Movie Review: A Mythic Backdrop Elevates Thor: The Dark World To a Realm of Dramatic Integrity

The stakes in Thor: The Dark World are abnormal high, even for a superhero movie about demi-gods fighting epic battles in other worlds. In the new film, a primordial evil is unleashed, and with it a mythic weapon of extraordinary dark power. These so-called “elves” of myth come real to seek revenge on an existence they perceive as unwarranted. Taking advantage of a rare extra-universal phenomenon, a moment when nine autonomous universes will align, opening portals between foreign worlds, the evil elves hope to use a long-hidden, ephemeral power force to destroy them all at once. In other words, the film is an apocalyptic tale that threatens not just the existence of our world, nor our universe, but nine universes in total. It’s our end time anxieties writ as large as they ever have.

Scale is a key component of the film, and it plays out in two tangible ways. The first is visual, as director Alan Taylor unleashes a grand display of digital imaginations, his camera often diving straight into murky, flickering swirls of digital gook to spin the audience between dimensions and plotlines, sometimes exciting the action by snapping his camera into scenes like the cracking tip of a bull whip. This effect is leveraged most spectacularly during the film’s final showdown, in which the alignment of the worlds creates a scenario in which the one-on-one skirmish between Thor (Chris Hemworth) and the head elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) careens through portals, tumbling through the very fabric of existence.

The film’s imaginative scale is also used to force an often humorous juxtaposition between the high-minded drama of Thor’s home world of Asgard and the by contrast paltry and practical world of earth. There Natalie Portman plays Jane Foster, a supposedly brilliant scientist who mostly pouts or spouts off junk about quantum-this, molecular-that while waving around a gadget that looks like an over-sized iPhone. Despite the unconvincing nature of Portman’s role and her portrayal, the scenario does provoke an interesting dialectic between the pragmatic morality that activates the sphere of scientific intent and the psychological realm of the dramatized superego.

As a dramatic film, the world of Asgard is tremendously more fascinating than the poky scientists trying to plug their digital sticks in the ground to out-match the celestial beings that eventual raid earth. Before that, we watch an almost Shakespearean familial drama that sees Thor, his mother (Rene Russo), father (Anthony Hopkins), and black sheep brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) locked in a variety of Oedipal and Oresteian conflicts. Loki is in jail for his crimes from the first film, and while his mother tries to redeem him through a show of maternal affection, Loki can’t squelch his hatred of brother and father. When the elves attack, however, Thor strikes an unlikely truce with his brother, and the two jointly disobey Odin, a treasonous act, in an effort to defeat the elves before they attack Asgard. Odin wants his son to stay and fight a battle they will surely lose.

Beneath all of the digital acrobatics, extended battle scenes, and emotional melodramatics, there’s an interesting question of the nature of just rule playing out beneath this superhero storyline. One the one hand there is Odin, whose urging of his son to stay by his side and fight a battle to death suggests a Homeric conception of honor in which individual existential concerns are subjugated to an ideal rooted in a preservation of virtues of dignity and racial pride. But Ajax-like Thor strikes an un-characteristically Odyssian alliance with his cunning brother Loki. What is at stake is not merely the trust of a father and the betrayal of a state, but a reimagining of the obligations of freedom, a coup that is willing to sacrifice the honor of an office for the survival of a people.

Thor’s love of Jane Foster is unconvincing, a problem endemic to the effectiveness of the entire movie, because it is this love that somehow binds these two worlds together. In fact, Thor’s decision to act against his father appears as an adaptation of a conception of freedom and the value of human life that he learned through his time spent on earth, where life is more fragile and fleeting. But this essential dramatic pivot point is unmoored by detours to Earth that don’t possess the dramatic rigor of the Asgard plot or the visual satisfaction of the apocalyptic threat. Portman’s scientist is a silly, unconvincing sort, and her relationship with Thor isn’t easy to buy. We would expect him to find more in Sif (Jaimie Alexander), a beautiful Asgardian warrior, whom Nordic myth, if not Marvel myth, tells us will eventual mother Thor’s daughter. However, that tagged-on plot line is not sufficiently explored, nor are the motives for Thor’s lasting attraction to Jane Foster. As a love story, Thor falls pitifully short, and we are left to infer that his affections are somehow bound up in her spunky humanness — her doggedness in spite of her fragility wins Thor’s heart.

Nonetheless, the real appeal in Thor: The Dark World is its familial drama, led, first and foremost, by Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, who is a enigmatic, dynamic, seductively shrewd and vicious sort. In the film we watch him travel an unexpected arc, from defiant defeat, to a dejected candor, sincere affection, and finally a noble selflessness, all of which Hiddleston handles while keeping the essential integrity of the character intact. Anthony Hopkins handles Odin with a firmament-grounded grace, while Russo enjoys a particularly affecting scene in Loki’s’jail cell. Hemsworth suffers from some of Portman’s problems, in part because these two central characters are also the film’s most lackluster. But he is sturdy and acceptable, where Portman feels lifted from a prime time cop drama. Despite some of these failings, as well as the occasional plodding heavy-handedness, director Alan Taylor deserves credit for his balanced handling of such exaggerated dynamics, finding intimacy is sprawling battle scenes, wit in lackluster transitional moments, and real dramatic intensity when it matters. The film also includes a number of memorable moments that drop dialogue completely, relying on montage, expression, and score to drive the story forward.

The multiple storied Thor: The Dark World could have jettisoned some of its subplots and dramatic tangents and survived on merely its story of a royal family. Ultimately the grandiosity of super-sized apocalyptic vision doesn’t really add much to the dramatic significance of the story (turns out multiple annihilations still add up to nothing). But Thor is a particularly appealing superhero in the Marvel quiver, one whose backstory offers a means to plumb some familiar genre tropes with unexpected vigor.