In The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ScreenCrush editor-in-chief Matt Singer looks back at every film in the MCU to date, leading up to the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27. Previous chapters can be found here.

Chapter 8: Thor: The Dark World

Director: Alan Taylor
Writers: Christopher Yost, Stephen McFeely, Christopher Markus
Release Date: November 8, 2013
U.S. box office: $206.3 million
Worldwide box office: $644.5 million
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 66 percent
Metacritic score: 54
Letterboxd average grade: 5.8
CinemaScore: A-

What Holds Up

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Just about every major character from Thor returns for The Dark World, and that key group remains one of the stronger casts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Chris Hemsworth makes a rugged, charismatic Thor; Tom Hiddleston is a perfectly slithery Loki. Natalie Portman has some nice scenes of light comedy as Jane Foster, meeting Thor’s family for the first time (“You told your dad about me?”) while swooning convincingly over Thor’s Mjolnir-hard abs. And Anthony Hopkins, bless his heart, treats this very silly movie like it is going to win him his second Oscar. (SPOILER ALERT: It did not.)

I may not always like the films these Thor characters are in (like, say, in this specific case) but I always like these characters, and I enjoy watching them bounce off one another. Hemsworth, Hiddleston, Portman, and Hopkins are worth watching even if the story around them isn’t.

What Doesn’t Hold Up

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Thor’s look is actually an improvement over the first film. Hemsworth has a more convincing wig and armor. Loki and Odin’s garments got an upgrade too; all the Asgardians’ outfits feels less like movie costumes and more like functional and well-loved pieces of clothing.

So what the hell happened with these Dark Elves (pictured above) and why do they look like a bunch of losers that Rita Repulsa would send after the Power Rangers? With their blank expressions, eyeless masks, and generic, lumpy armor they’re among the worst designed characters in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. These guys are supposed to pose a threat to Thor? Yeah, no. These guys wouldn’t cut it in the Asylum mockbuster version of Thor.

The issues with these Dark Elves may be an extension of the issues with their leader, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), Thor: The Dark World’s primary antagonist (and primary flaw). He at least looks more convincingly ferocious than his Dark Putty Patrol minions, but he also doesn’t have anything resembling complex motivations or emotions: He is just pure evil, and he wants a vaguely defined mystical object called “the Aether” to destroy the Nine Realms of the Universe. He maybe has 15 lines in the entire film, almost all of them about the Aether (“Where is the Aether? and “The Aether can not be destroyed!” and “The Aether awakens us!” and “ I will reclaim the Aether!” We get it dude, you’re hot for the Aether. Do you have literally anything else on your mind?) When people talk about Marvel’s “villain problem,” they’re talking about guys like Malekith.

The first Thor wasn’t perfect, but it at least had a kind of soapy Shakespearean grandeur. In terms of scale, both visually and on an emotional level, The Dark World feels like a major step down. It goes out of its way to explicitly say the Asgardians are not gods (even though the ones in the comics are). “We’re born, we live, we die, just like humans do,” explains Odin early in the film. True to his words, several of the main characters are killed — including Thor’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo, used just as poorly as in the original Thor) — in surprisingly simple ways. These aliens can live for 5,000 years unless they get stabbed a single time? Who would ever mistake someone like that for a god?

I suppose you could argue that it’s hard to root for a god; they can’t be killed, so there aren’t major stakes in their battles. But eliminating that crucial aspect of Thor’s mythology turns this epic fantasy universe into just another generic sci-fi movie, a feeling compounded by the movie’s numerous and not-at-all-interesting spaceship battles, where Malekith’s men (or Thor and his allies, after they hijack one of Malekith’s ships) zoom around Asgard blasting stuff. Even if this change was done to bring Thor “down to Earth” and give audiences a reason to invest in his adventures, it wasn’t worth the collateral damage to what makes the character special in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Coolest Foreshadowing of Future Marvel Events

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Yeah, there’s some fun stuff in The Dark World about the Infinity Stones (the Aether is actually the Reality Stone), even if the Asgardians giving the Reality Stone to Benicio Del Toro’s Collector in the film’s post-credits scene makes them look like the chumps of the century. (Giving the Collector an Infinity Stone for safe keeping is like handing a pyromaniac a cigarette lighter and a treasured oil painting.) The coolest foreshadowing in Thor: The Dark World, though, is on more of a thematic level.

Most of Thor and Odin’s conversations in the film are about the responsibility of kingship. Thor is in line for the Asgardian throne (he was about to inherit it in the last movie, right before he screwed it all up) and Odin constantly measures his worthiness. Once eager to get his hands on Odin’s power, Thor now seems more reticent. “I’d rather be a good man than a great king,” he says at one point.

Five years later, this conversation in general (and this line in particular) have found an interesting echo in Black Panther, another Marvel movie about what it takes to be a good ruler. In that film, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has already inherited his father’s throne as the king of Wakanda. He eats a magical herb and has an out-of-body experience on the spiritual plane, and communes with the ghost of his dead dad, who tells him “You are a good man, with a good heart. And it's hard for a good man to be a king.”

