Let’s be real for a minute: Marvel Studios has to date produced one fairly impressive spectacle (The Avengers) and five mediocre superhero adaptations, all of which find themselves interlinked within the same universe. Increasingly, each Marvel film offers pleasure only in what it promises for the follow-up (those post-credits teasers, at their most pointless here, seem to be fast becoming the main reason to watch these films).
The fact that the studio has a ‘Phase 2’ and ‘Phase 3’, like it’s slowly planning world domination, smacks of cynicism – film output as a business plan. And so Thor: The Dark World, in the wake of The Avengers‘ box office devastation, is the product of a studio that no longer has anything to prove.
In Thor: The Dark World, space viking Thor (Chris Hemsworth, far less arrogant than in the first film and therefore far less interesting) is tasked with defeating evil dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) before he gets his hands on a mysterious substance known as Aether. As old flame Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, trapped in the franchise despite winning a deserved Oscar) investigates strange happenings on Earth, Thor must team up with Foster, pal Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), insane scientist Dr. Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and treacherous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to stop Malekith and his army before they unleash the Aether on the Nine Realms of the universe. Or something.
Much has been written of late of the widening of the stream between film and television – filmmakers are flooding small screens with television projects, but less has been said about those making the crossover from TV to film. It can work, sure, but TV to film will always be the bigger leap; here, director Alan Taylor doesn’t quite make it. The script and its ideas are all over the place, amounting to a strange mash-up of stiff romance, Lord of the Rings-style fantasy and pulpy sci-fi. This is all exacerbated by Taylor -making Thor: The Dark World look like a slightly higher budget episode of Game of Thrones.
Cardboard sets and sparse sets of extras act as the backdrops, while the major location work – inexplicably (and I mean that literally, because there is no real reason given for this) – shifts from sunny New Mexico to dour, overcast England. A problem the first Thor suffered from was that the small-scale, dusty New Mexico town setting didn’t feel right alongside the epic majesty of those scenes set in Thor’s home of Asgard. With Thor: The Dark World you’re left with the choice of a stagy, CGI-splashed astral realm or a London that hasn’t looked this grey since Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies. Take your pick.
New addition Christopher Eccleston does all he can to appear menacing behind prosthetics and manipulated vocal tones, but he’s only a stock villain. Tom Hiddleston, hammy as the rest of them but more compelling than anyone else, is the chief reason to watch this thing. Other characters can be boiled down to templates, while Hiddleston’s Loki is more complex (well, as complex as a Marvel character can get), manipulative, wry and cunning, but wounded. What magic it is to watch a star emerge before your eyes – if Hiddleston can prop up this tripe, imagine what’ll happen when he’s given decent material.
While this hardly acts as a ringing endorsement, there’s something about Thor: The Dark World’s energy, carelessly jumping from genre to genre without stopping to consider essentials like logic or coherence. Still, props to the design department of the film, heroically committing themselves to a script that could’ve been dreamt up by a madman. They’re the only ones, aside from Hiddleston, that appear to have given it their all; they borrow from ancient mythology and the geekiest of science fiction literature to deliver some delirious mash-up. It makes for absolute, nonsensical, expensive madness, populated by bland characters and saturated with tedious dialogue. Thor: The Dark World is essentially just a shiny, shiny turd. But when a studio is this safe, that’s all it needs to give the audience anyway.