It’s hard to find the words to adequately describe how stupid Thor: The Dark World is.
Before I try, a warning: this review contains spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
And in case you’re wondering, I saw this movie early because I’m writing from Paris; the movie opened earlier in France than in the U.S. And yes, I did see the film in English (and in 3D, which didn’t add anything). The only French was subtitles — or double subtitles for the Dark Elves.
The movie opens with ponderous narration by Odin, which essentially says, “Oh, yeah, by the way, long ago we fought these things called the Dark Elves.” Yes, if the Frost Giants of the first film weren’t a bland enough fantasy cliché for you, now we have the Dark Elves. We’re shown completely generic pitch battles. The sequence also sets up this particular movie’s McGuffin: the Aether, a force that can somehow unmake the universe. How is never explained. What it is is never explained. Why it doesn’t have a better name is never explained. It’s just this thing that can unmake the universe, which by the way these Dark Elves want to do.
Soon, we see Jane Foster fall through a rift in space, where she happens to encounter… wait for it… the Aether. Now, the opening informed us that Bor, Odin’s father, ordered the Aether buried where no one would ever find it. What this meant, it turns out, is a giant, purpose-free cavern straight out of Lord of the Rings (this is not a complement), where characters can see the energy of the Aether glowing in a column and would naturally be attracted to it. The Aether inhabits Jane Foster, who’s then whisked back home to Earth. How, we don’t know, but it’s the least of the movie’s problems already.
We later learn that the rift Jane Foster went through is one of many caused by the nine realms coming into alignment, which happens every 5000 years. There’s some vague talk about how the nine world twist around Yggdrasil, the Norse world tree, until they align. The entire plot hinges on this preposterous idea, which make no sense either in terms of Norse mythology nor the science we’re occasionally told (without any evidence) the movie’s version of Norse mythology really is. It’s a plot that would make most low-budget grindhouse sci-fi directors blush with embarrassment, yet (thanks to the financial success of Marvel’s movies) we now get to see how it would look with a nine-figure budget.
Of course, even this doesn’t explain why Jane Foster happened to teleport straight to the Aether. (It hurts to type this sentence, incidentally.) Yes, she’s investigating an anomaly, and she runs off, so that she’s the only one who gets teleported there. But why did this alignment cause a rift to open, out of all the nine worlds, straight into this secret place where the universe-unmaking Aether is kept?
It’s like if Lois Lane, following leads for a news story in her capacity as a reporter, happened upon a vortex caused by an alignment not only with Krypton but seven other planets, and got teleported straight to a secret Kryptonian cavern where a universe-unmaking magical thing only just introduced possessed her.
It’s not like this is incidental to the plot. This is the plot. Everything flows from this. Because Jane Foster’s the host for the Aether, those Dark Elves wake up. Because Heimdall can’t see her when she’s in the Aether cave, Thor goes to Earth and takes Jane Foster to Asgard, which the Dark Elves attack, killing Thor’s mother and scores of Asgardians.
The Dark Elves don’t get the Aether, though. But they’ll be back. Thor wants to take Jane Foster away from Asgard, because Thor’s pretty certain the Dark Elves will destroy Asgard when they return. Hard to know why this is, since Thor helped chase them off the first time. But Thor wants to get the Aether away from Asgard, and for this to make any sense, we’re told that Malekith, the head Dark Elf, can sense where the Aether is.
Except he couldn’t find it, when it was secreted away eons ago. That was the whole point of hiding it. The whole plot hinges on that. Sure, you can do the filmmakers’ work and say that the underground cave the Aether was stored in blocked Malekith’s spiritual Aether-homing sense, but why wouldn’t he have sensed its movements as it was transported there and an elaborate home constructed for it? The obvious answer is that it’s convenient for the plot for Malekith to have this power all of a sudden, yet admitting this destroys the entire movie on its own terms.
At this point, Thor’s plan is that when the head Dark Elf, named Malekith, takes the Aether out of Jane — something the Asgardians can’t do, but Malekith somehow can — Thor will somehow destroy the Aether and then Malekith. Odin doesn’t approve, so Thor releases Loki and takes Jane Foster away anyway.
