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Film Review: ‘Thor: The Dark World’

Marvel Studios

David Ives - published on 11/08/13 - updated on 06/08/17

Though it teeters on the edge of being an incoherent mess, the makers of 'Thor' pull it off - and it all adds up to the most fun super-hero movie to hit theaters since 'The Avengers'.

Goats. Yes, goats. That's what I was secretly hoping to see as I took my seat for Thor: The Dark World, the latest addition to the Marvel cinematic universe. You see, along with  spending an inordinate amount of my youth reading comic books and watching Saturday afternoon creature features, I was also something of a mythology buff. And while my main interest lay in the Greek myths – Heracles and all those guys – I was still fond of the Norse stuff as well. One of the stories that really tickled my fancy when I first ran across it was that of Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, the two goats who pulled the Thor’s chariot. For whatever reason, the mental image of the god of thunder, the wielder of the mighty hammer Mjölnir, the hairy protector of mankind himself, riding off into battle on a little cart pulled by two billy goats was just too irresistibly ridiculous not to enjoy. So if only this movie could find a way to have Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston yelling out “Giddyup!” to a couple of goats as they speed across the heavens, I thought to myself, then it would pretty much contain just about everything I loved as a child.

Alas, sad to say, Thor didn't give me my goats. But it didn't “get my goat,” either, because – as it turned out – the Marvel mythology unfolding on-screen was just as fun and enjoyable as anything I ever read in my old worn copy of Keary’s Heroes of Asgard. (Now when I say “Marvel mythology,” I mean it.) In their comic book cosmology, the people who reside in that land somewhere over the rainbow bridge of Bifröst aren’t really gods; rather, they’re just an immensely powerful and technologically superior race of aliens whom the Norsemen of old took to worshiping. And because of that, the “gods” carry just as many ray guns as they do rapiers – and their space faring vessels are definitely not powered by goats. In other words, if you’re not sure if Thor is the type of movie for you, think less Lord of the Rings and more along the lines of old movies like Krull or maybe even Flash Gordon (in fact, I dare anyone of a certain age to watch the energy shield go up around Asgard while a burning spaceship approaches it and not hear Freddie Mercury warbling “Flash, a-ahhh!” in the back of their mind), and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the visual feel of the film.

But although the look of Thor is a bit more science-fictiony (Joss Whedon controls the Marvel movie universe, so it’s grammatically permissible to add a “Y” to the end of any word whenever you feel like it) than its predecessor, story-wise it retains much of the faux-Shakespearean trappings that drove the first movie’s plot. After the events depicted in The Avengers, Loki finds himself consigned to the dungeons of Asgard by a father who has disowned him, his only visitor a mother who refuses to stop loving him. Thor, meanwhile, spends the next two years tasked with cleaning up Loki’s mess and bringing peace to the nine realms. Well, make that eight realms, as he has apparently been forbidden from returning to Earth and pursuing his relationship with the human scientist, Jane Foster. 

However, though separated by hard hearts and dimensional barriers, the starcrossed lovers (Shakespeare, natch) are undeterred in their devotion for one another. It seems like a pretty unhealthy long-distance relationship, though. Thor never finds enjoyment in anything he does, not even smashing Kronan warriors (a welcome Easter egg for the comic fans), and spends most of his evenings bugging Heimdall, the all-seeing guardian of Asgard, to keep tabs on Jane for him. For her part, Jane has withdrawn from most social functions, including bathing apparently, and does little more than continue her studies of the Asgardian energies she discovered in the first film in hopes they will lead her to Thor.

What she is led to instead is the Aether, the long hidden weapon of one of Asgard’s most ancient enemies – Malekith, the dark elf. With the Aether in his possession, Malekith believes he would have the power to destroy the nine realms and return the universe to the state of darkness it once existed in. Unfortunately for his plans, Jane finds the weapon first and accidentally absorbs it into her body. Informed of this by Heimdall, Thor immediately disobeys his father’s wishes and brings Jane to Asgard in hopes their superior technology can cure her before the energies in her body prove fatal. This turns out to be a fateful choice, however, as Malekith pursues the Aether to Asgard and unleashes an attack with both devastating and tragic results (I’m not going to say exactly what happens, but Joss Whedon controls the Marvel movie universe, so you can probably guess the movie gets all “deathy”). 

With much of Asgard in ruins and Jane ordered to be locked away for everyone’s safety, Thor devises a desperate plan to free his love, force Malekith to cure her, and then defeat the villain once and for all. The problem is that in order to carry out his scheme, Thor must not only ask Heimdall, the Lady Sif, and the Warriors Two (no, not three – the third guy takes a vacation at the start of the movie) to turn traitor, but they must all rely on the help of the most untrustworthy person in the universe, Loki, in order for the plan to be successful. What follows is a series of events that have Thor and his allies literally jumping from world to world as they battle Malekith and his dark elves. At some point, the battle ends up back on Earth where Jane's colleagues, Dr. Selvig (still a little nuts from having been possessed by Loki in The Avengers), and Darcy (still unable to pronounce the name of Thor’s hammer), also get drawn into the fray.

For almost every minute of the movie’s final hour, Thor teeters on the verge of being an incoherent mess of over-the-top action scenes. Fortunately, the team of screenwriters – all of whom honed their chops on previous Marvel outings and the Narnia movies – manage to keep things balanced out with just enough little character moments and smartly placed laugh lines that the carnage never wears out its welcome. Throw in a little fan service (one of Thor’s fellow Avengers makes a sort-of-cameo, and it pretty much brought the house down in the screening I attended) and the fact that all the actors really seem to enjoy playing their characters (DC Comics should really pay attention to this), and it all adds up to the most fun super-hero movie to hit theaters since The Avengers.

Plus, call me old fashioned or unsophisticated, but I find the simple morality of the Marvel movies – especially since Joss Whedon was handed control of them – to be kind of refreshing (or, would Joss say, “refreshing-y”). Don't get me wrong: I appreciate the real world complexities of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies as much as the next fanboy, but sometimes it’s nice to just sit back and watch a story with a moral that’s short enough to fit inside a single word balloon on the last panel of a comic book. Or to look at it from a Church angle, not every situation calls for a Bible study – sometimes a single verse will suffice. 

And for some reason – maybe it’s his mythological origins – Thor seems to be a character particularly suited to this style of storytelling. In the first movie, the thunder god learned a simple lesson of humility (“Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted”), and that it's more worthy to sacrifice for others than to live only for oneself (“Greater love has no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends”). This time around, Thor comes to the realization that it’s better to desire to be a good man than a great king (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”). That’s it; that’s all there is. And for this kind of movie, that’s all there needs to be. It’s a truth, and I’m glad my 11-year-old was sitting next to me to hear it (if only my elected officials had been there, as well).

So, unless you just absolutely require your super-heroes to be dark, brooding, and burdened with complex political allegories, go ahead and pack up the kids and head off to see Thor: The Dark World. The characters are likable, the action is cool, the laughs keep things light, and you even get a little nugget of wisdom to take home with you at the end. It’s a fun movie.

It would have been even better with the goats, though.

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