By Jarrod Jones. Of all the characters that exist in Marvel’s Mighty Menagerie, the God of Thunder himself, Thor Odinson, would be considered the hardest to sell. For a wider audience not familiar with the character’s history,Thor can be an enigmatic trouble: how does one endear to a god, a legendary being from another world, who wields lightning from his magical mythical hammer, Mjölnir?
The answer wouldn’t appear to be an easy one, but with director Sir Kenneth Branagh helming a film adaptation of the Marvel Comics Avenger, the answer came rather simplistically: with his training with Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and his enthusiastic reverence for the works of William Shakespeare, Branagh gave 2011’s Thor a pious majesty interspersed with a humble gaiety that mixed incredibly well as a potion of high adventure and feasible drama. In relating the story to a wide audience with Marvel’s millions backing him, there was a worry that the character may have to suffer a dilution of his magnificence in order to get the asses into theater seats, but working from a screenplay based on a story co-written by comics scribe J. Michael Straczynski, the strengths of Thor endured.
Filling out the film with a remarkable cast that included Sir Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba and more, Thor sold itself, and sold itself profitably, making three times its 150 million dollar budget. And with Chris Hemsworth as the hammer-wielding beefcake and Tom Hiddleston as the maliciously charming, disarmingly evil God of Mischeif, Loki, the stars were aligned for these men to be the show-stopping marquee idols of 2012’s The Avengers, becoming the most popular characters of the cinematic Marvel Universe this side of Tony Stark.
In retrospect, Thor was nothing short of a miracle: had the film been a flop, if Branagh and his cast and crew erred just slightly, the momentum towards the end of Marvel’s Phase I would have stalled utterly and completely. With the dismal fact that Branagh has stepped down as director (replaced by Alan Taylor), and now that we’re sitting in the midst of Marvel’s Second Phase (careening meteorically towards 2015’s The Avengers: Age Of Ultron), it would seem time for Marvel to follow through on the promise of the grand spectacle that came before. But if this summer’s Iron Man 3 and this week’s Thor: The Dark World are any indication at all, it seems that Marvel has allowed itself to eschew the harder work in order to bask in its own reflective glory.
More of a sequel to The Avengers than to Thor itself, Thor: The Dark World begins just after the events of the superhero team-up, with Loki facing The Allfather himself, Odin (a check-cashing Anthony Hopkins), for some hardcore Asgardian justice. But for a sequence that should be spent dwelling in the dramatic complexities of the father-son dynamics featured in the film’s predecessor, the scene is hustled through promptly, ostensibly sending Loki to his room for eternity (or whatever) in order to get the rest of this film’s plates spinning. The screenplay by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely (based on a story written by two other dudes – Don Payne and Robert Rodat – presumably not in the same room) shoehorns in as much ham-fisted intrigue and dipshit sub-plot as the film’s 112 minute running time allows, and not confidently either, relying on The Avenger‘s wunderkind Joss Whedon to do patchwork here and there.
It’s no small wonder: with a plot that includes reuniting Jane Foster (a daffy Natalie Portman) with Thor under dubious circumstances (that blatanly rip-off sequences from 2003’s anthology The Animatrix), an awakening threat that seems to have to remind the movie that he’s still there (Christopher Eccleston, woefully wasted), and the love life of intern Darcy (a plucky but unnecessary Kat Dennings), there’s no room left for the Thunder God himself. And with the rising profiles of certain cast members (Idris Elba, I’m looking at you), the film has to go out of its way to find things for the characters they play to do: taking Heimdall, the ceaseless watchman away from his eternal post in order for an actor to have some extra screen time shows an obvious disregard for the source material, not to mention common fucking sense. It is in those glaring offenses that the film truly stumbles.
Director Alan Taylor (Sex And The City, The Sopranos, Game Of Thrones) plays fast with loose with what came before, giving off a vibe that suggests that he’s attempting to make The Dark World its own beast, and that makes sense: with Sir Kenneth taking his leave, his replacement has some mighty big boots to fill, and attempting to create his own niche is only natural for a director given a franchise that is already suffering a gigantic creative loss. Thor: The Dark World should be able to shift its franchise gears smoothly given that most of the world is familiar with the characters and the consequences they have to face. Its gameboard has all but been set up for Taylor to step in and carve out his own place in the Marvel Universe. And though The Dark World has its own visual aesthetic (that totally apes a certain HBO program that more than likely nabbed him this job), there is nothing that makes this entry in Thor’s adventures stand out, making the film feel more like a compulsory burden – an episodic lull.
The end result, in all its calamity, recalls other franchise fumbles, disastrous baton-passings such as Richard Lester’s hammy plundering of the Superman series after Richard Donner’s visionary work was given over to the lesser filmmaker. Where Branagh played the heroism with the same bombast as the dramatics, Taylor plays the action as broad as its humor, giving the film unnecessary handicaps for audiences already initiated to the realms in which The God Of Thunder plays. Playing it this dumb this late into Phase II is a dangerous path for Marvel to walk. The critical success of films like Iron Man and Thor is what made The Avengers such a colossal home run. The obligatory success of films like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World is making the road to future installments feel more like a pathetic bunt.