8. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Spider-Man: Far From Home. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

Thor The Dark World (2013) Poster

A lot of people would tell you that Thor: The Dark World is the worst Marvel movie, but it isn’t. (The worst Marvel movie is either Iron Man 2 or Thor.) It sits pretty firmly in the tier of competent-but-forgettable films like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man or Doctor Strange. I think it just became a bit of a meme to put down this film, since it came out in the middle of a run of more successful releases, from Captain America: The First Avenger through to Guardians of the Galaxy.

The film had potential to be really good, but in my opinion it was sunk by some of the creative decisions surrounding the film’s antagonist, the dark elf Malekith. The dark elves come from the realm of Svartalfheim, and Malekith is a powerful, and evil, sorcerer who has faced off against Thor many times in Marvel’s comics. But the Marvel cinematic universe tends to move toward sci fi in its reinterpretation of comic material, and it does so here: The dark elves are essentially aliens with advanced technology, Malekith simply the leader and most ruthless of them. Rather than deep, lush forests full of magic, Svartalfheim is a blasted wasteland covered in darkness. The costume design on the elves, with stiff masks intended to look kind of creepy and unnerving, results in something that looks like a Doctor Who alien of the week.

Malekith from War of the Realms
Malekith the Accursed
Malekith from Thor: The Dark World
Also Malekith the Accursed

They’re generic alien soldiers, uniformly grey and dull, and utterly unmemorable. The worst part of it is that Malekith, usually a fun character in the vein of Loki – although more sadistic – is reduced to the same level of blandness. He has no personality in the film, and his iconic appearance – his face half blue, half black, with flowing white hair – is absent except for a small homage when he becomes scarred by Thor’s lightning – on the wrong side of his face.

The generic nature of the antagonists even extends to them having the exact same backstory as the frost giants of Thor – they tried to conquer the realms, Asgard fought them and stole the device that gave them their power – the Crucible in Thor, the Aether in The Dark World – and their world was left dark and lifeless until they try to infiltrate Asgard and steal it back.

I truly believe if they had gone in a different direction with the design of the elves, made them colourful, gave them personality, had them using magic instead of technology, this film could have been great fun to watch. Hela and Loki are a joy to watch because the writers and directors give the actors the opportunity to really go larger than life and have fun with the role – Malekith could have easily been the same.

The other place the film has problems is with the handling of Jane Foster – it does well enough with her in the beginning and the climax, but for a film that was intended to focus more heavily on the love story between Jane and Thor, she spends a significant amount of time as little more than a macguffin to be transported from place to place. During the parts of the film where Thor’s primary motivation is keeping Jane safe, the film lets her disappear into the background in favour of centering Thor and Loki’s relationship. This is not to say the Thor and Loki parts didn’t work – they’re a highlight of the film – but it’s a real disservice to Natalie Portman to have her character treated this way.

I know I’ve gone on a lot about the problems with this film after starting by saying “it’s not as bad as people say”, but it does bother me so much that Marvel would take an interesting character and reduce it to the most generic version possible. It’s also notable that they did this at the same time they released a Marvel One-Shot that retconned Iron Man 3’s villain – suggesting that Aldrich Killian was not in fact the Mandarin, but had used the name and imagery of a real terrorist to create his fake one. It shows that someone in Marvel felt like such major changes to iconic villains were not the right direction, and wanted to dial it back. Meanwhile, The Dark World does this to Malekith.

The result of the changes is that, while it’s not a bad film, it is very much a skippable one.

As far as the larger Marvel series, I’ve already touched in my Phase One post on how this was the first film to introduce the Infinity Stones, and name the Aether and Tesseract; the Aether is of course entirely unlike the Reality Stone we see used by Thanos, so I think some creative liberties have occurred as they put the Infinity Saga together. This film also became more significant with its inclusion in the time travel segments of Avengers: Engdame, with Thor returning to speak to his mother shortly before her death. The failure to include Natalie Portman in those scenes – beyond what seems to be some unused footage from The Dark World and perhaps some body double work – is a little disappointing; Portman’s departure from the role since this film has left a noticeable hole in Thor’s character development as the writers continue to dance around the subject, with lines like “sorry Jane dumped you” shrugged off by the hero in Thor Ragnarok.

If you’re a fan of the Marvel formula, Thor: The Dark World is fine. There’s enough in this one to enjoy. If you’re only looking to watch the best that the superhero genre has to offer, give it a miss.

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6. The Avengers (2012)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

The Avengers (2012) Poster

After five films setting up the universe and introducing the characters, it was time for the team-up film. This was the experiment, the test to see if the cinematic universe would work and fans invested in the previous films would turn up for the crossover. Spoiler: It worked.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon wrote and directed the film, a sensible choice given his reputation for being good with ensemble casts on TV, and having a similar tone in his work to what Marvel had begun to establish. At the film’s release his hiring was pretty widely praised, though it’s since been tarnished both by his lacklustre follow-up film and revelations about his personal conduct with actresses on his shows. Regardless, he turned in a solid movie that still sits among the top tier of Marvel Studios’ work.

