What is the Dark World? Within the context of the second Thor film, it refers to the ancient chaos that existed before the present universe began, which now re-emerges to menace the Nine Realms. In terms of Marvel’s ongoing mission to colonise multiplex screens, however, it refers to a threat that none of its superheroes anticipated. Welcome to Loki: the real Dark World.
In just three films – Thor, Avengers Assemble and now T:TDW – Tom Hiddleston’s scheming, embittered god has become a firm fan favourite. Here Loki is elevated to co-lead alongside Chris Hemsworth and, in a touch perhaps inspired by co-star Anthony Hopkins, he is introduced Hannibal Lecter-style, imprisoned in his cell but somehow even more vital, wild and dangerous.
With Rush adding critical plaudits to his hammer-throwing heft, this should have been Hemsworth’s year. Yet as Thor races from Asgard to Earth and beyond, Hiddleston sits back, fires off a few pithy barbs and well-timed glances, and steals the movie.
That said, if ever there was to be a sub-franchise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe where such an opportunity for larceny exists, it is here. More than Iron Man, Hulk or Captain America, the Thor movies are already a strange, schizophrenic saga that thrives on leftfield contrasts.
Thor himself has to play the roles of interplanetary god on Asgard and naïve newcomer on Earth and, just as in the 2011 film, the tone collides kitsch space operatics with crowd-pleasing fish-out-of-water comedy.
Just to emphasise the cavalier genre-juggling, the plot of T:TDW deliberately punches holes in the fabric of space to allow characters to drop in and out of the story worlds. One minute we’re watching pop-Shakespearean tragedy; the next, a naked Stellan Skarsgård is arrested at Stonehenge.
In other words, ‘dark’ doesn’t really do justice to the film’s varied palette. Buoyed in part by Hiddleston, this is as camp as it is chaotic, never committed to the Nolanesque gloom implied by the subtitle and, even more than in the original, the mix’n’matching creates an entertaining brew.
On its own, Asgard remains a pompous place where characters discuss MacGuffins (Bifrost, Aether: a glossary of nonsense) and eyepatch-wearing Hopkins stomps about in search of more scenery to chew. Yet the plot continually conspires to gatecrash the place. Thor brings Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, arguably underused) home to meet – and bitch about – his family, underlining the sense to which Asgard resembles a fantasy version of Dallas with its power plays, betrayals and bling.
Then evil elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, not that you’d know it) invades with an arsenal of weapons – notably one that grabs everything in its vicinity and cocktail-shakes it into a stupor, and as such feels like a metaphor for the whole film.
And, of course, there’s Loki, an acerbic one-man chorus pouring scorn on everything and uprooting Thor’s command; only two jokers in the pack – Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger – have done more to displace a superhero.
Crucially, Loki provides an element missing from many of 2013’s other blockbusters: wit. Compared to the glowering sadism of Star Trek Into Darkness’ Benedict Cumberbatch or Man Of Steel’s Michael Shannon, Hiddleston plays Loki with such louche, dastardly glee that it’s as if one of those wormholes have transported him from an Errol Flynn-era swashbuckler.
For all the explosive set-pieces, the best battles here are verbal, and even action-man Hemsworth is at his best sparring with his screen sibling.
Yes, the plotting is perfunctory, as Foster (for no better reason than to give Portman something to do) alights on the very thing that threatens the existence of the Nine Realms, causing a succession of interplanetary hops, attacks, escapes and regroupings. Yet it’s all in the character interplay and tonal textures; for that, we should thank director Alan Taylor, whose versatility permits the story to roam free without getting lost.
When it was announced that the TV veteran was replacing Kenneth Branagh at the helm, some voices wondered if that was a loss of ambition on Marvel’s part. Yet don’t forget that Taylor (via The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men, Game Of Thrones and other high-profile gigs) has done more world-building than perhaps any director currently working.
In comparison, shooting the Nine Realms is easy. Taylor brings the same detail of his work in GOT in terms of laying out the various locations, notably in a grand Asgardian funeral sequence just the right side of overblown.
Oh, and at a time when skyscrapers have taken a beating in every other blockbuster, there’s pleasure in setting the final battle in the evocative environs of Greenwich. It’s a location that distinguishes itself by being classy, elegant and British.
An otherwise modest package of extras (don’t-watch-until-you’ve- seen-the-movie Making Of, deleted snippets, quick look at Captain America: The Winter Soldier) is elevated by the latest Marvel One-Shot, All Hail The King: a curtain call for Iron Man 3’s Trevor Slattery, cementing the character as Ben Kingsley’s most iconic since Sexy Beast’s Don Logan.
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