4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“I’d rather be a good man than a great king” — Thor: The Dark World

Throughout the run of Avengers in comic-book form, there’s been a perception that the “big three” members of the team are founding members Iron Man and Thor and almost-founding member Captain America. In addition to being cornerstones of the team, the three of them have also consistently had long-running titles of their own. (The Hulk has, also, but he was gone after issue #2, and neither the Wasp nor any of Henry Pym’s various identities ever sustained a title long-term.)

So it’s not a surprise that the first three movies after Avengers starred those three. Last week we covered Iron Man 3, and next up were the two characters who were not only titans in the Avengers comics, but who also firmly established the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a thing in 2011 with Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, two movies that also established the general release-two-movies-a-year pattern (which was upped to three in 2017). First up: Thor: The Dark World.

Kenneth Branagh was unable to return to direct the sequel to his Thor due to the rushed nature of the scheduling, and the film went through a couple of different directors before settling on Alan Taylor. Future Wonder Woman helmer Patty Jenkins was one of those who was set to direct, but she quit over creative differences, and given how amazing Wonder Woman was, this is one case where you really want to see what life is like in that alternate universe.

The story treatment was, as with Thor, written by Don Payne (his last work before he died of bone cancer in 2013; the film is dedicated to his memory), and then several hands came in to work on it, among them Stephen McFeely & Christopher Markus, the co-writers of Captain America: The First Avenger, and who will go on to become prime scripters of the MCU (both Captain America sequels and both Avengers: Infinity War movies), and an uncredited Joss Whedon, who did some script doctoring during filming.

Like Iron Man 3, this story combined fallout from Avengers with an adaptation of a comic book story, in this case carving out a portion of the buildup to Ragnarok from Walt Simonson’s historic 1980s run on Thor (which remains the textbook definition of “definitive” in terms of Marvel’s Asgard) involving Malekith. The dark elf was a creation of Simonson’s who was a minion of Surtur, the demon who would bring about the end of the world. (Surtur himself won’t actually show up in the MCU until Thor: Ragnarok. Malekith in the movies remains unconnected to him.) Also from that storyline is Malekith’s enforcer, Kurse.

Back from Avengers are Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Stellan Skarsgård as Selvig, and Chris Evans as a Loki-created illusion of Captain America. Back from Thor are Sir Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Rene Russo as Frigga, Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, Kat Dennings as Darcy, Idris Elba as Heimdall, Jaimie Alexander as Sif, Ray Stevenson as Volstagg, and Tadanobu Asano as Hogun. First appearing here are Zachary Levi as Fandral, replacing Joshua Dallas (who was unavailable due to filming Once Upon a Time; ironically, he replaced Levi in Thor due to Levi being unavailable due to filming Chuck), Christopher Eccleston as Malekith, Adewale Akinnuoye-Abgaje as Kurse, Alice Krige as Eir, Tony Curran as Bor, Jonathan Howard as Ian, Clive Russell as Tyr, Benecio del Toro as the Collector, and Ophelia Lovibond as Carina.

Evans will next appear in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Hemsworth and Elba will next appear in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Alexander will next appear on two episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Hiddleston, Hopkins, Stevenson, Asano, and Levi will next appear in Thor: Ragnarok. Lovibond and del Toro will next appear in Guardians of the Galaxy.

In addition, the phrase “Infinity Stones” is first spoken in this film, specifically by Volstagg in reference to both the Tesseract and the Aether, as well as four other items that date back to the birth of the universe, as per Odin’s top-of-the-movie voiceover. This will be important later…

 

“I’ve had a god in my brain; I don’t recommend it”

Thor: The Dark World
Written by Don Payne and Robert Rodat and Christopher Yost and Stephen McFeely & Christopher Markus
Directed by Alan Taylor
Produced by Kevin Feige
Original release date: November 8, 2013

Odin explains the history of the Dark Elves, who existed before there was light in the universe. There were also six forces of energy that mostly took the form of stones, but one that was liquid was the Aether. The Dark Elves, led by Malekith, tried to use the Aether to bring the universe back to darkness during the Convergence, a time when the Nine Realms are all aligned. The Dark Elves were stopped by Odin’s father, Bor, and the forces of Asgard. Bor could not destroy the Aether—the Infinity Stones can’t be destroyed—but he orders it buried deeply.

