Spoiler-free first thoughts on Thor: The Dark World

Just having emerged from Thor: The Dark World since a friend reminded me to see it, I type this from the Carlisle branch of Waterstones. (From the Costa, that is, strangely if typically built in. The Earl Grey satisfies; milk rationing per cup continues to frustrate.)

Conclusive thoughts on films take time to form, and usually, at least in my case, repeat views. It’s very possible then that I’ll write about The Dark World in more detail down the line, and that feelings I have now will change, but it seems worth giving a brief summary of how it left me. Spoilers are fair game in the comments, but I’ll leave overt ones out for now.

First things first, it’s notable Thor is only the second Marvel franchise from its recent, interlinking stand to get a sequel. Before last year’s The Avengers - I refuse to use the UK title – only Iron Man had received a second film, which itself strayed from the usual sequel format – what weighed down Iron Man 2, to many fans’ frustration, was its use as the first proper chapter of the S.H.I.E.L.D. arc, introducing us to Howard Stark, Black Widow and the gears of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, important elements in films which followed. World-building of this kind is what’s expected of a series’ first instalment usually, and in terms of branching out the onscreen universe in view, one could say Iron Man 2 served as just that. The Dark World isn’t just the first ‘part two’ since then, it’s the first story within its continuity that doesn’t need to be anything else. (Iron Man 3, released this April, was similarly self-contained, but see the number in the title.)

Cutting to the case then, or at least the highlights, there are lots of things in this film to love, above all its cast and their performances. If his place with Tom Hardy and Ben Whishaw as one of film’s next great Britthesps were still in any kind of doubt, Tom Hiddleston’s scenery-chewing, even in barren wastelands and glorified CG slagheaps, clinches the deal, as does his stamina for moral line-treading even three films in. Christopher Eccleston, contrary to almost everything you’re likely to have read, is neither underused nor overkill as villain Malekith (whose skin, disconcertingly I felt, appears to darken as his evil grows). While I wouldn’t have said no to more of him, I didn’t feel like I missed out. Supporting actors round out the cast well on all sides, though there are perhaps a few too many – with names in play like Hopkins, Skarsgård and once-again-sidelined Rene Russo, alongside Alice Krige in a delightful bit part, it’s a shame not to give some of them more time than they get here.

Praise goes too to a smörgåsbord of gorgeous moments, from the Ancient-Norse-meets-science-fiction space battle through gleaming towers and spires half way through to the wondrous, under-utilised setpiece of a warehouse found early on by children which defies physics (floating trucks and all) and the climax of the film in Greenwich, where loveably unsubtle Thor looks valiantly out of place in greyscale London (brace for a tube gag almost as good as when Skyfall did it) and which plays out like Man of Steel was made by someone competent. It’s a shame The Dark World opens, in seemingly dogged keeping with the formula from Thor, with a voiceover from Odin, when either of the first two might have made a stunning introductory sequence. The warehouse in particular evokes Guillermo del Toro’s style, which one feels filmmakers hoped to suggest with the Dark Elves’ design.

It’s not as funny as reviews suggest, or at least I didn’t find it so. I’ll grant that I saw it, as I often try to with new films, in a nearly empty cinema, and the group dynamic of a packed house often helps with comedy, but then again, I fell about watching Iron Man 3 in a comparable sparse room. This said, some moments play fantastically. Half way through or so, Loki especially receives some quite wonderful quips, delivered rapid-fire like Roger Moore’s in The Spy Who Loved Me (Bond fans may be reminded, specifically, of Barbara Bach’s van-driving scene). A metereological slapstick sequence in the first hour – yes, this is now a concept – offers surreal genius, as does the groaning slide of battling demigods down the glass side of London’s gherkin. One more serious gambit which impresses is a loyalty-switching, limb-severing development far less expected than it should have been, testament to the acting chops of all involved.

It’s The Dark World‘s script, unfortunately, which lets it down. The picture wanders aimlessly for much of its just-less-than-two-hour length, some elements included for no clear reason – among them, for example, a battle and later callback on a forested, seemingly Asian planet and a sketchy lecture-giving scene from Skarsgärd. The effect is most of the film’s gratifying action and fun being left to its second hour (web commentary so far gets this weakness spot-on), and as Den of Geek note in their spoiler-filled analysis, it never seems quite to know what to do next, and lacks in this sense the integritas of its predecessor. The plot’s MacGuffin, a haze of swirling, evillish red-black mist, and Malekith’s designs for it never quite work; I never really understood, nor cared much about, just what it did or how he planned to threaten/end/rule the cosmos with it. Two major deaths take place, neither of which entirely worked for me: the first, while not the one I expected on buying a ticket, bumped off a character I hadn’t much invested in to start with; the second, conversely, predictable while anticlimactic and emotionally unconvincing. There’d more to be said on both counts, but let’s hold that discussion in the comments.

Joss Whedon, we’d been told, gave this script a once-over polish – certainly, his work shows through in the jokes and camera phone moments. Perhaps producers went to him sensing things weren’t quite right yet, but if so he seems to have been too sheepish to advance the radical rewrites this really needed. Still, as a whole this a quintessentially good film, neither very good nor unsatisfactory – three stars, perhaps. Marvel’s Avengers series has still to give us a bad entry, and while overall this might be one of the weaker ones, it’s pretty fulfilling watched with managed expectations and a sense of fun.