Collectively, the Thors and Black Panther create an overarching theme within the Marvel Cinematic Universe about leadership; who deserves it, how you earn it, and the best ways to exercise it once you have it. Both The Dark World and Black Panther make essentially the same argument: That being in charge sometimes requires the kinds of moral compromises that “good” people often find it difficult to make. And this idea dovetails with other Marvel movies, particularly the Captain America films, where Steve Rogers’ unfailing moral compass often puts him in direct conflict with men like Nick Fury who want to make the world a better place but are willing to make unscrupulous decisions on the belief that the ends justifies the means.

This all adds up to one of my favorite things about the MCU, which is that below the cool action and impressive effects and fun comic-book characters, it is ultimately an 18-film, 40-hour (and counting) examination of what it means to be a hero. What makes someone “good”? What makes them bad? What sacrifices are worth making? What moral sacrifices are not worth making? And, getting back to The Dark World, can villains, like Loki, be redeemed? If you’re paying attention, these questions are at the core of almost every Marvel movie.

Best Marvel Easter Egg

The big rock creature Thor destroys with a single Mjolnir uppercut in The Dark World’s first fight scene isn’t quite as random as it appears. This guy is a Kronan, the alien race that appeared in Thor’s Marvel Comics debut, Journey Into Mystery #83. (The Kronan are also sometimes referred to as the “Stone Men of Saturn,” which I think we can all agree is a way more baller name.) And if this Kronan that Thor smashes looks a little like Korg, the friendly alien gladiator from Thor: Ragnarok, he should; Korg’s a Kronan as well. (Do you think Thor ever told Korg that he killed this guy? What if they were cousins?!?)

Final Verdict

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It’s unfair to compare an actual movie to a theoretical one that was never made, but it’s hard to look at Alan Taylor’s The Dark World as anything but a pale shadow of the movie its original director, Patty Jenkins, wanted to make. Her version would have been loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, with Natalie Portman’s Jane “stuck on Earth and Thor to be stuck where he is.” Thor would have been forbidden “to come and save Jane because Earth doesn’t matter. And then by coming to save her ... they end up discovering that Malekith is hiding the dark energy inside of Earth because he knows that Odin doesn’t care about Earth, and so he’s using Odin’s disinterest in Earth to trick him.” Eventually, Marvel and Jenkins split, citing the only villain more dangerous than Thanos: Creative differences. Instead, Jenkins went on to make Wonder Woman, which became a phenomenal hit for Marvel’s chief competitor, Warner Bros. and DC Comics.

At the very least, Jenkins’ concept for Thor 2 would have addressed one of the biggest continuity holes that Taylor’s movie completely and frustratingly ignores: The destruction of the Bifrost that connects Earth to Asgard at the end of Thor. In that film, Thor destroys the Rainbow Bridge to prevent an invasion, at the expense of being able to return to Earth and be with Jane, the woman he loves. Then in The Avengers, Thor just shows up back on Earth like nothing’s happened. And in Thor: The Dark World, the Bifrost is fully restored with zero explanation as to how they fixed it. If it was so easy to repair, why make such a big deal out of smashing the thing in the first place?

Supposedly, there’s a Thor comic that explains how the Bifrost was fixed, but that’s a terrible excuse for not even addressing the fact that one movie ends on a huge cliffhanger of “How will Thor ever return to Earth?” and the next movie begins with “Nvmd lol.” The Dark World retroactively renders the bittersweet ending of Thor totally meaningless.

True to its title, Thor: The Dark World presents the dark side of the largely wonderful Marvel Cinematic Universe. When the movies properly connect, and the characters cross over in smart ways, and the MCU grows in ways that feel organic and natural, it’s great. When the movies don’t connect, when things don’t add up, and the characters feel like they’re in a holding pattern until the next Avengers movie that hasn’t even been plotted out yet, it’s beyond frustrating.

The story of The Dark World is frustrating, too. Most of it is built on flimsy conveniences. In the prologue, Odin explains that the Asgardians of ancient times defeated the Dark Elves and locked the Aether away somewhere no one would ever find it. Then a few scenes later, due to some cosmic convergence, Jane literally stumbles on it completely by accident. Then after they’ve been cut off from the Bifrost yet again, Thor and Jane are able to return to Earth when, by another sheer coincidence, they wind up inside a cave that is connected by that same convergence to the exact spot in London where Jane was hanging out when the movie began.

None of this feels properly established or motivated; it only happens because the film needs it to happen to keep the story lumbering forward like Malekith’s giant ship as it scrapes its way through Greenwich. In between the big moments are some clever smaller touches, like Stellan Skarsgard’s Dr. Selvig, still mentally unwell following his encounter with Loki in The Avengers, trying to perform a complex gravimetric analysis in his underwear, or Thor hanging Mjolnir on Jane’s coatrack when he enters her apartment. At best, though, The Dark World is a movie of clever smaller touches, and awkward broader strokes. It is unworthy of its hero, and most of the other films in its shared universe.

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