Previously posted to Future Apparatus Laboratories, November 16th, 2013.
Thor: The Dark World now holds the esteemed honor of being the worst theater-going experience I have had to date. I saw the film at 8 p.m. on opening night, when a hundred crazed fans, many of them teenage girls, would burst into gratingly childish laughter at least once for every scene. And I do mean every scene; any time something only casually humorous happened, any time Loki appeared onscreen, and really any time something onscreen moved at all, the room was overwhelmed with a lot of stupid, irritating laughter from a lot of sheltered, sexless apes who would just as easily bust a gut if the theater owner had entered and jingled his car keys around in front of the screen. Had these people seen a movie before? Were they unfamiliar with the concept of passingly amusing moments designed to elicit mere chuckles? I stormed out of the theater the second the credits rolled, skipping even the customary post-credits teaser for the next Marvel movie, vowing to never again see a movie of this kind opening night.
Now, I open with this not to blame The Dark World for its audience’s idiocy, but to illuminate a growing problem I have with Marvel Studios’ yearly comic book adaptations. The company seems to be confusing film stock for the disposable pulp it prints its monthly comic books on, treating its movies like product to be churned out on a schedule regardless of quality. The Dark World is a movie designed to play purely for a blockbuster audience, and if my aforementioned experience is any indication, a rather dumb one at that.
The God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth, still perfect in the role) has returned to Earth, this time to protect Jane (Natalie Portman) from an ancient red force called the Aether. This Aether is sought after by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who plans to use it to merge and rule the nine realms. It’s too bad that Malekith is neither memorable nor interesting as a villain, with Eccleston’s makeup doing most of the acting for him. After Jane is infected with the Aether, Thor brings her to Asgard for a meet-and-greet session with the Fam, but not before Malekith wages all-out war on Asgard for the Aether. This means lots of fight scenes of guys in silly costumes battling alien creatures, which look less like Jack Kirby creations and more like mediocre DeviantArt creations. This also means Thor gets to smash stuff with his hammer. Hammer not working against Malekith? It’s okay Thor, just smash stuff even harder and somehow it’ll all work itself out in the third act. Soon, Thor calls upon his imprisoned brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) for help in defeating Malekith. Meanwhile, some hi-larious shenanigans on Earth ensue when Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) goes crazy after having Loki in his brain during the events of The Avengers, leaving interns Darcy (Kat Dennings in full Jar-Jar mode) and Ian (Jonathan Howard) to lend a hand.
Marvel’s hired gun this time around is director Alan Taylor, who seems to be executing a long list of studio mandates for the film. More Loki? Check. Jane visiting Asgard? Check. More action with the Warriors Three? Check. A few deaths to make the film darker, because sequels are always darker? Check. It’s no wonder Marvel hired a series of TV directors (Taylor directed several episodes of Game of Thrones) to helm their latest blockbusters – the company wants quick-and-dirty episodic material, not big, bold, operatic visions like these characters deserve. Perhaps producers would do well to wait until they have a good enough idea before tossing another movie onto the assembly line; there is not a single memorable shot in The Dark World, which also lacks any kind of pathos in its proceedings.
Perhaps the film was destined to be unimpressive from the outset. Director Kenneth Branagh, who brought Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s C-list hero to life in the 2011 original, bowed out of contention for this sequel. That saw Marvel turn to Monster director Patty Jenkins, a bold choice, and one which was reportedly championed by Natalie Portman. When director and studio parted ways over creative differences, the competent, yet compliant Taylor took Jenkins’ place. Portman’s disappointment over the change is readily visible; she looks bored throughout The Dark World, and is often given nothing more to do than wistfully stare at Thor from a distance until he comes to her rescue.
In fact, the film takes advantage of none of the opportunities its characters present. Here is a perfect time to flesh out Thor and Jane’s flimsy excuse for a relationship in the first movie. Instead, we see Jane still somehow completely head-over-heels for Thor a full two years after leaving her at the end of the first film, and The Dark World leaves them in the exact same place as before. There is also a brief shot of Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander), who’s sweet on Thor, tossing back a jealous look at Jane when she arrives in Asgard, but nothing comes of the would-be subplot. It’s a tease, a mere trailer shot, only present to get fans talking, not because it serves any real purpose to the story.
I mentioned the humorous moments of the film, which South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone might call “derp” comedy. These moments get old quickly, even more so when surrounded by uncontrolled guffawing. I longed for the genuinely funny fish-out-of-water humor of Branagh’s film (“This drink, I like it. ANOTHER!”). The Dark World could’ve had some equally funny moments exploring the role-reversal of Jane in Asgard, paralleling Thor’s own misunderstandings of Earth culture. Those moments never come, replaced by the “derp” jokes of substance-less First Avenger writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who rewrote the film’s script. Where writer Don Payne injected the first film with Shakespearean prose, Markus and McFeely litter the second with clunky sarcasm, unfunny one-liners, and faux-poeticism that’s neither coherent nor quotable. You can just sense their douchebag mentality of, “Isn’t Thor totally AWESOME? Watch him smash shit with his hammer. Fucking cool.”
Dr. Selvig has now been regulated to comedic relief duty, where we get the pleasure of watching him streaking around Stonehenge and in another scene excitedly running around the room without any pants on, further moments which the audience nearly burst into collective tears over. “I should put on some pants,” deadpans the doctor, after which the severely retarded crowd around me began to lose its shit, each of them hell-bent on dying with big, grotesque smiles across their faces after the showing.
The Dark World’s best qualities are in its remnants of Branagh’s superior production – costumes, set design, overall mythology, and pitch-perfect casting all represent some truly visionary work. But it’s Marvel’s quick-and-dirty production, with obvious green screen and cheaper CGI, that reeks of laziness. The film isn’t without its share of fun moments, but with less of everything that made the first movie so solid, it’s hard to justify even its mere existence.
I grow ever more fatigued with Marvel Studios, who have put out three movies featuring Thor characters in the past three years. That kind of rushed timetable doesn’t exactly lend itself to the kind of deliberate plotting and thoughtful design of both Thor and The Avengers, leaving The Dark World as the safe, ordinary, purely entertaining, collective shrug of the bunch. It seems to me that when you’re building a mythology across multiple films in rapid succession, taking risks is the only way to maintain people’s interest. I would gladly suffer through another Ang Lee Hulk if it means I can watch something I’m actually passionate enough to write about. And it would save me another run-in with the sheer insanity of the audience for The Dark World, whom I can only hope have all collectively perished in a tragic theater fire during a screening of The Starving Games.