Ask a random smattering of fans what the best Marvel movie is, and you’re likely to get a range of replies. Is it the Oscar-winning pop-culture juggernaut Black Panther? Maybe that all-time record-breaker Avengers: Endgame? How about James Gunn’s funky Star Wars-meets-Dirty Dozen team-up comedy Guardians of the Galaxy? Opinions vary, and no single favorite has emerged from this ever-continuing superhero franchise.
For years, though, a kind of general agreement was reached on the other end of the quality spectrum. While debate raged on about the zenith of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, consensus steadily formed around a single candidate for the title of the studio’s nadir. Like superheroes assembling to topple an intergalactic threat, critics and fans put aside their differences to collectively declare the zip-fizzle 2013 sequel Thor: The Dark World the worst Marvel movie.
The Dark Worldwhich hit multiplexes 10 years ago today, was far from a flop. Enjoying a clear halo effect after the success of the previous year’s The Avengers (featuring Thor alongside four other superheroic headliners), the film opened to a robust $85 million in American theaters, and closed its worldwide theatrical run with $644 million, a haul worthy of the Norse gods. Moviegoers, too, seemed to like the film well enough, at least judging from the imperfect metric of CinemaScore. Opening night audiences handed it an A- rating — lower than The Avengersbut higher than its 2011 predecessor, which marked the big debut of Chris Hemsworth’s blonde-locked, hammer-swinging space deity.
Reviews, on the other hand, told a different story, as The Dark World earned the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of any film in the MCU — an anti-honor it would hold onto until just a couple years ago. That muted reaction carried over to full series rankings from the likes of Variety, Esquire, Time Out, and Looper, all of which would stick The Dark World dead last. Maybe the ultimate proof that the movie’s reputation as Marvel’s rock-bottom had solidified into popular gospel was the willingness of its star to agree: “Meh,” Hemsworth pithily concluded in a 2018 GQ interview.
Sandwiched between Kenneth Branagh’s origin story and the explicitly comic reinvention that was Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarokthe second solo adventure for Asgard’s hunkiest hero has a tendency to fade from memory. As a refresher, it’s the one that pits Thor against a nihilistic elf supervillain. The plot, a busy bit of nonstop incidents, reunites the big guy with the love interest of his first starring vehicle, Natalie Portman’s besotted scientist Jane Foster. It then whisks them around the galaxy, from Earth to the shimmering green-screen kingdom of Asgard to the bad guy’s gloomy screen-saver netherworld. Tom Hiddleston’s recently vanquished Loki is there, too, scheming and mocking.
Most of the negative things that have been said about Marvel movies over the years are present and accounted for in Thor: The Dark World. There’s too much exposition — a dense info drop of backstory and lore that Anthony Hopkins, reprising the role of Thor’s haughty-regal father Odin, recounts via a Tolkien-lite voice-over prologue. There’s the usual boring MacGuffin, which in this case is a vaguely defined gaseous super element the bad guy wants. The dialogue can be tiresomely quippy, an imitation Whedonese. Some of the action is weightlessly digital. Worst of all, the villain is a total undistinguished zero: a conquering mythological bore played by Christopher Eccleston, not that you can really tell under all that makeup.
Branagh’s Thor embraced the Shakespearean potential in the source material: It was a flawed but interesting mishmash of fish-out-of-water comedy and sci-fi palace intrigue. For better or worse, The Dark World flattens out those aspirations to grandeur, emerging with a breezier spectacle. The sitcom quality extends from the barrage of quick-fire jokes to the meet-the-parents plot, a malnourished romantic comedy subplot in which Portman’s Foster becomes the interloper, dropped into the conflicts of her boyfriend’s royal family. The Oscar winner is basically wasted here; enjoyable though it was in the first Thor to see Jane’s scientific resolve crumble under the weight of her attraction to the beefcake from beyond the stars, the second film reduces her to a wide-eyed damsel merely along for the save-the-universe ride.
Still, what the conventional wisdom on The Dark World ignores is that there is some fun in this whirligig. A lot of it comes from the built-in sibling rivalry between Thor and Loki, who forge a relationship strong enough to carry a movie — or, in this case, to carry a bored viewer through one. One does miss the arrogance Hemsworth brought to the former under Branagh and Whedon’s stewardship; he’s a little too noble, a little too princely to be of much comic or dramatic interest in the sequel. But Hiddleston deepens his antihero here, preserving Loki’s spark of bitter mischief while suggesting wellsprings of conflicted hurt. Watching The Dark Worldit’s easy to understand why Disney later thought the character deserved his own small-screen showcase.
Alan Taylor, the film’s director, is no one’s idea of a visionary auteur (his big-screen work is rather astronomically less impressive than his small-screen contributions to The Sopranos and the similarly sweeping Game of Thrones). Yet, he brings a certain lightness of step to the action. The climax is one of Marvel’s more nimble trips to the fireworks factory: a screwball skirmish that keeps throwing the characters through wormholes and subjecting them to physical anomalies, flocks of birds, and that magical hammer zipping around the map. In general, The Dark World probably looks better than you remember, with a little more texture than the average Marvel seat-filler. Or maybe these movies just look way worse today.
In a sense, the film plays like an off issue of its comic book source material: a quick page-turner wedged between larger arcs that’s devoid of big changes to continuity (though, of course, there is one of the latter in the untimely demise of Thor’s mother, played by an underutilized Rene Russo — a motivational loss the MCU would reemphasize with an unlikely time-travel revisit years later in Avengers: Endgame.) To that end, The Dark World isn’t so objectionable in principle. If we’re going to have endless entries in this series, shouldn’t some of them aspire to a little self-contained escapism, albeit of a perhaps more memorable nature than the cross-universe plot hiccups offered here?
In retrospect and on repeat viewing, the second Thor’s sins aren’t so grievous. It’s more disposable than objectionable, at least as far as these spit-shined blasts of CGI cape fare are concerned. What made it look, for so long, like a low point for the studio was probably the impression of something more dispiriting in its expensive multiplex junk-food design: This was the first Marvel movie that felt truly and unmistakably like product. Which is to say, the first that felt like a placeholder — not an event, but something fresh off the conveyor belt. It’s a vision of what Marvel would gradually become in the aftermath of The Avengersas the appetite for its brand of wham and pow was met with an increasingly interchangeable supply. That, more than its watchable mediocrity, may be what doomed The Dark World to its low standing. Whether we knew it or not, we were all feeling the dismay of something exciting calcifying fast into formula.
These days, of course, the film’s position at the bottom of the MCU heap no longer looks so secure. Not after the bloated blandness of Eternals or the gimcrack eyesore anti-spectacle of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Hell, The Dark World might not even be the worst Thor movie anymore; it has stiff competition in that department from the direly jokey Thor: Love and Thunder. If anything, this installment could actually inspire some fond nostalgia a decade out: Watching it today, you can’t help but wistfully pine for an era when this was as bad as it got in Marvel land.
Thor: The Dark World is currently streaming on Disney+, and available to rent or purchase from the major digital services. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.