Thor: The Dark World: Flipping the Script in Your Sequel
If you've perused my site or listened to my podcast, you might be aware that I like superheroes and superhero movies. And for almost 13 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has dominated the superhero genre in film. Since these movies are easily the most successful comic book adaptations to come out of Hollywood, every other week I am going to examine one of the films in the series (in order, naturally) and figure out what we as writers can learn from each movie.
This week, we discuss Thor: The Dark World, the most (unfairly?) maligned Marvel movie, but one that actually does some fun stuff with the writing... despite some major missteps.
I don't entirely understand why people don't like Thor: The Dark World. There's one common criticisms, and an issue that I think people feel subconsciously but I've never heard mentioned, and we'll come back to both shortly. But first, let's look at what the film does well.
1. The Flipped Premise. In the first Thor movie, we only got a surface-level glimpse at Asgard before Thor is cast down to Earth to be a fish-out-of-water. In The Dark World, Jane is taken to Asgard at the end of Act 1, which allows her to be the newbie walking around his world.
2. The Supporting Cast. In the first movie, Thor has barely any time spent with his friends/supporting cast in Asgard, but the sequel gives us more time with all of them (except for Hogun, who is left behind on another realm to "help his people," so he's effectively dropped for no clear story reason). There are some lovely one-on-one scenes where Thor talks to Odin or Sif or Heimdall, or where Loki talks to Freya, that really enrich the supporting cast. I begrudge the fact that most of these characters are stripped out for the second half of the film, and really hate how so many of them are mishandled in Ragnarok. This film gives us the clearest look at the potential of Thor's supporting cast, and I really wish they hadn't been abandoned.
On a similar note, I really enjoy Jane, Darcy and Dr. Selvig (and Ian the intern), and I like how they are used throughout the film and at the climax. They never steal the spotlight but they get to participate more in the action than they did in the first film, and they provide some nice comic relief throughout.
3. Humor. On that note, I genuinely think that Thor: The Dark World has a really good balance of humor. Some later Marvel films have humor that misses the mark for me (especially Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Thor: Ragnarok), but I think the jokes in this film land pretty well.
4. Shenanigans. I love the sequence at the beginning where people wander through a house full of strange abnormalities - floating trucks, disappearing bottles and keys, etc. It really reminds me of a segment from The Animatrix, and I love how that stuff leads into the main plot. It brings Jane into contact with the Aether, and much later it's how Thor and Jane escape the Dark World. Plus, the final battle where everyone keeps teleporting around London and in-and-out of the other realms is a lot of fun.
5. Loki. He was a wonderfully-detailed villain in Thor, and an over-the-top enemy in The Avengers, but I think everyone's favorite version of Loki - as the snarky jerk who could possibly be redeemed - all comes from this film. The creators added a lot of Loki in the reshoots, and it really works to the film's benefit. (Also, he was originally supposed to die for real, but the reshoots spared him and secretly put him on the throne, so that was a huge blessing to the MCU as well.)
He is the center of some of the best scenes, and I genuinely think without his portrayal in this movie, we'd never have gotten a Loki show. This is where he entered his new role in Thor's supporting cast - not as the perpetual villain, but as an antagonistic figure who could never be relief on, but sometimes will do the right thing... just not always for the right reasons.
Now, this is by no means my favorite Marvel movie, so let's look at the mistakes the film makes:
1. The Villain. Look, we all know Marvel had a villain problem for most of Phase 1 and 2, and Malekith is the absolute bottom of the barrel. He's so, so, so boring. I don't actually think he's that much worse than Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy, but that film has other antagonists to help carry the load; Malekith is out there on his own, doing his thing, and it always grinds the movie to a halt. He's just a whole lot of nothing.
