pathos. Like Into Darkness, Thor: The Dark World received positive buzz upon its release but soured in the minds of fans and film critics over time, to the extent that it is consistently ranked last (or thereabouts) on most major rankings of all the films in the MCU to date.
But I’d like to flip the script. Join me below, but be careful: spoilers await.
The recent onslaught of listicles ranking all of the Marvel movies began in anticipation of the latest addition to the MCU: the magical, mystical Doctor Strange. The Dark World is often placed on the opposite end of these rankings, but it has more in common with Marvel’s adored new fave than you might think. In fact, with its sparkling depiction of the cosmos beyond Earth and a steady stream of self-referential comedy, Thor: The Dark World stands strong as a precursor for much of what we’ve come to know and love about Marvel movies. It’s also way, way funnier than you remember.
The film begins with a voiceover narration by Thor’s father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), as he describes a war that took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (well…different war, different galaxy, different time). Odin’s father led his fellow Asgardians in battle against Malekith (an unrecognizable Christopher Eccleston) and his Dark Elves, who are attempting to release the Aether– an “ancient force of infinite destruction” – because, you know, evil.
The forces of Asgard manage to subdue the Dark Elves after a fierce and bloody contest, burying the Aether deep down where no one (foreshadowing!) can ever find it. Unbeknownst to them, Malekith and several of his cohorts escape, existing in suspended animation until the Aether is disturbed and they can once again take up their mission.
In the present day, all is well with Asgard – Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is making his papa proud by quashing villainous uprisings across the Nine Realms, slinging his hammer with no small degree of sass while bantering with the inimitable Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander). Meanwhile, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), wrapped in chains, is given a stern talking to by Odin for his crimes committed on Earth during The Avengers movie. He engages in some banter as well, but it is bitter, clearly showing the contrast between Thor’s status as the favored son and Loki’s as, well, the adopted one.
Hiddleston’s Loki, with his sinister sarcasm and glass-cutting cheekbones, is the runaway star of every Marvel movie he’s in, and The Dark World is no exception, as we’ll explore soon enough.
The first half of the film lags mostly because Loki spends the time locked away in the dungeon, while Thor is busy moping over his Earth-bound lady love, astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Fortunately, the adventures of the Earth crew are speckled with enough slapstick fun to trick a smile out of the most stoic of Norse Gods. Jane is on a date in London with someone played by perennial “sensitive romantic interest” actor Chris O’Dowd, who notes that Jane has been staring at a menu with only three options for several minutes, and gauges that her mind is elsewhere. Before the clearly distracted Jane has a chance to respond, her assistant/intern Darcy (Kat Dennings in all her quirky, comedic glory) appears, noisily pulls up a chair, butters some bread, and plops down a piece of malfunctioning equipment on the table in front of Jane.
Lured by the mysterious readings of the equipment, Jane and Darcy drive to an abandoned warehouse to investigate. They are joined by Darcy’s new intern, whose name everyone keeps forgetting, and who does stupid things like throwing the car keys into an inter dimensional wormhole. Ah, interns. We’ve all been there.
All that’s missing is Stellan Skarsgård’s Dr. Erik Selvig, who, in Darcy’s kooky language, “kind of went bananaballs” during Loki’s attack on Earth, and can be found streaking around Stonehenge on national television. In one spit-take inducing scene, we witness an animated Erik giving a complex astrophysics lecture about the alignment of the different worlds. As the camera flips to the audience, we realize that he’s not in a college lecture hall, but at an old age institution, with an irked resident who looks suspiciously like Stan Lee demanding his shoe back. Comic relief, a Stan Lee cameo, and an important plot point for later use? Quality storytelling right there.
Jane, meanwhile, has stumbled upon the hidden Aether that no one was supposed to find, and it infects her. Back on Asgard, Thor is having a chat with Idris Elba’s golden-eyed, lustrously clad Heimdall, the all-seeing, all-knowing guardian of Asgard. Turns out Thor has been meeting with him nearly every night in order to check on Jane, which is kinda sweet, as far as intergalactic romances go. This time, though, Jane has vanished due to her contact with the Aether, which sends Thor zooming over to Earth to have her analyzed by the healers on Asgard.
Odin forbids them from leaving Asgard, even after his wife Frigga is killed protecting Jane from the now returned Malekith (don’t worry, the kickass Norse God queen did not go down without a fight). But Thor decides that leaving is the only way to save Jane, so he enlists Loki– who knows a secret passageway that leads from Asgard to the dark realm of Svartalfheim – to help them escape.
This is where Thor: The Dark World really picks up, with an elaborately planned escape that keeps even the Trickster God himself on his toes. Nevertheless, Loki commands every scene along the way, gleefully antagonizing each member of Team Thor, including Thor himself. In a highlight reel of the funniest Marvel movie gags, one specific exchange makes a compelling case for the top spot: A chatty Loki morphs into the form of Chris Evans’s Captain America and, in a Deadpool-esque, self-referential rant, quips: “The costume’s a bit much. So tight! But the confidence… I can feel the righteousness surging!”
Thor and Loki’s back-and-forth over the course of their grand escape is sometimes teasing and sometimes brutal, and the exchanges brilliantly capture the genuine feel of sibling rivalry. (Superpowered alien gods: they’re just like us!) Like Doctor Strange, Thor: The Dark World benefits from a host of fabulous actors (Idris Elba! Anthony Hopkins!) who really seem like they’re having a ball – even Elba’s Heimdall gets to rock some action sequences and have a beer with Team Thor.
All on display in this sequence: Thor and Loki’s relationship, action-packed thrills, VFX fun, and a taste of the glorious theme music.
There’s also a lot to love about the visual dynamism of this entire sequence, with Star Wars-like airship chases whizzing by exotic alien architecture. And I’m a sucker for that sparkly Bifrost Rainbow Bridge; the cosmic intergalactic mind trip scene in Doctor Strange almost certainly owes a bit of imagination to this initial creation. One area in which Thor: The Dark World stands alone, however, is the music – Marvel movie music is largely forgettable, as explained in this ingenious YouTube video by “Every Frame a Painting,” but nothing sets the “let’s go on an adventure!” tone quite like the catchy Thor theme. Have a listen:
The subterfuge really ratchets up when Thor, Loki and Jane reach the Elves’ Dark Realm. Thor and Loki “fight,” but the audience is unaware that it’s all a ploy until Loki’s illusion is exposed and the two team up against Malekith and his cronies. Loki “sacrifices” himself in the ensuing fight, and everyone – Thor, Jane, and the audience – believes he’s dead, but the film ends with the delicious reveal that Loki is now pretending to be Odin, taking the throne of Asgard for himself. Sneaky, sneaky!
With Loki out of the picture, the story becomes less layered – Loki is a complicated and complex character, after all – but the movie has found its groove, and the slapstick shenanigans get even more gif-worthy. There’s Thor politely hanging up his mighty hammer on a coat hook in Jane’s apartment and calmly asking for directions on the Tube in the middle of an epic battle with Malekith. There’s Eric running around in his underwear, and Darcy saying literally anything.
The final battle is underwhelming and the ending brings up more questions than answers. But by this point, I’m smiling too much to care.