Everyone’s super clear about the fact that what Thor’s doing is treason. Nonetheless, Thor’s usual crew is only too happy to join in. If this sounds familiar, it should: all the Asgardians were only too happy to commit treason in the first movie too, after Loki assumed the throne. For all the movies’ talk about kingship, these characters who we’re supposed to think of as loyal, honor-bound warriors commit treason at the drop of a hat. Any hat.
It’s not even like Thor’s plan makes sense. Sure, he can say he’ll destroy the Aether, but how is he going to do that? All of Asgard couldn’t do that, eons ago, even after it had defeated the Dark Elves (again, it is hard to type such preposterous sentences) and had the Aether all to itself.
It’s worth mentioning that this treason is entirely unnecessary to the story. Yes, it gives Thor’s Asgardian buddies something to do — fighting other Asgardians yet again. And yes, this gives the movie some mild excitement, in the form of a pretty lame chase scene. Other than that, Asgard has no future role in the plot until a brief scene after the climax, so Odin could have approved of Thor’s plan, and the movie would have unfolded in exactly the same way. The entire treason sequence makes no difference whatsoever.
No one even addresses the fact that Asgard’s been attacked and Thor’s mother is dead because Thor brought Jane Foster to Asgard. Odin’s initially horrified by this — until he learns that the Aether’s inside Jane Foster. It seems impossible to believe that Thor or Odin knew then that Malekith had spiritual Aether-homing powers. Conveniently, we’re only told this after the fact, when the movie needs to justify Thor’s completely unnecessary treason. Thor doesn’t spend a second blaming himself for bringing Jane Foster to Asgard, which led to the attack. Nor does anyone else, despite that this would have underlined Thor’s larger dilemma, of how his love for an Earth girl has jeopardized his Asgardian nature. No one even mentions that everyone’s dead because of Thor’s choice.
Instead, all the principal characters mourn Thor’s mother, ignoring Thor’s own role in this. There’s a little lip service for all the other fallen Asgardians, but that’s what they’re there to do: die anonymously. Unless they’re Thor’s treason-happy buddies, or his privileged royal family, no one in Asgard matters. In this regard, they’re similar to the treason, the basic conceits on which the movie hangs, and really the entire plot.
Why does Thor need to free Loki, in order to accomplish his treasonous plot to lure Malekith’s previously unmentioned Aether-sense away from Asgard and to annihilate the Aether through unspecified means? Because no other means of teleportation is available, and only Loki knows a secret way off Asgard. It’s a shame that Thor couldn’t happen upon one of those convenient portals that whisked Jane Foster straight to the Aether. After all, all the worlds are coming into alignment, not just Earth. Yet these anomalies apparently never strike Asgard, even through the end of the movie.
When Thor and Loki, with Jane Foster in tow, confront Malekith, there’s a nice fake-out, in which Loki seems to betray Thor the second Thor takes Loki out of handcuffs. We soon learn this is all an illusion, created by Loki, who hasn’t betrayed his brother at all. It’s a nice fake-out until you realize that not only weren’t you shown the two planning this together, which they surely would have had to do, but the way it’s staged makes no sense if Malekith is the intended audience. Malekith doesn’t know Loki’s in handcuffs. He couldn’t hear the dialogue, as the cuffs are removed. Also, neither Thor nor Jane Foster show any sign that they — not the actors playing them, but the characters — are acting, and we can’t imagine either would be good actors. Of course, the entire fake-out wasn’t staged for Malekith’s benefit; it was staged for ours. And like everything else in this movie, it doesn’t hold up to the slightest bit of scrutiny. Push on anything even the slightest bit, and it comes crashing down like a house of cards.
Next, we find out how Thor planned to destroy the Aether, once Malekith pulled it out of Jane Foster. By blasting it with his hammer. That’s it. The Aether shatters for some reason –which makes no sense at all that the Aether would shatter under this attack, since it doesn’t even seem tangible most of the time. It soon reforms. In fact, it has to shatter, though not for any narrative reason; it has to shatter to make Thor’s attempt seem impressive. Otherwise, we might realize that all of Asgard couldn’t destroy the Aether, so Thor’s kind of an idiot for thinking throwing his hammer at it will do the trick. Having the intangible Aether inexplicably shatter makes it seem like Thor didn’t fail by all that much. He’s not a total idiot, nor completely immoral for committing treason to execute such an ill-conceived plan, with the entire universe at stake.
