SPOILER WARNING: There are spoilers for Thor: The Dark World throughout this post!
I recommend watching this movie back-to-back with Thor, as it really emphasises the way the two
stories shift from personal character journey to sweeping epic. I watch A
LOT of superhero movies, but this was probably the best graduation from
origin story to sequel that I've seen so far. Thor is
purposefully the reverse of your typical superhero character arc because
instead of struggling with superpowers and learning how to become a
hero, he's learning how to be a fallible human and not have
superpowers. Even the obligatory daddy issues are far more interesting
than usual, because Odin is an actual character rather than a
long-dead ghost or an avatar of lofty paternal expectations.
Thor's unusually well-drawn characterisation means that there's a solid base on which to make The Dark World
a sci-fi/fantasy epic with an ensemble cast, instead of just another
superhero movie where the central character hits Bad Guys until they
give up. I was also pleasantly surprised by how complex it was -- not that
I'm suggesting it's a particularly deep and meaningful cinematic work,
but more that it was one of the most unpredictable (and rewatchable)
superhero movies I've seen so far. If you look at the Thor-Loki arc over the course of their three movies together, Thor is about Loki running rings around everyone because they're all straight-shooting warrior types. The Avengers
is about Loki finally meeting his match, in the form of Black Widow
(intellectually) and the Avengers themselves (because Friendship and
Teamwork triumph over Evil, obviously). Finally we reach Thor: TDW, in which Thor has learned from his mistakes and manages to fool Loki himself.
I don't need to tell you what a gift Loki is as a character, but he's
also a solid argument against the concept of disposable villains. The
only comparable relationship is Charles Xavier and Magneto, but you
don't really see them change to accommodate one another (partly thanks
to the current chronology of the X-Men series), whereas you really see Thor getting smarter and more canny over the course of his three appearances so far. Not that he's smart enough,
of course. Loki's triple bluff is a thing of beauty. But I loved the
way the movie briefly turned into a heist story halfway through, with
Thor and the Warriors Three orchestrating their elaborate escape plan.
Odin was a pretty terrible father, but in a way that wasn't explicitly
pointed out to the audience. Fans on Tumblr are definitely aware that
Odin is a dick ("One day... one of you will be King, my
sons." The Hunger Games of parenting!) but I'm reasonably sure that most
average viewers just wrote him off as Anthony-Hopkins-as-Zeus. So I'm very happy that this time round, it was obvious that he's not a
good guy at all, and not necessarily even a good king. Thor has matured
beyond him, and thus Odin has become a kind of benevolent antagonist. In this context, having Malekith as
a kind of ticking time-bomb in the background actually simplified the
film and brought the interesting stuff (ie, Loki) into the foreground.
Another reason why rewatching Thor
beforehand was so rewarding is that you get to see Loki's
transformation in full. Thor's character development is, obviously,
excellent, helped along by Chris Hemsworth being unfeasibly likeable in
the role. But with Loki, the changes are beautifully drastic. In Thor, Tom Hiddleston is playful, childish, and overly emotional. He's an angry emo teenager who tries to burn down the school because nobody understands him. But since The Avengers,
Loki has transformed into an exhausted, crazy-eyed murderer with papery
skin. He's gone from being a doe-eyed sylph to a frazzle-haired
angstbucket with a penchant for stabbing. It's beautiful. And, of
course, he's an absolute scene-stealer. Ambiguous villainhood is all
well and good, but Loki is endlessly entertaining because he's so
goddamn hard to predict. You really do get the feeling that he's living from moment to moment, rather than following a carefully itemised Evil Overlord plan like most supervillains. I just wanna high-five Tom Hiddleston and the
writers all the way through, both for creating such a fun character, and for developing such an interesting
interpretation of Norse mythology.
By the end of the movie, it's equally
easy to believe that as king, Loki could lead Asgard to ruin or restore
it to its greatest triumphs. If they go the mythological route then the
only way this can end is with Loki's destruction. But from a personal
perspective, I think most of us want to see him if not actually redeemed, then at
least appearing in Marvel movies ad infinitum.
Continued in Part 2: Female characters and representation.