Loki is brought before Odin, informed that Loki—who is sentenced to be imprisoned in the palace dungeon for his crimes committed both in Thor and Avengers—is only being kept alive out of deference to Frigga’s love for him. Loki claims he only wanted his birthright, to wit, the throne, but Odin tartly points out that his birthright was to die of exposure in Jötunheim, but Odin rescued him. Frigga herself visits Loki in his cell, and it’s obvious that, while Loki has nothing but contempt for Odin, he still loves his mother.

The Bifrost’s destruction in Thor left the Nine Realms in disarray. Once the rainbow bridge was repaired, Thor, Sif, and the Warriors Three have had to restore order. Thor shows up in Vanaheim to help the other four put down an attack by stone creatures. After the battle is won, Hogun, who is from Vanaheim, stays behind to help his people rebuild while Sif, Fandral, and Volstagg accompany Thor back to Asgard.

Another Convergence is approaching, and Malekith awakens, along with his second, Algrim. Algrim sacrifices himself to become the last of the Kursed warriors, and insinuates himself into a caravan of prisoners of war being brought to Asgard.

Due to the imminent Convergence, portals between the Realms are opening up, including one in London. Dr. Jane Foster is there, having been summoned by Dr. Eric Selvig, though Selvig himself has disappeared. (Unbeknownst to them, he was arrested at Stonehenge where he was buck naked and trying to take scientific readings. His experience with the Tesseract in Avengers has not been kind to his mental health.) She’s also still moping over Thor, who hasn’t returned in two years (except for the Battle of New York, and she’s kinda pissed that he didn’t call when he visited for that). She finally arses herself to go on a date, but it’s going poorly, and then Darcy interrupts it by showing that they’re getting a new reading.

Foster and Darcy investigate the reading in an old factory, where they find more portals, and Foster goes through one to where the Aether was buried by Bor. She absorbs it, and then returns to Earth.

While she was gone, she was invisible to Heimdall, and Thor goes to Earth to investigate. When Foster reappears, Darcy informs her that she’s been gone for five hours—for Foster, no time at all has passed. Foster is glad to see Thor but also pissed that he hasn’t been in touch.

When the police try to take her in, they’re repelled by the Aether. Concerned, Thor brings her to a healer on Asgard. Odin is not happy to see a mortal in the Realm Eternal, but changes his mind when the Aether attacks the guards he instructs to take her away.

Algrim, who is now Kurse, stages a prison break. Thor, Volstagg, Fandral, and Sif try to contain the prisoners, but it’s a two-front attack, as Heimdall tries to stop Malekith’s forces from invading Asgard. He is only partly successful—Kurse is able to destroy the shield Heimdall raises. Frigga protects Foster with her life, Thor arriving moments too late, though he does permanently scar Malekith with lightning in retaliation for killing his mother.

Malekith and Kurse escape in a ship that can cloak itself so thoroughly, even Heimdall can’t see it. As long as the Aether is on Asgard—and Odin has Tyr imprison Foster—Malekith will return, and Odin’s plan is to wage war on Malekith the likes of which the Nine Realms have never seen.

Thor believes this to be a bad plan, one that will cost many Asgardian lives. A grief-stricken Odin won’t listen to reason, so he conspires with Sif, Fandral, Volstagg, and Heimdall. Thor wants to take Foster to Svartalfheim, where Malekith will extract the Aether from Foster and then Thor will destroy it, without sacrificing thousands of Asgardian warriors. But they can’t use the Bifrost without Odin knowing, so Thor plans to free Loki, who knows other ways out of Asgard (as established back in Thor). Thor makes it clear that he doesn’t trust him, but knows that Loki—who trashed his cell in fury when he learned of Frigga’s death—wants revenge for his mother’s death. Thor makes it clear that he’ll kill Loki if and when the trickster betrays Thor. To make it clear how unliked Loki is at this point, Foster punches him (“That’s for New York!”) and both Sif and Volstagg separately threaten to kill him if he betrays Thor.

They steal one of Malekith’s crashed ships and use it as a decoy. Sif, Volstagg, and Fandral hold off various members of the Einherjar to allow them time to get to Svartalfheim via one of the Loki’s secret exits.

When they arrive, Loki stabs Thor, tosses him down an incline, cuts off his hand, and offers Foster to Malekith. However, this is all a ruse to get close enough to Malekith without a fight—as soon as he extracts the Aether, Thor’s hand “reappears” (in truth, Loki drops the illusion), and Thor hits the Aether with the full force of Mjolnir.