By the way, as Thor explained his plan on Asgard, it was that he’d wait until Malekith (inexplicably) sucked the Aether out of Jane Foster; then Thor would destroy the Aether and then destroy Malekith. The first part of this plan — destroying the Aether — didn’t work so well. But while the Aether was in its shattered state, Thor takes no action against Malekith. He simply watches while the Aether reforms and enters the villain, who now has the capacity to destroy the universe. Thor could have blasted Malekith in this time. It might not have defeated Malekith immediately, but it would have at least delayed him absorbing universe-ending power. In fact, with the Aether out of Jane Foster, there’s no reason for Thor not to focus on Malekith. Yet Thor, who seems able to defeat anyone pretty easily, just stand still. Because it’s convenient to the plot.
Malekith escapes, and Loki apparently dies defeating Malekith’s head warrior. Thor and Jane Foster are left there, with no way out. Until they happen upon the same portals seen in the beginning, including the one that took Jane right to the Aether in the first place. It’s quite the coincidence, which only serves to underline the lunacy of the coincidence that got the plot underway. But the big problem isn’t that Thor and Jane happen to wander into the right cave, after their fight.
Nor is the big problem really that we now have to understand the Aether was just left inside a cave. No one bothered to seal it up or anything. Just build a nice column, attractive enough to cause anyone who sees it to approach, build a nice ledge over a near-infinite cliff, an then leave the cave door open.
No, the big problem is that Loki — who just happened to be the only one who could get Thor and Jane out of Asgard — took them to a secret passage that just happened to lead to this ultra-secret place the Aether was being kept. Was this where that secret passage led all along? Had Loki visited there before? It doesn’t seem so, but are we supposed to think the secret passage takes people to random places, and it just happened to open here? We have no way of knowing, because the movie isn’t smart enough to even ask these questions, nor does it think enough of us to think us capable of doing so.
The plot only got underway through one such absurd coincidence. Now, it can’t move into its climax without another. And they’re both involving teleportation to the same place. Man, for a secret place to hide the force that can unmake the universe, the Asgardians sure seem to have chosen somewhere that gets a lot of traffic.
Earlier, when I was forced to write that the Nine Realms align every 5000 years, I wanted to point out that there’s no evidence for this in human history. You’d think that portals opening to other worlds, about 3000 B.C.E., would get remembered somehow or leave some archaeological mark. But in fact, the movie does mention this. Dr. Erik Selvig realizes that the ancients left us a map to the exact point at which the Nine Realms will converge.
I’m not joking.
Selvig takes a map and draws a line through several ancient sites, including Stonehenge. It plays like one of those scenes where someone realizes sites are in the form of a pentagram (usually drawn with five points, which can also be connected as a circle), or an ancient constellation. It’s a terrible cliché. The lines Selvig draws converge in Greenwich in London.
No, I’m not joking.
Conveniently, Selvig and Jane’s friends are nearby! It’s also convenient that all the other ancient sites around the world weren’t also points meant for some future human to draw lines through. How Selvig knew which sites to include is a complete mystery, except that he says they were all astrological sites — a claim which can be applied to virtually all ancient sites, including the Great Pyramid.
Again, I am not joking.
Selvig and Jane’s friends then proceed to set up devices in Greenwich. We saw a few of these devices earlier in the film, when Selvig was released from jail after streaking at Stonehenge. (Incidentally, I learned from Thor: The Dark World that the only thing required to get people out of jail in Britain is to pretend to be that person’s son. The police don’t check ID or anything.) Now, we find out what these devices are.
They’re posts that allow Selvig and company to control the rifts in space that are going to appear, via big boxes with dials that looks rather like the remote controls for toy cars.
No really, I’m not joking.
In the climax, we see some of the eight realms converging in the sky overhead. They look like discs of rippling color. Why do they look like this? Aren’t they actually planets of some sort? Weren’t we told this is advanced science, not magic? Other realms don’t experience this same effect in the sky, so why are all the realms converging on Earth? Wouldn’t the point of alignment also affect a point on the opposite side of the planet? Wouldn’t it continue to shift, as the Earth rotates?
To even have to ask such questions is to confirm that this is a very silly sort of magic at work in a very silly sort of movie. It’s certainly not anything even attempting even a superficial veneer of science or logic. It’s B-movie logic. At best.