2. Where are the Avengers? I mentioned this in my Iron Man 3 blog, but this is the biggest issue I believe plagued Marvel's Phase 2. The fact that Ant-Man, the final film of Phase 2, is the first solo movie where anybody utters the phrase "We should call the Avengers" is a confirmation that The Avengers changed the nature of superhero movie universes... and also a clear sign that Marvel couldn't keep making ordinary superhero sequels anymore. Captain America: The Winter Soldier starts cracking that code by introducing Black Widow, but that makes The Dark World the last solo Avengers sequel, and it feels like a glaring plot hole.
That being said, Captain America makes a cameo (via an illusion by Loki) and it's one of the best moments in the film.
3. Sidelining Hogun. We never get to spend much time with the Warriors Three in this franchise, and in this film, they're separated for the entire runtime when Hogun is left in his home realm of Vanaheim. I think this sends a few subtle messages that the audience bristled against. The first is that Thor's Asgard friends are not as important as his Earth friends, which keeps the audience from forming a strong connection with them.
The second, of course, comes from the fact that Hogun is played by a Japanese actor, and he is sidelined from the plot after the first action sequence. It's another example in a long trend of film history of an Asian character getting sidelined for no clear reason. I rarely hear this brought up as an issue with the film, but I think it's an unconscious issue that audiences can feel.
4. Fridging Freya. Unlike so many franchises, the Marvel films are pretty good about not fridging their female characters - which is to say, killing them in order to motivate the actions of a male character. It still happens a few times - there's a fake-out with Pepper in Iron Man 3, it's part of Hank's backstory in Ant-Man, it arguably happens three times in Civil War (Peggy Carter, Zemo's family, and Maria Stark), a reveal around Peter's mom's death changes the course of Guardians 2, and it's a major part of Infinity War and Endgame.
But you can make the case that Freya is the most overt example (at least until we reach Vormir). After all, she doesn't seem to have much of a role in the film aside from supporting Thor and Loki (mostly Loki), and her death makes Odin reckless and galvanizes Thor and Loki to work together to avenge her death.
Perhaps because the discussion around this film is so superficial, I rarely ever hear any discussion besides "The villain is bad" and "The movie is dumb." But we can actually learn from what people responded to, and what they didn't. I've shown this film to so many people, and it always gets really good reactions at the right scenes - it knows how to connect with its audience. But once the film is over, the problems above overwhelm the good parts in the audiences' memories.
But the good news is, everything above is something we as writers can learn from.
It's no secret that Marvel has a lot of bad villains, but Malekith could've been improved in any number of ways. The death of Freya is meant to make Malekith a more personal villain, but he could've had a deeper/more personal connection to Odin or Thor prior to the start of the film. He could have had a more explicit plan beyond "Destroy everything because I want everything destroyed." He could've had literally any personality at all, that would've been nice.
There could have been more of an effort to incorporate the story into the world at large. We may not be telling stories at the same scale as something like the MCU, but when we write sequels, we are trying to build on what came in the story before. By not addressing the other Avengers as possible allies, it feels like the film is failing to pay off what has been set up prior, since there's no real reason not to at least try to call them in to help.
Hogun and Thor's friends could - and should - have been given more to do in the second half of the film. After Thor's daring escape to the Dark World, his friends are essentially dropped from the film. On the one hand, that can help Thor feel more isolated, which is valuable to create drama. On the other hand, they are fun characters who should mean a lot to Thor, and it would be nice to see him rewarded by bringing his worlds together and asking for their help. And even if they're left behind in Asgard, the climax theoretically involves all of the dimensions blending together, so there should be a chance to see them again (besides just the quick shot of Hogun staring at the sky).
And finally, Thor's mother - who has so much potential as a character - does not need to be sidelined to propel the story forward. If you have a scene like this in your story, where a woman dies to make the conflict between two men more personal, ask yourself if there's another way to accomplish this instead. Because whenever a story sidelines a woman for the story of a man, it sends an unconscious signal to the audience about who is more valuable, and that can alienate your audience.
In short, I think we should all rewatch Thor: The Dark World. You might find you enjoy it more than you remember, but if you don't, I think we can learn a lot from the film.