As new universes are born, the old ones fade into oblivion. Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and a small army of his dark elves escaped that fate as the newly-birthed nine realms ravaged everyone and everything he once knew. Despite being armed with the Aether -- the most devastating weapon either universe had ever witnessed -- Malekith and his army fell. The Aether could not
be destroyed, so the then-king of Asgard settled for the next best thing: burying the immortal weapon so deeply that no one could ever find it. For untold millenia, the Aether slumbered.
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Look, you can't blame Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). It's been two years since she last laid eyes on Thor...in person, anyway. While her godlike boyfriend has been away restoring order to most of the nine realms, Jane has been investigating the anomalies of interdimensional convergences. Maybe poking around one of those suckers the right way will get her a one-way ticket to Thor's stomping grounds of Asgard. Instead, she stumbles upon the Aether and is infected with power her mortal frame can't hope to contain. Malekith's thirst for vengeance is rekindled, and his ancient bond with the Aether leads him right to Thor's doorstep. The God of Thunder does what he can to shield Jane from harm, but her death seems all but certain, and his attempts to push back against Malekith threatens everything he holds dear: his home, his family, and...well, every living being across the known universe.
I feel as if I'm about to hammer out two completely different reviews here. If I were to look at Thor: The Dark World as the wide-eyed fanboy that I am rather than a quasi-seasoned critic, I have pretty much nothing but the most wildly enthusiastic things to say. The first Thor was in large part a fish out of water story -- the impact of a realm of gods careening head-on into our rather ordinary little world. Most of its time, accordingly, was spent on Earth. This sequel upends that dynamic, instead taking place largely on Asgard and is often seen through the eyes of a mortal. The Asgard we see here is more visually compelling and bursting at the seams with life in a way that remained somewhat elusive in the first film. The darker story here is tempered by a generally strong sense of humor. Even throughout its most grueling moments, The Dark World never feels bleak or joyless the way comics so often can these days. Chris Hemsworth's charm, screen presence, and increased confidence make for a reasonably compelling lead, and the movie doesn't mind that Tom Hiddleston continues to run away with every scene he's in as Thor's wicked, damaged brother. The dynamic between them is very possibly the greatest achievement of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. As for the scale and spectacle of the action, there really aren't words. Delivering everything from a Giger-esque aerial assault to singularity grenades to a pan-dimensional slugfest, whatever clichés you feel like rattling off about dropped jaws and rushes of adrenaline all very much apply here. The heavy use of its Asgardian setting also ensures that this otherworldly invasion feels entirely different than anything we came across in The Avengers. We're gifted with glimpses of more of the nine realms. The pacing never drags. The cinematography is a complete knockout. Heimdall finally gets a chance to cut loose. There's no shortage of "oh, #&%@!" moments throughout its second act. As someone who's been ravenously reading comic books for north of three decades, this initial viewing of Thor: The Dark World is maybe one Beta Ray Bill shy of just about everything I could ever have wanted to see. Loved it, loved it, loved it.
When I try to look at Thor: The Dark World as an armchair film critic, though, the movie's kind of a mess. The excitement of that first viewing masks some of its flaws, but I very strongly suspect it'll be more of a struggle to get through The Dark World a second time. The prologue feels almost like a shot-for-shot retread of the opening of Fellowship of the Ring. Malekith has many of the
best hallmarks of a villain: a cold, menacing visage, brilliant makeup and wardrobe, and the unmistakable sense that this is a threat not even the greatest of heroes could possibly overcome. An essentially unrecognizable Christopher Eccleston gives the performance his all. Unfortunately, Malekith leaves no real impression. His backstory is spelled out in narration. He has little-to-no discernable personality. We're off-handedly told why he wants to eradicate the universe -- seemingly including himself -- but his anguish and fury are never felt. He's supposedly trying to exact vengeance against the newborn universe that wiped out his own, but he dismissively slaughters most of what remains of his race as part of a getaway plan. I think that's supposed to make Malekith seem like that much more of a threat, but in practice, it shows just how poorly conceived a character he is. He wants to wipe out all life because he's an ancient, unstoppable evil, and that's what ancient, unstoppable evils are supposed to do. Malekith is undeniably a force to be reckoned with, but he's a non-entity as far as characterization goes, his goals and motives are ill-defined, and he's completely forgettable when stacked next to Tom Hiddleston's Loki. Much the same can be said for Malekith's weapon of choice, the Aether. More or less a MacGuffin, it's barely seen in action, even in the prologue. It's never really made clear what the Aether does or how it does it; there are just beaming red tentacles and an omnidirectional blast, and that's pretty much it. Snippets of dialogue and narration aside, there's absolutely nothing to suggest that it's the most devastating weapon ever unleashed in this or any other universe. Sometimes the shift between dark, dramatic sequences and goofball humor can be jarring. Stellan Skarsgård spends most of the flick sliding around on his flopsweat as a pantless, raving nutjob hopelessly damaged by Loki's possession of him in The Avengers. Too much of the supporting cast suffers in this sequel, to be honest. The Warriors Three feel largely stapled on as an unnecessary afterthought. Natalie Portman's Jane feels like more of a plot device this time around than a proper character. Oh well. At least Kat Dennings and her intern (Jonathan Howard) get their share of laughs.