During the climactic fight, rifts keep opening, teleporting characters too and fro. It’s a little amusing, even if this kind of thing has been done before in comics. The only problem is that these rifts operate in the same convenient, unbelievable way as the ones on which the entire plot is based. There’s a mind behind where they appear and when, and it’s transparently a B-movie writer’s.
For example, a little earlier, we saw a flock of birds disappear from the sky only to appear from under the characters’ feet on the concrete. It’s a cool moment, at least for about the tenth of a second it takes you to wonder why the characters didn’t fall through the portal under their feet, or why it appeared entire seconds after the birds disappeared, or why the vast space the flock consumed in the sky has been reduced to perhaps a radius of twenty feet (without the birds shrinking), or why the birds didn’t seem freaked out that they’re now flying straight upwards instead of to the side, or how lucky it was that the portal didn’t opened completely parallel to the ground, apparently directly on the ground, and that no part of the portal was a few millimeters lower so that the birds would materialize inside solid matter. These are all questions any writer would ask immediately upon coming up with what seems like a cool idea, but they either don’t seem to have been asked here, or the decision was made that the audience for these films is so stupid that they’re incapable of asking such questions about virtually anything in the film.
And so, in the climax, we have portals opening for dramatic effect, dropping cars and teleporting fighter jets into amusing settings. But no one gets sent into the vacuum of space, nor into a sea of acid, nor to somewhere too cold to survive. Instead, it’s all funny, and you can count on a portal to open up directly along the ground, right at the necessary time to continue this tumbling from place to place.
Similarly, Selvig and company frantically spin dials, which seem always either (1) to teleport villains away at just the last second, or (2) to teleport things in the most funny way possible. Villains are routinely teleported away and never seen again, but the good guys are always safe. They’re certainly never teleported into a stone wall. It’s all thoroughly preposterous, although it gives no sign of knowing it’s preposterous.
The best example of this is the end of the climax, during which Jane Foster rushes out to aid an unconscious Thor escape from a falling spacecraft. (It was hard not to recall the spacecraft ludicrously falling and rolling in 2012′s Prometheus.) Foster’s got lots of time to try to revive him, but she winds up just cradling him and waiting to die with him. Some damsels in distress these days are permitted a convenient moment like this, in which they save the hero (see Iron Man 3), thus at least acknowledging that the writers understand the potentially sexist implications of their work. Not here, though. Foster can’t wake Thor up, so she decides to die with him instead.
And then we realize that the ship’s not falling anymore. Selvig’s spun his dials, and opened up the biggest rift of the climax, teleporting most of the entire alien ship away as it falls.
It’s certainly convenient. One wonders why, if Selvig could do this, he didn’t open up a portal straight through the ship, cutting it in half when Thor inevitably hit the ground and made everything shake. Then again, these portals have acted as a convenient plot device from the very beginning of the movie, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the climax ends on another such note.
At the very end of the movie, at least before the credits, we get a nice conversation between Odin and Thor. It’s not bad dialogue or acting, although it would be better if Odin mentioned that all the other traitors have been executed, which would be entirely appropriate, and added that Asgard’s devastation (now already fully repaired, it would seem) was Thor’s fault. Unfortunately, this father-son moment is completely undermined when we see that Odin is really Loki, who’s survived!
It’s a nice final twist, except that there’s no explanation as to how Loki escaped, nor replaced Odin. It’s cool, but doesn’t really make any more sense than anything else in Thor: The Dark World.
One reason why this twist is so satisfying is that it’s impossible to root for anyone in this film except for Loki. Personally, I often find myself rooting for the bad guy, especially when I realize that he’s a victim of terrible writing. When someone’s worse than the hero only because of writerly sleight of hand, I resent it, and I start wanting the villain to win. It’s the only thing that can redeem such a story.
And Loki’s by far the most interesting character in the film. As soon as Tom Hiddleston comes on screen, the endless morass that is Thor: The Dark World perks up, just a little bit. But what’s surprising is that Loki’s the only character with which I could begin to identify or begin to consider as a moral entity. He’s at odds with himself, seemingly upset over his past actions and certainly upset with the fate he’s been dealt. For those who remember the first film, he’s got at least some cause to complain: he was adopted, lied to his whole life, and all his best efforts can never earn the throne Odin offers to the muscle-bound idiot Thor. Moreover, Loki appears to be torn up over his adoptive mother’s death. She was the only one who was nice to him; certainly, Odin and Thor aren’t. Odin and Thor also aren’t shown mourning, at least not in the lost way Loki does.
