There is a famous quote from the science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke that goes, “Any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.” This truism is actually a major theme across pop culture, from television series like The X-Files and Lost to movies like The Box (which wasn’t very good). Comic books are probably the greatest examples of this conflict, though. Nearly every superhero can be placed on a spectrum, where the explanations for their powers are scientific, magical or somewhere in between.
What’s more, their place on this spectrum informs the atmosphere of the stories that can be told about the character. Christopher Nolan’s Batman was so well-suited to the dark grittiness of the Dark Knight trilogy because this superpowerless Batman’s gadgets were grounded in reality. The Avengers movie canon was established by Iron Man, which was set firmly on the science extreme, despite the imaginative technology. Since then, Marvel Studios has tried to maintain this science-based atmosphere in the Avengers series of films. And this is why Thor has seemed so out of place to me in the past couple movies.
In the comic book universe, Thor is literally a god and therefore about as far as possible on the magic side of the science-magic spectrum. Knowing that this character would not fit well into the canon they were building, Marvel wrote the film version of Thor such that he came from a highly advanced alien civilization. However, Thor and The Avengers have been fairly unsuccessful in trying to place the superhero and his home, Asgard, in a scientific context. The past approach by directors Kenneth Brannaugh and Joss Whedon has instead been rather tongue-in-cheek: to counter the ludicrousness of Thor by recognizing it. This has left the character feeling thin and boring compared with his teammates, and Asgard seemingly an ill-defined backdrop.
The greatest success of Thor: The Dark World is that it fleshes out Thor and his home. The past work of director Alan Taylor includes several episodes of Game of Thrones, and fans of that series will certainly recognize a similar atmosphere in the halls of Asgard. Celebrations and court drama bring an identity to the realm that has been sorely lacking in the past. Even little things make it feel more developed. The watchman Heimdall, a well-liked character in the first film, is not relegated only to his post, but converses with Thor at a barracks cafeteria. Thor does not constantly walk around in full armor. And what’s more, The Dark World manages to succeed where the past films have failed, by reconciling this fantastical kingdom with the technology that the canon insists it is based upon. The atmosphere is actually strongly reminiscent of Star Wars, which pulled off the combination of science fiction in a fantasy setting better than any movie I know. In fact, Marvel and Lucasfilm are both owned by Disney, so maybe this connection is more than coincidence.
As for the story, Thor: The Dark World is good, not great. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) accidentally absorbs a plot device called Aether, causing her to be hunted by the Dark Elves, an evil civilization that wants to destroy the universe for some poorly explained reason. Learning this, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) takes Jane to Asgard to protect her. Despite several plot holes, the film is extremely entertaining and manages to build up some tangible stakes. The ensemble comedy of The Avengers is also present here, so that even in scenes where nothing is going on, we can immerse ourselves in the fun of these characters interacting. Like in Thor, comic relief Darcy (Kat Dennings) steals nearly every scene she’s in, but she must compete with the back and forth of Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) for the best scenes in the movie. Even Jane manages to hold her own here in a way she failed to in Thor.
Now for several problems: The trope of mystical pregnancy, which is a widely recognized misogynist convention in which a female character becomes host to some entity that may give her powers, is present here in Jane’s infestation by the Aether. While I didn’t necessarily feel that this had been done maliciously, Marvel has long had issues writing women in comics and movies, and this tacks on another fault to a film that barely passes the Bechdel test to start with.
An element of The Dark World that seemed more off to me was the odd, poorly addressed metaphor of European imperialism. The film begins with Thor and his army fighting on one of the oft-mentioned nine realms, in a village full of yurts. After winning the battle, we see that all of the people living here are Asian. This is not all that problematic, until it is revealed that Hogun, one of Thor’s close friends and one of the few progressive Asian characters in superhero films, is from the village and thanks all of the Asgardians for saving his home realm. Throughout the rest of the film, the only character of color that we see in Asgard (which rules over the nine realms) is Heimdall, and, badass as he undeniably is, for all we know he may not be from Asgard either. The implication is thus of a hyper-advanced civilization of whites ruling over lesser civilizations of other races that can’t defend themselves. I can’t imagine that this was the intent, but the film’s delivery of the Hogun scene (and of diversity in Asgard) is so poor that this is the result.
All in all, I really enjoyed Thor: The Dark World. As far as superhero movies go, it gets the job done. There are issues here, but the general viewer will barely notice them. The movie is exciting, funny, and easily the best outing we’ve had for Thor so far. I must say, though, I’m far more excited for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.