But a top tier Marvel movie tends to be more of a B+ than an A, and it’s not without its faults. The first half of the movie is a mixed bag. The opening scenes feel more like a TV show than a blockbuster movie, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki at the beginning is lacking that dramatic flair that made him so popular. There’s some good dialogue and jokes for Tony Stark, Nick Fury, Bruce Banner (now played by Mark Ruffalo) and Steve Rogers, but when Thor arrives his stilted cod-medieval speech has been dialled up far beyond what it was in his first film, and Hemsworth struggles to deliver it convincingly.

Black Widow’s characterisation is pretty one-note. One of the biggest sources of backlash against Whedon following Age of Ultron was the way he wrote Natasha, having her compare herself to the Hulk as a monster, and specifically linking that to the fact she had been sterilised as part of her spy training. That take on her is already evident in Whedon’s work in this film, where she’s fairly detached from other people, and her biggest driving motive is making up for the “red in her ledger”, from the people she hurt before Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) spared her and brought her in to S.H.I.E.L.D. She has a close relationship with Clint that seems more built out of guilt and blood debt than affection. Whedon also puts Natasha up against Bruce Banner and Hulk multiple times in the movie, first sending her to recruit Banner in India, then being the one trapped with him on the helicarrier when he loses control. It’s clear in hindsight that this was another play on the idea she sees herself as even more of a monster than Hulk, having had full control of herself when she did whatever it was that makes her feel so guilty – and also gives him plenty of opportunities to make her scared and vulnerable, something that none of the other characters have to go through. You could do something interesting if you dive into that kind of characterisation deeply, but here it’s not really explored, just present.

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The characters that are meant to form our big super-team spend a lot of this film bickering pointlessly. Thor’s arrival to claim Loki turns into an excuse to have him, Iron Man and Captain America punch each other, and then on the helicarrier they all get into arguments for little more reason than that the screenplay wanted them to not come together until after they’d lost someone (specifically, Agent Coulson, returning from the Iron Man films and Thor). Captain America’s famous rant against Tony Stark, that he isn’t the type to “make the sacrifice play”, doesn’t hold up given Cap – having been briefed on all the members of the team – knows Tony regularly puts himself into danger wearing his suit with no superpowers of his own (we don’t see Tony start to use drones and remotely-powered suits until Iron Man 3). Of course he then goes on to sacrifice himself by flying a missile through a portal into deep space, not the first or last time he’d risk everything to protect people. Having the characters mistrust Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. makes sense, but these personal rivalries are only there to force a second-act low point that could have worked just as well without them.

Hawkeye gets the shaft (ha) in this one. He’s mind-controlled by Loki and doesn’t get the chance to have a personality until well past the halfway mark where there isn’t time to really do anything with him. It’s not something any of the later films remedied, as we continually find out things about him – he spared Natasha’s life when he was meant to kill her; he’s secretly a family man; when his family died he became a merciless assassin – but we don’t actually get to know him at all. I still believe that Jeremy Renner is capable of playing a decent Barton as a down-to-earth, more comedic character if given the right material, and I can only hope the upcoming Hawkeye TV series takes inspiration from the excellent Matt Fraction and David Aja comics and gives us that side of the character, though having a family doesn’t really fit that version of him.

But on the more positive side, the film gets more fun as it goes on. Loki gets to be his flamboyant egomaniac self from Stuttgart onward, although his “mewling quim” line to Black Widow remains a terrible decision that seems to have come from the idea of “villain = sexist”, ignoring that Loki was raised by Frigga and grew up with Lady Sif and has no reason to think of women as weak or incapable.

The action scenes from the helicarrier to the final battle are well executed. The Battle of New York makes a good set piece; it has a strong sense of location, we get a lot of perspectives of the people on the ground – something notably lacking in later films – and showcases all our characters. Every one of the main heroes gets to take a shot at Loki (literally, in Hawkeye’s case) and demonstrate why they’re here. And Hiddleston is great at being a character you love to see get punched, particularly when it’s by the Hulk.

Ruffalo is an excellent Bruce Banner, bringing an interesting nervous energy to the role, that of someone who seems laid back but is constantly holding himself in check, which fits in well with his iconic moment from the final battle.

Hulk transforms
“I’m always angry”

It’s a shame that Hulk gets sidelined so much in the MCU, only appearing in team films and Thor Ragnarok (which takes enough pieces from Planet Hulk, one of his best comic storylines, that it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a real adaptation of it in the current MCU), apparently all because Universal still has some sort of hold on Hulk’s distribution rights.

The Chitauri invaders are a pretty boring enemy for the most part – a bunch of identical mindless drones; literally so, judging by how they all collapse when their mothership is destroyed – but keeping things centred on Loki and the Avengers instead of developing these aliens is clearly the right choice here.

