Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has always been a problem child of sorts. While Marvel’s Cinematic Universe always had a firm grasp on tone for Iron Man or Captain America, it’s never quite known what to do with the Norse God of Thunder. It doesn’t help that he was the first hero with an otherworldly origin: despite Thor’s attempts to justify Norse myth with tangible scientific phenomena, Thor is still a god. His troubles on Asgard eclipse any drama we could ever face on Earth, but his films have worked hard to keep him “relatable” — whether or not that’s actually the best course of action.
That’s what made Thor director Kenneth Branagh choice to ground the hero’s lofty stakes and Shakesperean drama via a star-crossed romance with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). As an audience surrogate, Jane leads us into Thor’s heightened world ... and inadvertently gives us permission to ogle at his impossibly-chiseled physique.
It worked in the first Thor film, mostly because the MCU had never gotten that weird before: it needed that human perspective to ground it, and to establish Thor’s love for Earth in a way that made sense. Romance is, of course, the quickest way to do that — but as the rest of the MCU began to embrace wilder alien concepts with The Avengers, it quickly became Marvel’s new normal, and the culture clash that once made the film so accessible suddenly felt outdated. That may be the main thing that damns Thor: The Dark World to such a middling fate.
After Loki (Tom Hiddleston) breaks the Bifröst — the magical rainbow bridge that allows travel to other realms — and subsequently attacks New York, Thor is left to clean up his half-brother’s mess. All is right in the Nine Realms by the time we catch up to him on Asgard; King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is even ready to sign off on his ascension to the throne. But there’s something missing for Thor: he’s still yearning for Jane, whom he hasn’t seen in years.
For what it’s worth, he isn’t the only one struggling to move on. Jane has relocated to London in order to further her “research,” which is all really just a guise to find Thor. She’s nearly given up — but the discovery of a gravitational anomaly transports her briefly to Asgard, bringing her face-to-face not with her ex, but with a new Infinity Stone. It’s been liquified into a cluster of red matter called the Aether, a weapon that a race of Dark Elves have been hunting for millennia. When it infects Jane and alerts the exiled elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) to its presence, Thor takes it upon himself to protect her.
The Thor films have always, in some way, been rom-coms. The Dark World is one of the “second chance” variety, as its two lovers find themselves thrust together after trying (and failing) to make a long distance relationship work. The culture clash in Thor is reversed as Jane ends up a guest in Asgard, but it’s not nearly as fun as Thor’s brief stint on Earth. For one, Odin demonstrate some spectacular prejudice — for another, it finally slots Jane into that dreaded damsel role. There’s also the matter of The Dark World’s baffling humor. If attempts at slapstick bordered on gratuitous in Branagh’s Thor, its sequel dives happily off the deep end. Remember when Jane used to slap every man within arm’s reach? You can thank The Dark World for that, though that particular gag is probably best forgotten.
It also doesn’t help that Hiddleston is, once again, completely running away with the film as Loki. After all his scenery-chewing in The Avengers, his character was probably the most popular in MCU history (behind Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, of course). The Dark World doesn’t hesitate to give fans more of what they want: it’s rumored that key exposition for the Dark Elves and the Aether were cut to give Hiddleston more screentime. That makes a lot of sense in hindsight, and it’d be easy to credit Loki as the biggest success of the film. He delivers pathos and humor with equal dexterity, and though the cast around him is just as committed to making The Dark World work, Hiddleston steals the show at every turn.
Out of any MCU trilogy, the Thor films might just have the best casts — at the very least, they nab actors of the highest considerable pedigree. It’s a shame that so little of the material in The Dark World seems suited to their talents. Eccleston has been outspoken about his dislike for his work on the Marvel film, and it took a whole lot of finagling to bring a “furious” Portman back into the fold after this.
Of all the characters in The Dark World, the actress’ role as a walking MacGuffin may be the most egregious. The films just don’t know what to do with Jane after Thor. She served the film well as Thor’s avenue to empathy, but she never truly had much autonomy — and that becomes even more apparent in The Dark World. You’d be forgiven for wishing the sequel would forget about Earth altogether, especially as it explores more of the Nine Realms and the complicated geopolitics on Asgard. The Thor films are at their best when they loose Thor from his tether to Midgard, even if that does leave Jane behind, but The Dark World’s determination to straddle two worlds keeps the franchise from exploring some of its most exciting new developments.
The MCU would eventually get Thor figured out in time for Taika Waititi’s Ragnarok, but The Dark World marked the beginning of a frustrating, five-year identity crisis. It’s not an all-out terrible film, but it could have been so much better than it was. At the end of the day, Marvel might have been too afraid to fully lean into the weirdness of the cosmic realm. The success of Guardians of the Galaxy would assuage those fears later, paving the way for a bigger, more bombastic Thor film. Like any franchise, the MCU has had some growing pains. It’s just a shame that it took so long to get its most interesting character right.