More importantly, Thor and Odin seem incapable of evaluating or questioning their own actions. The plot is rigged so they never really have to. Thor never spends a second wondering if his mother would be alive if he hadn’t brought this human girl to Asgard, an act which repulsed his father. Thor never spends a second wondering if all the people who have died on Earth, in both movies, wouldn’t have died if he hadn’t made a whole series of questionable decisions, in both films. Thor never spends a second wondering if he’s been a terrible influence on Jane Foster, who’s abandoned her astrophysics work and has been reduced to pining for him, getting possessed by a universe-unmaking force, and being placed in jeopardy over and over again. Thor never spends a second reconsidering his treason, in this movie or the previous one, even though he did so this time around in order to execute a plan that was ill-conceived at best, that put the entire universe at risk, and that probably led to lots of humans dying.
The movie doesn’t want us to notice any of this, preferring instead to obscure these obvious implications and rely on our propensity to identify with the handsome and powerful protagonist. But the result isn’t simply a Thor who’s thoughtless and stupid; it’s a Thor whose palpably amoral. After all, even if it doesn’t lead to any specific action, the most modest requirement of morality in any relationship is to ask, at least to one’s self and on occasion, “Am I good for her?” Thor could ask this of Jane Foster, but he could also ask it of Odin, of Loki, of Asgard, and of Earth. The answers are far from obvious, but the movie does everything it can to prevent us from asking these questions the characters refuse to ponder — despite that doing so is the least requirement for morality.
Odin could ask these same questions of himself. At least Loki’s honest about being a trickster.
Then there are the human “characters.” Dr. Erik Selvig is too incoherent to even ponder as a character. Although it’s implied that his mental breakdown is due to having been possessed by Loki, in 2012′s The Avengers, he’s somehow managed to construct devices that manipulate teleportational portals during this breakdown. Later, we’re supposed to laugh at how sitting in his underwear helps him to think. He’s played for comic relief, even though his story is a tragic one of a presumably great mind that’s been crushed under the weight of gods intervening in human affairs. By the time he ridiculously deduces where the realms will align, he’s reduced to a walking plot device. He’s certainly not a character.
Of course, the Asgardians are pretty one-dimensional. But the worst are the female warriors, such as Sif. If depicting emotionally needy women is bad, depicting all your women as kick-ass warriors is at least as bad — especially if they still retain the same absurd supermodel bodies. Talk about unrealistic expectations. It’s also simply unrealistic: we’re now accustomed to seeing women who weigh 100 pounds swinging what must be 30-pound swords, or kicking over 300-pound men, and other absurd feats. It’s hard to see such images and not laugh, but it’s also hard to imagine that they’re any better than seeing these same, uncommonly buxom but skinny bodies depicted submissively in lingerie. It might not exactly be female empowerment, but at least that would be honest about what’s being sold.
But the movie has far worse problems on the character and gender fronts than this. What do we make of the fact that both Darcy Lewis and Jane Foster are so cruel to Darcy’s new intern? They categorically refuse to learn his name. They don’t respond when he speaks. He’s a non-entity to them. It’s uncomfortable to watch. But this too is played for laughs, even though he seems like a nice guy — albeit one who’s so unfathomably stupid that he tosses the car keys into a portal he’s just been told is at least sometimes one-way. But then again, this too is played for laughs, as if we’re not supposed to see it as representing a character trait at all, because it is funny. Are we supposed to see Darcy, who is Jane’s intern, as passing her own abuse down to her own intern? Probably not, since this sort of hazing would implicate Jane, suggesting that’s she’s warped Darcy’s psychology. Of course, Darcy’s cruel treatment of him sets up his redemption in the climax, which is a rather nice turn — except that it suggests that all a woman needs is for a man to rescue her, even if he’s someone she’s treated as an absolute non-person, for her to instantly fall in love.
