When the first X-Men movie came out 13 years ago, marking the beginning of the modern era of superhero movies, no one was quite prepared for how that one genre would come to dominate the world of Hollywood blockbusters. For a while, it was actually a rather exciting genre, and truly great films like Batman Begins and Spider-Man 2 garnered most of the success, while less interesting takes on the concept like The Punisher films fell by the wayside.
Today, superhero movies have become the norm, and are increasingly at risk of becoming stale. Thor: the Dark World is the fourth major superhero film of the year, and that’s not even counting smaller takes on the concept like the summer’s Kick-Ass 2. Thor also represents the most recent attempt at innovation within the genre: the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” an interconnected series of movies all existing within one fictional narrative, linking characters like Iron Man and Captain America together. It is easy to read this as a financially motivated system, an attempt by Marvel to retain the same audience for every one of their releases. However, it also hints at how the genre may be able to move forward and adapt.
Thor: the Dark World is set in the aftermath of last year’s Avengers, although it is more a continuation of the story of the first Thor movie. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to his homeworld of Asgard with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) captive, and begins the process which will eventually lead to him claiming his father’s throne, which seems to consist of traveling to various CGI-filled worlds and fighting generic enemies.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, his one true love, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), is sitting around wondering why her superhero boyfriend hasn’t called her, and stumbles onto some magical substance called the Aether, which is evidently very powerful. Plot is not this movie’s strong suit.
The film actually begins with an expository flashback explaining the villain Malekith’s (Christopher Eccleston) origins that borders on nonsensical, and only exists because there was no good way to fit that information into the main plot.
Despite all that, Thor is an enjoyable romp, mostly because of its excellent cast. At the center is Hemsworth’s charming, charismatic hero, a character who could easily have come across as a dumb brute. Hemsworth has the sort of magnetic, movie-star presence that so few of the actors of his generation seem to have, which makes watching him on the screen so fun. Hiddleston’s Loki is every bit his match.
After his two previous appearances as a film’s primary antagonist, he is moved into a more morally ambiguous role here, and he continues to excel. The scenes between the two of them are easily the film’s highlight, showcasing a brotherly rivalry that has a dark, violent undercurrent. The deep supporting cast rounds out the movie, although most of the side characters are underwritten. In particular, Kat Dennings and Idris Elba, as Jane’s intern Darcy and Asgard’s guardian Heimdall, respectively, manage to create memorable characters out of a script that views them as plot devices.
It’s a surprisingly funny film, with a number of laugh-out-loud gags, and it moves along at a speedy clip, keeping a good balance between exposition and action. Marvel brought on TV director Alan Taylor to lead the project, and while he mostly sticks to the visual style established by Kenneth Branagh in the first movie, he manages to create a lively energy where Branagh’s direction felt staid.
Taylor also inherits the structural problems of the first film, which are so built into the story’s premise that I’m not sure how they could be fixed. In short, the Thor movies split their time between two worlds: the high fantasy of Asgard, and the super-heroics of Earth, with the romance between Thor and Jane as the link between the two.
Those two worlds simply do not mesh together well, and Jane is such a bland character that the romance doesn’t work either. Portman does her best, but Jane is just another in the long line of superheroes’ love interests who primarily exist to be rescued. And Malekith pales in comparison to Loki’s villainous turns, especially since he spends much of the film speaking in some made-up fantasy language, which doesn’t give Eccleston much opportunity to act.
Perhaps it seems odd that I’d spend so much time disparaging this movie’s plot and then praising its integration into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the secret of these interlocking movies is that the connections aren’t really about the story. They’re about character. Loki’s role in this movie would never work without his descent into ego-maniacal villainy in The Avengers, and Thor’s continual growth is similarly rooted in his repeat appearances. Of course, the connections between these movies have created some problems, too. Loki remains the only memorable villain any of the films have created, and Marvel’s attempts to create a consistent visual style across all of their movies has restricted many of their directors.
Still, Thor’s mid-credits tease of next year’s Guardians of the Galaxy—which is followed by a post-credits scene, so make sure you stay until the very end—is so bizarre that it suggests Marvel is willing to branch out. Thor: the Dark World is a fun movie, certainly, but it’s fairly predictable. If we can get away from origin stories and super-villains smashing up buildings, maybe the superhero genre still has some life left.