Thor is all about delivering quality universal health care.
As a prince of Asgard and guardian of the Nine Realms, he zips around the cosmos like a fish in the sea, and naturally he cares about his subjects’ health and wellness. If a planet suffers from, say, an infection of interlopers or a rash of rebellion, he’ll personally beat down the troublemakers like a scruffy blond antibody. He knocks out feverish skirmishes, douses chill-producing plots and does what he can to help nice, law-abiding people get back on their feet.
And he doesn’t even ask folks to go online to sign up for coverage.
He’s had to make a lot of house calls lately. His adopted brother, Loki, if you remember, nearly destroyed Earth—twice—and the resulting chaos caused some serious indigestion in the Nine Realms. But Thor and his friends now have things well in hand. Maybe the big guy will have time for a little rest and relaxation—a short vacay down on Earth where he can hang out with his main squeeze Jane Foster and, I dunno, go to Cracker Barrel or something.
But wait, what’s this? Jane is not feeling quite herself right now. She’s been infected, it would seem, by some sort of cosmic gunk called Aether—a substance that threatens both Jane’s life and the lives of those around her. Moreover, Aether is indestructible: Jane’s carrying a disease that even Thor’s mighty hammer can’t cure.
And the bad news gets worse. Malekith, an evil elf and old foe of Thor’s grandpappy, has been waiting for an opportunity to get his hands on—and weaponize—the Aether. For thousands of years, he and his elvish hordes have been napping, waiting for the perfect moment to use the Aether to destroy the entire universe.
Malekith, you see, hails from a time before the universe as we know it was around. He and his cohorts think the whole of creation was a mighty negative development, and they’d like to get back to the good old days when things were cold and dark and empty. They see life itself as the disease.
Thor won’t let Malekith destroy the universe without a fight, of course. To paraphrase another great superhero (The Tick), the universe is where we keep all our stuff. And Thor will do whatever he can to keep all of our stuff—or at least most of it—safe and sound.
First, Thor and his colleagues try to set up the climactic showdown with Malekith on an uninhabited world, thus keeping innocent casualties down. Granted, this means defying a direct order from Odin, Thor’s father and king, but Thor and Co. are all willing to accept the consequences—exile if successful and death should they fail. All the participants understand that they are, in essence, sacrificing themselves for a greater good.
[Spoiler Warning] But their best efforts won’t be enough to stop Malekith, so Thor turns to an unlikely ally: His duplicitous brother. While Thor knows Loki can’t be trusted, Thor’s scheme won’t work without him. So he cautiously brings the guy aboard—and Loki doesn’t disappoint. Indeed, the two brothers save each other’s lives and share a tender moment of reconciliation … that will last at least until the next Thor movie comes out.
Queen Frigga does what she can to save the mortal Jane Foster from Malekith’s clutches, risking her life for the earthling. And Jane herself attempts to shield Thor from a falling spaceship—a rather ineffectual gesture, but most sincerely meant.
Thor, Odin, Loki et al are, of course, plucked from Norse mythology. They are sometimes referred to as deities, and Loki tells his father that he wanted to rule Earth like a beneficent god. Odin, however, rebukes Loki’s claim on the divine.
“We are not gods,” he tells Loki. “We’re born. We live. We die. Just like humans do.”
“Give or take 5,000 years,” Loki amends with a smirk.
With that, Thor: The Dark World neatly sidesteps one of its story’s highest spiritual hurdles. But the film also creates additional questions.
We’re given a short history of the universe: Creation itself is presented as a fairly new development (and given Loki’s own estimate on how long Asgardians live, it might fit neatly into a young-Earth proponent’s timeline). Before creation, there was darkness, we’re told, just as Genesis says. But that darkness wasn’t completely empty: Malekith and his evil elves were around. Nor is God explicitly credited with creation. A flashback to a huge war between Malekith and Thor’s grandfather takes on cosmic, even spiritual significance as it becomes a battle between light and darkness in which the universe itself hangs in the balance. In that battle, Malekith and his minions are, at least temporarily, defeated.
So there are echoes of Revelation and John Milton here, but also a muddled view of where our “big G” God is in all of this.