That is apparently how the two Thor movies see women, however. Critics of the first film (including myself) pointed out how astrophysicist Jane Foster is almost instantly reduced by Thor to a fawning girl. She’s completely unbelievable as an astrophysicist. In the sequel, we learn that, after her encounter with Thor, she’s given up her career. Her brilliant mind — or so one has to presume — is completely going to waste. Thor’s not even around. In his wake, she’s left pining for him, going out on dates, during which she’s more awkward than any schoolgirl. When Thor returns, she slaps him — twice (and later, Loki once). But that doesn’t make her a feminist role-model; indeed, the slap is a traditionally effeminate gesture, one common to the most old-fashioned of gender portrayals. It is “a girl’s version of hitting someone.” Then she spends the rest of the movie staring lovingly at Thor, who rarely expresses anything back.
The climax of her arc comes in the climax of the film, in which she tries to awaken Thor, fails, and then demonstrates her love by deciding to die with him.
Because she’s nothing without her hot alien protector, don’t you know? After meeting him, what girl wouldn’t give up a career as an astrophysicist, which represents perhaps a decade of higher education and apprenticeship, simply to pine away like a character from a romance comic?
I started this piece by saying it was hard to find words to adequately describe this movie’s stupidity. One way is by pointing out that I feel bad for the creative people associated with the film. Imagine being Anthony Hopkins and having to speak these lines. But at least he’s got high-sounding nonsense in his dialogue about family and kingship.
We all know Natalie Portman can act. Here, it seems as if she’s been directed in every scene to “stare lovingly at Thor.” Damned if she doesn’t nail it. She stares with such an expression that it’s hard not to believe she’s not absolutely smitten. It’s damn fine acting. But what a role to be stuck in.
I’m sure this applies equally to lots of people behind the scenes. The movie is abysmal, but that doesn’t mean everyone working on it lacks talent. It’s far more likely that they tried their best, under the constraints put on them. So when I say the writing is atrocious (and it is) that doesn’t mean it’s the writers’ fault. For all I know, they could have pointed all of these problems out and been told not to worry about them — market studies showed that the audience is too stupid to care.
Another way of expressing the movie’s stupidity is to say that even the things it gets right, or that at least are interesting, it still gets wrong, or can’t decide how to depict.
One of the two Thor films’ main themes is of royalty and kingship, and that’s why Kenneth Branagh (known for his Shakespeare work) was such a clever choice to direct the first film. Indeed, some of the best moments in both films are when characters are talking about duty, family, and treason.
But even this these movies can’t get right. One moment, we’re being told something very old-fashioned and in line with traditional kingship; for example, that a subject owes his or her king absolute loyalty, even when a king is wrong. That’s certainly always been a part of how kingship works, at least in theory. To remove that is to reduce a king to a figurehead, as is more or less the case with most European kings today. Such loyalty — absolute, though not necessarily blind — is certainly how kingship in Norse mythology worked.
Yet no sooner has some such statement been uttered, in the Thor films, than someone comes along and says something absurd, like how a king must be honest with his people or with themselves. This is some present-day gibberish. Of course, kings were expected to provide for their people (while living comparatively high on the hog themselves) and certainly to protect them, not only physically but also spiritually (which is never addressed in the Thor films). But honesty? Soul-searching? To be true and fair? Give me a break.
This same problem is true of Asgard in general. We’re told that it’s built on science, and both films have the most pathetic of lines to support this. For example, Jane Foster identifies what the Asgardians call a “Soul Forge” as a “quantum field generator.” By the way, it doesn’t matter what this device is; it never appears and is only referenced to make this point about how all the stupid things in Asgard are really science! Of course, “quantum” is one of those words routinely sprinkled in psudo-scientific scripts to make anything seem more scientific. So even this “scientific” term is meaningless, and a “quantum field generator” certainly wouldn’t do what the characters think it does. Similarly, who the hell would call this a “Soul Forge?” Certainly no scientifically literate community. Here too, there’s no “forging of souls” involved, even in theory. This too is gibberish. The point is simply to juxtapose a magic-sounding phrase with a scientific-sounding phrase and hope people are too dumb to notice neither make any sense.
I simply cannot believe that anyone is still fooled by this. Yet I read people defending the idea, or claiming that the Asgardians in the movies aren’t gods, when they’re routinely called gods and act precisely as gods. It’s a bit like saying the X-Men aren’t super-heroes because they’re mutants, not super-heroes. This actually used to be said. It’s hogwash, and presenting nonsense like the Aether, or the Nine Realms, and then inserting a line of dialogue about how it’s all just complex science you don’t understand is the kind of writerly sleight of hand that ought to fool only children.