This does absolutely no good, as the Aether reconstitutes itself and is absorbed by Malekith, who then departs, leaving Kurse and his Dark Elves behind to battle Thor and Loki. Thor saves Loki’s life at one point, and then Loki does likewise, killing Kurse in the bargain, and also losing his own life, seemingly.

Thor is devastated by Loki’s death, and he and Foster are now trapped in Svartalfheim—until Foster gets a phone call from her erstwhile dinner date. There’s a portal nearby (through which a cell phone signal can apparently go through), and they go through it to return to Earth.

Darcy has liberated Selvig from the psychiatric institute they’d put him in (where he was explaining many-worlds theory to a bunch of the inmates, one of whom looks just like Stan Lee), and together, Selvig and Foster jigger the former’s scanning devices so that they can manipulate the portals. Selvig has also figured out that Greenwich is the central point where Malekith is likely to use the Aether at the Convergence. Selvig, Foster, Thor, Darcy, and Darcy’s intern, a befuddled young man named Ian Boothby, place the scanners at various points in Greenwich, and when Malekith’s ship appears, Thor fights him. Their fight takes them all over England as well as to Jötunheim, Vanaheim, Svartalfheim, and back again. (One of the monsters from Jötunheim goes through a portal to Greenwich and eats one of the Dark Elves.) They just have to delay Malekith until the Convergence passes, and eventually they’re able to teleport him back to Svartalfheim and then crush him with his own ship.

The day is saved. Thor declines Odin’s offer of the throne, as he doesn’t want the compromises that come with being a king—he’d rather protect the Nine Realms as a hero. He then returns to Earth to smooch Foster a lot—but it isn’t Odin who he talked to, but rather Loki. The trickster faked his death, returned to Asgard disguised as a warrior whom Odin sent to Svartalfheim to learn what happened (one shudders to think what happened to that poor schlub), and then replaced Odin on the throne of Asgard, disguised as the Allfather. (We’ll find out what happened to Odin himself in Thor: Ragnarok.)

Sif and Volstagg take the Aether to the Collector, one of the elders of the universe. Asgard already has the Tesseract, and storing two Infinity Stones in one place is dangerous. After they leave, the Collector mutters, “One down, five to go.”

Meanwhile, the frost monster is still loose in Greenwich…

 

“If you even think about betraying him—”
“You’ll kill me? Evidently, there will be a line…”

Oftentimes when people list their least favorite or worst MCU movies, this one is almost always right there toward the top (or, I guess, bottom), and I always thought that was unfair. To some extent it’s a testament to the quality of the MCU, as there are very few bad ones (though I’d rank the two Iron Man sequels, both Ant-Man movies, and The Incredible Hulk below this at the very least). But this movie deserves a great deal of credit for being an excellent companion piece to Thor, a very strong followup to Avengers, a fine statement on heroism versus leadership, and a beautiful continuation of the fraught brother-brother dynamic between Thor and Loki, magnificently played by Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston.

(Also: the stone creatures who attack Vanaheim at the top of the movie are pretty much the Stone Creatures from Saturn that Thor fought in his first appearance in Journey Into Mystery #83 back in 1962. That’s just cool…)

The movie is not without its flaws, of course, starting with the bad guy. I mentioned this in the comments to Iron Man 3, and it’s worth repeating here: the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s reputation for bland villains is truly an artifact of Phase 2. With the exception of Mickey Rourke’s ineffective Whiplash in Iron Man 2, Phase 1 has fantastic villains, starting with the obvious one who’s also in this movie: Hiddleston’s Loki, who makes both Thor and Avengers shine. On top of that, you’ve got great menacing performances from Jeff Bridges as Stane in Iron Man, William Hurt as Ross and Tim Roth as Blonsky in The Incredible Hulk, and Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger.

However, the first two Phase 2 movies blow it in terms of villains, and this is especially frustrating given that the one in this movie is played by one of the finest actors currently drawing breath, the man responsible for Doctor Who‘s 21st-century revival and success, Christopher Eccleston. And he’s joined by another excellent actor in Adewale Akinnuoye-Abgaje.

Unfortunately, both Eccleston and Akinnuoye-Abgaje are (a) slathered in a ton of makeup and (b) forced to speak a made-up language, and both factors deter from their performances. Both actors are known for their facility with facial expressions, a quality they’re denied in these roles. Both of them also have great voices—tellingly, many of the actors who do particularly well in tons of makeup, your J.G. Hertzlers and your Tony Todds and your Doug Joneses and your Andy Serkises and your Djimon Honsous, have superlative voices—but this other hallmark is equally muted by the Dark Elf tongue they’re stuck with. It’s not a coincidence that Eccleston’s most effective scene is the one where he kills Frigga, in which he speaks English the whole time and is way scarier than he is exchanging nonsense with Akinnuoye-Abgaje.