As for more mortal expressions of faith and religion, during a funeral we see a corpse laid on a boat floating on the Asgardian sea. An archer sets the boat on fire with a flaming arrow and, as it plunges off the end of the earth (it would seem), something—dust, wind, spirit or all three—leaves the vessel and floats into space. Mourners lift glowing orbs in their hands and they, too, begin to float, like luminescent balloons.
Loki tells a monster that he’ll see him in hell. Someone’s called a witch.
Thor’s obligatory shirtless scene inspired a few women in my screening audience to hoot and whistle softly. Thor and Jane kiss once or twice, and Darcy the intern aggressively smooches her intern, Ian. During a party, one of Thor’s associates lingers suggestively with two women, one of whom sits on his lap. Someone mentions that his old girlfriend “kept sleeping with other dudes.”
Battles are huge and relentless. In the flashback showdown between Malekith and Thor’s grandfather, Bor, we see tons of flashing swords and spears and laser-like guns and reality-twisting grenades. (That latter weapon seems to suck victims into a vortex and fold them up.) A field is littered with the corpses of Asgardians and dark elves. Other melees feature the same allotment of weapons, which are always used to devastatingly lethal effect. Spaceships destroy buildings, crash and sometimes do both simultaneously—causing untold (unseen) casualties.
A rock monster gets crushed by Thor’s hammer. A demon-like creature forces a man’s head into a force field, and we can hear his screams. A bad guy loses both of his arms, and a good guy appears to have his hand sliced off. (We see the bloody stump.) An evil henchman is swallowed almost whole by a strange and fearsome creature, and several more are crushed by someone throwing a car. In one melee, Thor snaps a bad guy’s neck. A demi-god and a demon get stabbed through the chest (at the same time with the same blade). A woman is run through with a sword. Someone gets pounded in the face.
The Aether is a violent substance. When Jane has the stuff in her system, anyone who threatens her gets blown back with a mini-explosion. The substance is used to assail, toss and tumble Thor and others.
One s-word is fully said, another gets interrupted. We hear two or three uses each of “d‑‑n” and “h‑‑‑”; three or four misuses of God’s name.
Asgardians do like their strong drink. We see one of Thor’s friends toss a flagon over his shoulder and shout for another. Human diners order wine.
Scientist Eric Selvig apparently takes a great deal of medicine to help keep his brain on the straight and narrow. When a couple of people get him released from an asylum-like establishment, they give him a bagful of prescriptions; once he learns what’s happening, though, Eric expresses relief that the world is crazier than he is and dumps the bag into a trash can.
In a scene designed to be funny, not titillating, the elderly Eric runs naked around Stonehenge and is documented by news cameras. (His midsection is pixelated.) People lie and mislead—sometimes for arguably good reasons, sometimes not.
Marvel has developed a lucrative formula for superhero movies, and rarely does it deviate. While rival DC plays around with grit and drama and heavy themes (most successfully realized in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy), Marvel mostly offers colorful escapism. There’s action and adventure, buff leading men and comely women. It trots out some insider references for the comic zealots in the audience, but not enough to alienate casual fans. Most importantly, these movies never take themselves too seriously: Marvel dares to crack a joke even when the stakes are at their highest.
Which creates something of a paradox. Even as these superhero yarns are no-holds-barred fever dreams of color and spectacle, they’re comfortingly predictable. Everyone who walks into the theater knows by now what’s coming. Marvel movies are as reliable as a six-pack of Coke: Every can tastes the same.
That sounds disparaging, but I don’t mean it to. Movies may sometimes be art, but they’re always commodities—products designed to please an audience. And we consumers want some sort of assurance that we’ll get what we pay for. Marvel’s stories may have their share of surprises, but the cadence of the telling, the mood and the content don’t deviate much these days—and I doubt they will until the box office sizzle starts to cool.
That’s good news when it comes to families trying to make decisions about how healthy movies might be for them. Thor: The Dark World is not problem free by any means, but it is, at least, a known quantity. It may be (as its name suggests) slightly darker than its predecessor, but it’s by a matter of degree, and the degrees here are small.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.