An odder choice is the decision to obscure who was responsible for this invasion. The film opens with Loki being told by a strange alien – called only The Other – that he will be provided an army to conquer Earth if he retrieves the Tesseract, and we see The Other again later in the film, when he chastises Loki for not making enough progress. We only find out who this person is working for in the end credits, where it’s revealed – to those who recognise his face from the comics, at least – that he works for Thanos. I’m not sure what including this throwaway character really added to the film, other than allowing them to make Thanos into the mid-credits stinger. They could have easily had Thanos be the one giving Loki his instructions, and I don’t think it would have made any difference to the film at all – it would be essentially the same role he fills in Guardians of the Galaxy. Of course if they’d used Thanos as a character in The Avengers they might not have cast Josh Brolin for the part, and who knows how the MCU would have turned out in that case.

The film ends with the Avengers all going their separate ways – Thor to an entirely different planet – with Nick Fury assuring us that when the world needs them they’ll get together again. He doesn’t seem to have any real evidence to support this assertion, but that’s par for the course for the MCU’s Nick Fury, who seems to run on faith more than information, an odd trait for the head of a spy organisation. Still, he has to be right or Marvel wouldn’t have an opportunity to make all the money in the world, and isn’t that the goal of every corporation?

The Avengers brought to a close Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There had been some mixed successes in these first six films, but they’d proven that they could introduce a bunch of characters in individual films then have them come together for a big crossover event, and now it was just to be seen where they would take things next and what new elements they could introduce. In terms of what came after, The Avengers now looks like a pretty small film, but you kind of have to start small(ish) and build from there, and that’s what Marvel – particularly Kevin Feige, who has been the driving force behind Marvel Studios over the last dozen years or so – was doing.

4. Thor (2011)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

Thor (2011) Poster
Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is a bit of an odd film. After the first time I saw it, I described it to someone as a “bad film, well made”, but I don’t think that quite gets it right.

On the one hand, the visual effects in this film are excellent. The studios involved did a great job bringing to life Asgard, the rainbow bridge, the bifrost. On the other hand, what the hell is with all the Dutch angles? Okay, I do actually know what’s up with them: Branagh has said he wanted to recreate the feel of comic book panels, which I can kind of understand, but he has seriously overdone it. It doesn’t quite ruin the film, but it does leave you baffled by the cinematography through pretty much the whole thing.

On the good side, Chris Hemsworth is a good pick for Thor, and we’ve seen that through all the films he’s done since, particularly when he’s allowed to go more toward the comedic side. Tom Hiddleston has also done well as Loki, although I think he’s better when he’s allowed to have more fun with the role in later films. But it’s the latter who gets the real meat of the story in Thor; the Odinson himself has a pretty minor arc: he starts out arrogant and hot-headed, spends some time in exile thinking he’s lost everything, then he learns a tiny bit of humility and wisdom and gets all that he lost back. Loki has an entire origin story.

It’s a bit of a shame that in his own introductory film Thor basically meanders about through some fish-out-of-water gags, a bit of moping, and not really doing much. His brother, meanwhile, having started out a little petty and jealous of Thor but ultimately having the best interests of Asgard in mind, goes on to discover the secret of his own identity, take over the kingdom when Odin (Anthony Hopkins) falls ill, and start doing increasingly shady things in order to try to prove his worthiness to his father, ultimately crossing lines that turn him into a villain. Both characters have the same goal – prove to their father they are worthy of the throne of Asgard – but Loki goes through it with more agency, and stands as an underdog with real grievances to address. He’s the most fleshed-out character in the film and has much more of a story in it than Thor does. It’s no wonder really that he became so popular.

Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and S.H.I.E.L.D. are once again a significant presence in the film, but this time in the role of a minor antagonist: the shady government agency who swoops in and tries to control and cover up what is happening. By this point Coulson and Nick Fury are really becoming the thread that holds the cinematic universe together, something that’d hold true right through The Avengers, where Coulson’s connection to the disparate heroes would be leveraged to bring them all together. The film also introduces Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), in an entirely pointless cameo that was clearly filmed separately from the rest of the film and cast.

Four films in and Marvel isn’t quite hitting their stride; the Iron Man films had set a good example of what would work for them, but they were still experimenting with different creators and tones much more readily than they would by phase 3.

While The Incredible Hulk was generic but competently made, Thor is a mixed bag, having interesting and compelling aspects in the story and worldbuilding but also parts that are rather dull and predictable, and combining some stellar visuals with baffling camera work. I think it does at least succeed in introducing us to the more out-there aspects of the Marvel universe, giving us some of the most ridiculous concepts so far but making them real through the connection to these characters.

Marvel was by this point gearing up for the anticipated team-up film, and the final post-credits stinger in Thor is a direct setup for 2012’s The Avengers. They still had one more character to introduce before they got there, though.