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It's such a strange feeling because on one hand, I loved the holy hell out of Thor: The Dark World, but on the other, I kind of feel like I shouldn't ever bother watching it again. It's an entrancing spectacle, but I suspect that once that initial awe has faded, there's not much of anything lurking beneath the surface. Enthusiastically Recommended for a single viewing; more cautiously recommended as a purchase.
As expected, Thor: The Dark World looks absolutely flawless on Blu-ray. The 2.39:1 image is endlessly sharp and detailed. Though its palette is darker and more subdued than what we've gotten used to seeing in the Marvelverse,
these colors are gorgeous just the same, and they're lush and vibrant in those scattered moments when it's appropriate. More than anything, I'm in awe of the deft interplay between light and shadow...those smooth sorts of gradients that'd be reduced to a muddy smudge on lesser formats. I honestly can't find any room for complaint. No artificial edge enhancement or excessive filtering threaten to intrude, and the AVC encode never once sputters or stutters. The Dark World easily ranks as a reference quality disc and would be among the very first titles I'd grab off the shelf to show off my home theater.
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I wasn't sent the 3D version of The Dark World to review, which is just as well seeing as how I don't have a 3DTV and all. It's a conversion rather than a native 3D production, though, and the decision to convert was made after principal photography was already underway. I'd imagine that you might want to keep your expectations in check there. The 2D release of The Dark World arrives on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc. No combo pack this time around; if you want a DVD, you'll have to shell out for it separately.
This 24-bit, 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack stands on the brink of perfection as well. I'm startled by the distinctness and clarity of every last element in the mix, particularly the clean, brilliantly balanced dialogue. Though I'm a couple speakers shy of being able to take full advantage of the eight-channel audio, I'm still floored by the aggressive use of the surround channels: towering structures crumbling into ruin, otherworldly energy blasts attacking from all directions, alien craft tumbling from the heavens, an aerial siege pitted against streams of anti-aircraft fire, the swarming assaults of the Aether, and everyone and everything bounding between dimensions due to the convergence. The incomprehensible scale of the havoc wrought here unleashes a hellish amount of bass as well. Again, there really isn't much of anything for me to grouse and groan about: the exact caliber of work I'd expect from a Marvel blockbuster.
Also along for the ride are Dolby Digital 5.1 (640kbps) dubs in French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
- Marvel One-Shot: All Hail the King (14 min.; HD): I'll try to step lightly around spoilers in case you haven't picked up Iron Man 3 quite yet, but let's just say this faux-documentary catches up with one of the movie's most memorable characters, and there's more to his deception than anyone -- including himself! -- could ever have believed. "All Hail the King" is a hell of a lot of fun, piling on everything from a mid-credits surprise to a Russkie Magnum P.I. ripoff. Essential viewing.
- Deleted Scenes (8 min.; HD): There are six deleted and extended scenes in all, among them a lengthier celebration with a whole lot more Volstagg, a conversation between Thor and his mother that offers a little extra insight into Loki, and an extended spin on the assault on Vanaheim. All but that last one is accompanied by optional commentary, so you get to hear Tom Hiddleston talk over a shot of himself dressed as a certain First Avenger, something you'll be seeing a whole lot on Tumblr any day now.
- Featurettes (41 min.; HD): The centerpiece of Thor: The Dark World's behind-the-scenes extras is "A Brother's Journey:
Thor and Loki", a two-parter that clocks in just north of a half-hour, all told. The first half is largely oriented around the dynamic between the God of Thunder and his adoptive brother that Marvel has been exploring throughout three movies now. "A Brother's Journey" examines the relationship as characters and through the actors who bring them to life, including a glimpse of early screen tests. The back half of the featurette is more of a traditional making-of piece, touching on the production design behind these many realms, shaping Asgard into a more complete, living, organic world, and upping the ante with such spectacular fight choreography.
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Brian Tyler is showcased in his own five and a half minute featurette, delving deeply into his process as a composer, the origins of the movie's central themes, and even offering a peek at the recording of the symphonic score. The third and final featurette is a preview of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's not a trailer but, at three and a half minutes, isn't much longer than one.
- Gag Reel (3 min.; HD): Mugging for the camera, uncontrollable bursts of laughter, unexpected tumbles: yup, it's a gag reel, all right! Okay, I guess the ravens make it stand out a little more from the rest of the lot.
- Audio Commentary: Last but by no means least is a commentary track with director Alan Taylor, producer Kevin Feige, actor Tom Hiddleston, and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau. It's a lively, informative conversation whose highlights include the movie not originally having a prologue, that a certain rock monster ought to look familiar to anyone who's thumbed through Journey into Mystery #83, trying to avoid pitting the scale of its climax against that of The Avengers, piecing together some shots with elements photographed on three different continents, and the very different fatal blow that was originally envisioned. Not surprisingly, Tom Hiddleston steals the show, from everything to making a helpful video for a little girl playing Loki in a school play all the way to belting out Elton John and George Michael duets on the set. A worthy listen.
For this review, I was sent a retail disc in a loose sleeve, so I can't comment on final packaging quite yet.
The Final Word
I'm torn. As pure, escapist entertainment, Thor: The Dark World is a blast, deftly balancing the gravity of its darker story with visually dazzling superheroics. At the same time, I can't shake the feeling that this sequel won't hold up the second time through. The Dark World is kind of scattershot tonally, it doesn't take advantage of its supporting cast remotely as well as the first movie did, and it's saddled with an instantly forgettable villain. Absolutely worth seeing once, but I think I'd wait for a compelling sale before whipping out my credit card. Still Recommended, though.