If it’s hard to find words to describe the movie’s stupidity, it’s also hard to express the absolute contempt with which the film must view its audience.
And so we’re given as Asgard that’s got a recognizable Norse influence. There’s no sign that the antiquated armor Asgardians wear has complicated circuitry in it, or that these are the shapes and forms best suited for some technological function. And yet this same society can have planes that clearly shoot what look like golden, vaguely steampunk-looking bullets and missiles. Or it can have teleportation and medial diagnostic tools that hover like floating particles in the air. Or the Rainbow Bridge can be a modern suspension bridge, a complete absurdity given that this was far beyond the Norse, yet also incredibly antiquated next to teleportation, anti-gravity, force fields, and other things we routinely see in Asgard.
This lack of definition leads me to wonder, as Heimdall scans the universe for Jane Foster and reports on her location (or lack thereof) in real time, about the speed of light. There is no godlike super-power, in a scientific universe, that can cause someone to see light that hasn’t yet arrived. Should such a device be invented, it won’t look like a person in vaguely Norse armor scanning the heavens with his eyes.
I would not wonder these things, if the movie simply told me this was Asgard, and these were gods, any more than I would wonder how Zeus can handle a lightning bolt without being electrocuted. But the Thor movies (and the Marvel cinematic universe in general) want things both ways. They want to do all the things magic lets stories do, but they also want to pretend these things are scientific. They could thread this needle, if they wanted, and work out precisely how each magical element worked, pseudo-scientifically; Star Trek did this. But the Marvel movies aren’t willing to do the work.
Obviously, the rule is simply that “anything goes” in Asgard; the whole function of Asgard being both Norse and having futuristic technology is that you can stick anything you want in there. Neither a spaceship from Star Wars nor a horse-drawn carriage would be out of place. Just slap on a vaguely Norse look, and you’re all good. There are no rules, and that’s why Asgard can never feel like a real place at all. It’s a hodgepodge, designed to wow but never designed to communicate anything else. At least the old paper-maché buildings, whether on Hollywood lots or for the World’s Fairs, were designed to look like stone structures. These largely computer-generated wonders look like nothing, nowhere.
This may be the worst condemnation of the film. Because for all of its stupidities, all of its thoughtlessness, and all of its gestures designed to inhibit actual thought, it is at least pretty. The actors are mostly pretty. The imaginary landscapes are pretty. Even the ugly bits are absurdly well composed. If there is one saving grace of the Thor movies, after everything else is admitted, it’s that they are at least nice to look at.
But even here, the internal contradictions baffle the senses. The coolest action sequence isn’t fun if I realize nothing I’m seeing makes sense, and the only reasons it’s happening or these characters are at risk is because of three absurd coincidences and some bad decisions those same characters made that the movie is trying to hide from me. You can be dramatic without having any actual drama in sight. In the same way, you can be beautiful without having any actual aesthetic. Even in the most lovely of shots in Thor, I’m being shown a contradiction, a hodgepodge that can’t make up its mind. I’m not looking at a realized fantastic world; I’m looking at something that even visually doesn’t make any sense.
I stare, and I find myself thinking that Norse mythology, created by a primitive civilization unaware of the germ theory of disease or our place in the cosmos, really isn’t compatible with contemporary technology, let alone futuristic ones. To even look at an Asgardian in Norse-influenced armor, standing on the Rainbow Suspension Bridge, with a cloaked Star Wars-esque ship to its side, is to see the films’ entire conception of Asgard collapse upon itself in a single image.
Of course, it’s pretty. As a fantasy print, I’d put it in a coffee-table book. But it’s not a place you want to be setting narratives.
It’s at times like this that I don’t feel like the movie relies on the audience being thoughtless, but rather puts an incredible strain on the audience, to possibly make sense of what’s being presented to it. To ignore the countless inconsistencies and ineptitudes. To make Asgard cohere as a civilization. Or Thor cohere as a character. Or The Dark World cohere as a story.
But the real strain, long-term, will be the one required to make the Marvel movies cohere as a universe, cameos and occasional references notwithstanding. To make Iron Man and Thor inhabit the same world together. This isn’t helped by the fact that Thor can’t even seem to squarely inhabit his own.