Sadly, that’s another of the film’s flaws, the fridging of Frigga. (Frigg-ing?) Rene Russo finally gets a chance to shine after being criminally underused in Thor, and then they kill her off in order to motivate the male characters. Sigh. At least she puts up a good fight, and I love the fact that her declaration that she’ll never reveal Foster’s location is met with a respectful, “I believe you” by Malekith before Kurse stabs her.

The original notion was to keep Hiddleston out of the movie and focus on Thor vs. Malekith, but Hiddleston’s stellar work in Avengers led the producers to changing their mind, and this was very much a change for the better, as the best parts of the movie belong to Hiddleston. As with Avengers, some of the strongest bits are his one-on-one interactions with folks, whether his bitter exchanges with Odin and his tragic ones with Frigga at the beginning, or his banter with Thor during the climax (I especially love their backing-and-forthing as Thor flies Malekith’s ship with inconsistent skill through Asgard), not to mention the angry comments and snarky rejoinders he indulges in with Foster, Sif, and Volstagg. His betrayal in Thor still stings with the Asgardians, as does his partnering with the Chitauri to invade Earth, and his former friends won’t let him forget that.

Loki remains one of the strongest characters in the MCU, as his bitterness, his anguish, and his spectacular selfishness is all on superb display here. But the best is the realization that he loves Frigga, seen especially in their conversation in his cell.

In addition, Thor’s support in Asgard remains strong, as Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenson, Idris Elba, and especially Jaimie Alexander all knock it out of the park. (For some reason, Tadanobu Asano’s role is limited to the early scenes on Vanaheim, which is a disservice to one of the few Asian actors in this franchise.)

I also like that, having had Thor arrive and have to deal with the strangeness of Earth in Thor, in this sequel it’s Foster arriving and having to deal with the strangeness of Asgard. I really enjoyed the continuation of the science-on-the-fly dynamic of Foster, Darcy, and Selvig (and Ian), with the added bonus of Foster moping over Thor and Selvig still suffering the effects of being possessed by Loki via the Tesseract. (“Your brother isn’t coming, is he?” “Loki is dead.” “Thank God!”) Stellan Skarsgård is hilarious, providing a good mix of Selvig’s crumbling sanity without losing sight of the scientist’s nobility and brilliance. And I’m always happy to watch Kat Dennings snark. (“Give me your shoe!”)

What I love most about the movie, though, is that it is in this film, truly, that Thor gains the maturity and wisdom that Odin felt he lacked in Thor. Odin is particularly bloodthirsty in this one, making it quite clear he’ll sacrifice the life of every Asgardian warrior in order to avenge Frigga, but it’s Thor’s plan that will result in much less death. In the end, Thor declares that he’d rather be a hero than a king, because a king has to make decisions like the one Odin made and Thor would rather make the decisions a hero makes: to save lives, not take them. It’s a prototypical superheroic moment, one of the best in the MCU and the movie deserves tremendous credit for it. (This despite the fact that it isn’t Odin Thor is really talking to, but rather a disguised Loki. In a nice touch, Sir Anthony Hopkins’s body language in this scene is far more relaxed than he usually is as Odin, a clever hint that this isn’t really the Allfather.)

While The Dark World has many problems, it’s still an excellent continuation of the character arcs for both Thor and Loki, and sets up future adventures quite well.

 

Next week, Captain America settles into life in the 21st century and finds out he’s not the only Howling Commando who made it this far in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Also a reminder to one and all in case you missed it that during the final week of 2018, this rewatch covered Red Sonja, the 1990 Dick Tracy, and the Men in Black trilogy in a special look back. Check them out!

Keith R.A. DeCandido has written three novels featuring Marvel’s version of the Norse gods, the Marvel’s Tales of Asgard trilogy, including Thor: Dueling with Giants, Sif: Even Dragons Have Their Endings, and Warriors Three: Godhood’s End. The trilogy is available in a single omnibus from Joe Books. In addition, Keith has written a cycle of urban fantasy short stories set in Key West, in which many of the Norse gods, including Thor, Loki, and Odin, play a large role. A guide to all the stories can be found here, with the next one coming out in 2019: “Rán for Your Life” in the Altrix Books anthology Unearthed.

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