If you ask most folks which Marvel Cinematic Universe movie they think is the worst, the answer you’re likely to get is Thor: The Dark World. It has the lowest score of any MCU film on Rotten Tomatoes but it still managed a Fresh rating (66%). Years later and after many more MCU entries, has Thor: The Dark World only decreased in value? What is it about this movie that has relegated it to being the absolute bottom of the Marvel Studios barrel? Is this movie simply bad for an MCU movie or is it just a bad movie on its own merits?
Let’s look back at Thor: The Dark World and see if it deserves to be branded as the worst MCU movie.
Emphasis on “Dark World”
One of the biggest complaints about Thor: The Dark World is one you don’t hear about a lot in the MCU: the actual filmmaking. After a certain point, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was able to coalesce its movies into having a particular “look.” While that doesn’t mean that individual filmmakers couldn’t bring their own attitudes to these films, it does mean that decisions such as color palettes, lighting choices, and overall aesthetics had to line up with all the other movies. They had to “feel” similar to help drive home that goal of interconnectivity between movies.
That approach wasn’t implemented until after Thor: The Dark World and it might have even spun out of the responses to this film. Director Alan Taylor was coming off high acclaim from his work on Game of Thrones, and it seemed like a good idea to place him at the head of an epic fantasy adventure film. However, Taylor’s lighting decisions and “grounded” take on the world often created problems for a number of reasons. One of the most damning of these is a simple one: some images were just too dark.
For example, here’s an unaltered screenshot from an action moment in the first act:
That is not a joke.
Even beyond simple visibility issues, the darker look to the film clashes with a lot of what people expected from the MCU entries at this point. The Marvel Cinematic Universe became known for being quippy, mostly light-hearted, and fun. While Thor: The Dark World is attempting those things, the film’s look creates cognitive dissonance in the viewer. This looks like a grim and serious flick. So, any time it attempts to inject some MCU humor into the proceedings, it clashes with what’s being visually depicted on the screen.
That’s already a big strike against Thor: The Dark World. But it’s not the only one.
A Blank Slate Villain
Another common issue with Thor: The Dark World is the antagonist, Malekith. The MCU has gotten a lot of flak for its stable of villains and some of it isn’t undeserved. Of all the MCU villains, Malekith represents what is often wrong with the Marvel approach to antagonists: they are just bad and that’s all. Malekith is a Dark Elf and wants to return all of existence back to darkness. There is nothing wrong with that basic intent but it needs to be bolstered by some defining character traits from the villain.
That ain’t the case with Malekith. He’s got no personality or complex emotional depth. He’s more robotic than some actual robots in the MCU (Ultron is awesome, don’t @ me). And it’s doubly unfortunate that a talented actor like Christopher Eccleston gets swallowed up in such a bland character. Malekith speaks in an invented Elvish language and it doesn’t give Eccleston any advantage in his performance. It doesn’t sound bad on its own, but it’s clear that Marvel quickly figured out that prominent alien species can just go ahead and speak English in future movies.
To be fair, there was more material about Malekith’s backstory that was excised from the movie to make it less lengthy. However, that material was also incredibly clichéd, involving Malekith’s family and making his feelings centered around revenge. Maybe this would have helped a little bit but it’s not enough to take away the other negatives surrounding his status as a villain.
But, what about our hero?
God of Blunder
This is where the worst part of Thor: The Dark World comes into play. Thor’s arc in Thor: The Dark World is more of a straight line than an actual arc. He starts the movie as the Thor we all know and love, and by the end of the movie he’s pretty much the same. The movie teases some conflict for him like feeling romantically torn between Jane Foster and his fellow warrior Lady Sif, but this all gets dropped real quick and things are incredibly static (heh heh, electricity joke) for Thor over the course of the movie. Even a potential rift between Jane and Thor is immediately resolved the moment they reconnect. Any interpersonal drama for Thor is undermined at every turn or sacrificed in favor of the larger plot motivations.
The proposed big conflict for Thor is his ascension to Odin’s throne. Not only is this a repeat of Thor’s conflict from the first movie, but there is also no significant movement or genuine conflict that we see guiding Thor and his actions throughout Thor: The Dark World. And by the time we get to the ending, Thor’s resolution to this merits little more than a shrug. In all honesty, the real arc of the movie belongs to Loki. He’s the only character that goes through a profound change from the start of the film to the end. It’s crazy to know that Loki’s death in this movie was originally supposed to be permanent. He’s the one bright spot in this dark world.
All that said, this shouldn’t be laid at the feet of Chris Hemsworth. He’s settling into this interpretation of Thor at this point and his natural charm and charisma keep the character from being a total bore. Still, the stagnant nature of Thor’s character plays into another knock against Thor: The Dark World.
A Stationary Sequel
The MCU movies have to serve a very unique function in franchise filmmaking. They have to act as confident sequels to their own series while also providing some satisfying continuance to the greater MCU storyline. In this regard, Thor: The Dark World is probably looked at as the worst MCU movie because it fails in both categories.
As a sequel to Thor, it feels like a complete reboot of what came before. Gone is the stylish and kinetic flow of filmmaking that Kenneth Branagh brought to the table. Taylor grounds things in a way that feels at odds with the high fantasy and sci-fi of Thor and his world. And again, there isn’t any strong forward momentum to Thor’s character as a follow-up to the events of Thor. Yeah, he left Jane on Earth but they are right back to being in love when this movie gets going. Their relationship doesn’t fall victim to any real change or upheaval. They are right back where we left them as far as their emotional dynamic is concerned.
And as a building block in the larger MCU story, the only thing Thor: The Dark World adds to the mix is another Infinity Stone. That’s all. Yes, we get to meet the Collector but his involvement is tertiary at best in this movie. After The Avengers, audiences had been programmed to see these movies as important needle-movers towards whatever was happening with Thanos and the Infinity Stones. That just doesn’t get its due in this movie. And since the Aether ends up being the Reality Stone, it’s extra disappointing that it doesn’t get utilized in any creative way. By the time Thanos was wielding it in Avengers: Infinity War, he was turning lasers into bubbles and turning people into ribbons! In this, the Aether just… explodes sometimes? Yawn.
Look, there are more minor elements to Thor: The Dark World that we could pick apart, but after all this, it’s fair to say that this just isn’t a great movie, either as a sequel to Thor, a part of the MCU, or even on its own. Maybe Thor: The Dark World is the worst MCU movie because it’s simply not a good movie. That doesn’t mean there aren’t good things in it. Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth are still entertaining, and the practical elements of the movie like costuming and sets are beautiful to behold (when you can see them). But, when it’s all said and done, Thor: The Dark World deserves its reputation as the worst MCU movie.