In the distant past, Bor, the father of Odin, faced off against Malekith. The leader of the Dark Elves sought to unleash a weapon called the Aether on the Nine Realms before Bor handed him a crushing defeat. Following his victory, Bor secured the Aether in a stone column, though Malekith and a portion of his forces manage to escape.
It is now the year 2013 and Loki, the adopted son of Odin, stands trial for instigating a coordinated attack with the Chitauri in New York City one year prior. Meanwhile, the Bifröst has been recently reconstructed, causing no shortage of turmoil in the Nine Realms. Thor, along with Frandral, Volstagg, and Sif, repel an invading army on Vanaheim. After achieving victory, Thor and his comrades learn of the Convergence – a rare event in which the Nine Realms align. This causes interdimensional portals to appear at random. One such portal happens to be in London, England on Earth, drawing the attention of Dr. Jane Foster.
Foster is drawn into the plot when she observes a strange phenomenon at an abandoned factory. In this factory, the laws of physics are disrupted, causing objects to disappear and reappear randomly. After exploring the edifice thoroughly, she is unwittingly transported into another world. Reaching into a stone pillar, a strange, red substance leaps into her. At that exact moment, Thor notices Foster has moved beyond his all-seeing vision, which prompts him to visit Earth. Although delighted to be reunited with her, things are clearly not right. When the police attempt to take Foster into questioning after she and her fellow scientists are caught trespassing, she unleashes an inhumanly strong force to knock them back. Realizing the gravity of their situation, Thor takes Foster back to Asgard.
On the surface, The Dark World effectively turns the premise of the original Thor on its head. While his previous film had him banished to Earth as a mere mortal, this one involves Foster traveling to the fantastical Asgard. As mortals generally aren’t allowed in Asgard, Odin is naturally wary of her – particularly when he learns she has been infected by the Aether. The infection stops at nothing to protect itself, throwing even gods against walls whenever threatened. Soon, Malekith invades Asgard, and Thor’s mother, Frigga, perishes in her attempts to protect Foster.
How this sequence of events pans out forms the biggest problem I have with The Dark World. This film is rife with perfectly good story beats, but the narrative is in far too much of a rush to get them all out. Thor losing his mother could have been an impactful moment, and I think the normally unflappable Loki completely breaking down upon learning the news is the best-shot scene in the film. The problem is that she barely got any screentime before her death. As soon as she appeared, I figured she just existed for the sake of giving Thor a strong motivation for wanting to defeat Malekith once and for all once she was inevitably killed. This also culminates in Thor freeing Loki from his cell and forming an uneasy truce with him. It’s as though the writers were aware of Loki’s popularity with fans and broke him out in the fewest number of steps possible. This is because Loki possesses knowledge of a secret portal to Svartalfheim, which makes a lot of sense given what he managed to pull off in both Thor and The Avengers, but the reasoning doesn’t quite work out.
I also have to comment that The Dark World has a rather weak villain. He certainly proves his power when he kills both Frigga and Loki in battle, but had he done neither of those things, he would’ve been completely unremarkable. This is because while the narrative gives the audience a good reason to hate him, there really isn’t much to his character outside of that. He is a typical superhero film villain in that his goal is to conquer the Nine Realms because why not. He isn’t even like Laufey, who had an important connection to a major character. He was introduced in this film so it would have an antagonist and once the credits roll, his impact on the overarching plot ends.
If it’s one thing I do like about the film, it’s that the humor is as top-notch as ever. Thor’s comrades make it no secret that they will kill Loki if he so much as puts a toe out of line. By the third time he hears the threat, he informs the one delivering it to get in line. It’s also amusing watching the scientists fumble around with the interdimensional disturbances by throwing random objects and watching them fall infinitely. My personal favorite gag, however, is when Thor is eventually invented to Dr. Erik Selvig’s apartment and proceeds to casually hang the Mjölnir on a coat rack. Shortly thereafter, he tells Selvig of Loki’s death. Given the circumstances in which he met Loki in The Avengers, the scientist is relived before remembering the trickster’s relationship with Thor and consoling the God of Thunder on his loss.
I also have to admit that the final battle is very creative. The scientists manage to invent a device that takes advantage of the disturbances. This causes Thor’s battle with Malekith to jump between worlds. I have to give Alan Taylor a lot of credit for making this sequence comprehensible, which was doubtlessly difficult when you consider how often the scenery changes. One moment, they’re on Earth and in the next, they’re in some alien world, continuing to fight without skipping a beat. The fierce battle comes to an end when the scientists use their equipment to transport Malekith to Svartalfheim where he is crushed to death by his own damaged vessel.
Although there are plenty of good moments in this film, just like its predecessor, how The Dark World ends loses me. Thor has a heart-to-heart talk with Odin. Though his father is willing to allow him to become the next king of Asgard, Thor declines. He tells Odin of Loki’s sacrifice and feels he can do more for the Nine Realms as a protector. After he leaves, it’s revealed that the Odin was actually Loki in disguise. As of The Dark World, he now has two instances in which he faked his death. The first time stretched the suspension of disbelief, but it was somewhat forgivable because falling into a black hole is seldom fatal in fiction. Here, the audience sees him get fatally stabbed only for him to make a miraculous, off-screen recovery. If the writers never intended to kill off Loki, they should never have shot that scene in the first place. The only logical reason they wrote this last-minute plot twist is because they were fully aware of Loki’s popularity and wanted to preserve him for sequels. In other words, it’s a classic case of writers forcing themselves to choose between telling a story and appeasing fans, and opting for the latter to the detriment of everything else.
By 2013, it was no secret that Marvel had created a cinematic universe of interconnected films. Unfortunately, the writers were aware of this as well, and a curious weakness began to manifest sometime after the release of The Avengers. Suddenly, writers spent far more time setting up plot points for future films in lieu of focusing on the one directly in front of them. While The Dark World has quite a few developments that would eventually have a satisfying payoff, viewers had to wait several years before they amounted to anything.
As a natural consequence, The Dark World itself is a weak entry. It comes across as a basic outline for a superhero film plot without any of the personal touches needed to make the journey memorable. There are certainly things about this film I can point to that I like; the humor is good and the titular Dark World looks nothing short of stunning. However, this film is akin to those weak episodes every long-running show eventually has. You can highlight a few pieces of surprisingly good writing here and there, but are unable to defend the episode as a cohesive whole. As such, The Dark World was commonly seen as the worst film in the franchise when it debuted in 2013. I certainly don’t think it’s a bad film, and it does have something to offer people invested in the series, but its disinterest in telling its own story makes it a largely forgettable effort overall.
Final Score: 4/10