We're watching the Marvel movies in order for a series of regular features. Check out our previous pieces on Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers and Iron Man 3 (opens in new tab). Today, it's Thor: The Dark World's turn.
Poor Thor. Marvel’s resident golden boy from another realm faced some tough times in the early years of the MCU. While The Avengers features a number of iconic scenes and memorable moments for the God of Thunder, the same can't be said for his first two solo films.
Instead, Thor is arguably at the height of his popularity now, thanks in part to the excellent Thor: Ragnarok and the hero's relatively deep development in the last two Avengers movies.
The arrival of the undeniably forgettable Thor: The Dark World in 2013 showed that Marvel didn't entirely have a handle on the hero's potential. This is a film that failed to capture audiences' attention during the MCU’s experimental phase – and while it has its fans, ultimately the Thor franchise still didn’t know what it wanted to be.
Dark Elves, Infinity Stones and a whole lot of nothing
Thor: The Dark World picks up pretty much right after Loki’s defeat in Avengers. While Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is imprisoned in an Asgardian cell, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is tasked with bringing peace and undoing the damage his brother has wrought across the nine realms. Soon enough, Thor finds himself on Earth as the Convergence arrives, an event
connecting all the realms together and putting Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) in contact with the Aether, aka the Reality Stone.
With the Aether stuck inside of Jane Foster, Thor brings her back to Asgard to find a way to remove the infinity stone before it kills her. Meanwhile, the resurgence of the Aether awakens the vicious Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and the Dark Elves. This faction once went to war with Asgard over the Infinity Stone, hoping its power would help them cover the world in darkness. In The Dark World, Thor clashes with these villains – and members of his family – in a fight to once again protect the nine realms from destruction.
It's a cookie cutter plot, and fans might find it hard to even recall these details about the second Thor film's premise. The story feels like it has a grander scale than the first movie, but it fails at making this fantastical side of the MCU feel exciting – the Nine Realms stuff essentially amounts to a boring version of Lord of the Rings. Malekith, meanwhile, still reigns as one of the worst Marvel movie villains to date.
The Dark World's issues aren't a result of the MCU’s meddling “It’s all connected” mantra. In fact, Thor: The Dark World has very little crossover with other Marvel films or future movies at all.
In the comics, Malekith the Accursed is one of Thor's top villains. If you want a great showcase for the character’s potential, do read writer Jason Aaron’s comic book run on Thor. The villain is complex, cunning, morally twisted, and a master manipulator throughout all the realms. Plus, Malekith has a distinctive look: he's all blue skin, sporting a black and red suit, and half of his face is scarred black. It’s a shame, then, that most of what makes the character interesting fails to translate to the big screen.
The MCU version of Malekith has none of those qualities – he's a dark and gritty villain with no personality. Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith features pale skin and ordinary all-black armor. The actor isn’t bad in the role, but he isn’t given enough material or spotlight to make an impression. He’s serious and evil just for the sake of it. Even his most meaningful moment, when he kills Thor’s mother Frigga, feels empty – he barely registers as an on-screen presence. Malekith ends up coming off as your standard villain, essentially indistinguishable from the goons in his army.
A lot of the time, it can be unfair to criticize a film adaptation of a comic book for straying too far from the source material. It is especially unfair when the majority of the audience watching said comic book film knows next to nothing about the characters. Still, by ignoring the villain's comic origins in The Dark World, Malekith ends up being so generic that the audience missed out on what should've been a Thanos-level memorable addition to the MCU.
Malekith ends up being so forgettable because his only motivation is some vague end goal of “covering the world in darkness.” That’s the difference between him and, say, Ben Kingsley’s interpretation of the Mandarin, which offered a fun twist that plays on viewer expectations – as we’ve previously discussed in our Iron Man 3 retrospective.
The Thor series has always had the chance to forge a unique, mythology-infused corner of the MCU, based on the proliferation of great Marvel comics featuring the character in recent years. Unfortunately, it took six years and three films to finally accomplish that.
As with the first Thor, The Dark World struggles between two genres – fantasy and science fiction. The Dark World tries to mesh those two together into one, but it still lacks the compelling hook that either genre needs to actually engage the viewer. Despite this movie giving us plenty of time to check Asgard out, there's nothing that makes the realm of the gods feel special in this film.
In rewatching Thor: The Dark World, there is another aspect of the film that truly disappoints: the Aether itself. As a narrative device, it feels misrepresented. It’s the driving force of Thor: The Dark World, and based off of the end credits stingers, it was always meant to be an Infinity Stone – namely the Reality Stone.
If you’ve seen Avengers: Infinity War, it’s the perfect showcase for how the Reality Stone works, with the user being able to warp and twist reality at will. Knowing what it can do, it’s clear how much of a missed opportunity Thor: The Dark World really is.
Malekith’s plan to “cover the world in darkness” is a pretty boring plan. Considering how Thanos uses that same stone to turn enemies to ribbons, create false worlds, or twist objects into anything he could imagine, Malekith seems to lack imagination in comparison.
Honestly, this is the perfect description of the film itself. Not even the secondary appearance by Loki, who is still wonderfully played by Tom Hiddleston, can save the film.
It’s not one of the better MCU films to revisit, in 2021. In fact, it's down there with Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk as one of the worst – but whether it's the worst is slightly harder to call, but it's certainly close. The MCU missed a step, big time.
Thankfully, the series would manage to find its footing in Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok, and the character would finally get a Steve Rogers-level character arc in the closing chapters of the Avengers saga. Collectively, these would breathe new life into the God of Thunder, and get the best out of Hemsworth's winning performance as the superhero.