If Marvel’s Phase 1 was about establishing the mega-franchise’s status-quo, then Phase 2 was about tearing it down. Normally, when a studio finds themselves with a hot franchise that everybody in the world wants to see, they don’t rock the boat all that much. They change things up just enough for each outing to make it exciting, but ultimately make sure that each new film is familiar enough that fans of earlier instalment keep coming back for more.
Bond, for instance, always has his fancy car, his vodka martini (shaken, not stirred), some bodacious babe clinging to his arm and his signature pistol. Despite dying in every single entry, Arnold always comes back for next year’s Terminator. And no matter how much we beg, no matter how much we plead, each and every Transformers movie will be an incomprehensible mess of half-baked CGI and flat characterization.
But Marvel, it seems, was not content to rest on their laurels. They had perfected the winning formula for the 21st Century blockbuster – built the rapidly industry-defining concept of a shared cinematic universe from the ground up and recreated the superhero genre in their own image. Every studio with the means to do so was scrambling to play catch-up: trying desperately to achieve what Marvel seemed to effortlessly throw together.
Marvel had nothing to prove. They were sitting on top of the world and every scrap of common sense inherent to the industry was telling them just to stay where they were. Don’t rock the boat. Just go with the flow.
And yet they refused. In fact, every single movie during this period, without exception, challenged and redefined the post-Avengers world in ways that, from a business standpoint, were just as unprecedented as making such mega-crossovers the norm in the first place.
Iron Man 3 deconstructed its protagonist and narratively brought the entire franchise back to square one. Captain America turned the entire cinematic universe on its head: casting SHIELD as the Nazi-run bad guys and devastating the inter-franchise supporting cast that granted Phase 1 its desperately needed sense of continuity between films. Guardians of the Galaxy dove headlong into the weird, cosmic and obscure characters that nobody outside of the most hardcore comics fans had ever so much as heard of and whose most bankable star voiced a motion-captured talking raccoon. Age of Ultron challenged the basic goodness of the Avengers themselves as the team created their own worst enemy and nearly destroyed the world in the process. Ant-Man brought the entire production back to the low-stakes basics that defined the prior half-decade of Marvel movies: going small at a time when that felt, at least conceptually, like a step backwards after clawing desperately forward from such humble beginnings.
And then there was Thor: The Dark World. Like its Phase 1 predecessor, it is probably the worst movie of its cycle. That’s not to say that it is a bad movie at all. On the contrary, it is a sizable step up from the first Thor in virtually every single way.
Having learned that Thor works best when taken on his own terms, the majority of the movie is set off-world: primarily in Asgard, but varyingly jumping to Svartalfheim (world of the Dark Elves), Vanaheim (world of the Light Elves) and Jotunheim (world of the Frost Giants). It introduced the Infinity Stones (the subject of the upcoming third Avengers movie) as such and began the world’s spanning hunt for them.
Then, of course, there was the film’s third-act reveal: that in the confusion surrounding his faked death and the Dark Elf attack on Asgard, Loki had deposed Odin as the land’s king and ruled in his guise. In addition, he encouraged Thor to abandon Asgard to pursue Jane, granting him control over one of the Nine Realms and radically changing up the status quo for everybody’s favorite god of thunder.
Although ultimately more serviceable than it was good, Thor: The Dark World is a substantive improvement over the first movie. It started the tradition of casual character crossovers (Loki briefly transforming into Captain America) that would become as expected an endearing a feature in the franchise as Stan Lee’s cameos. It delved into the gorgeous visual of Asgard and fleshed out its ancient history. It also showed off the indispensable talents of Tom Hiddleston as Loki, whose newfound popularity the studio was quick to capitalize on at every available opportunity.
Although a great character in the comics, Jane Foster continued to underwhelm on the big screen, so the increased emphasis placed on her and Thor’s romance proved to be a low-point for the film. For as gorgeous as Asgard is, the other visited realms proved notably sparse and uninteresting (a point that was eventually fixed with Ragnarok). And, of course, the esteemed Christopher Eccleston was wasted in a role that not only could have shown off his incredible acting abilities but could have been another incredibly memorable Marvel villain (up there with Loki, Mandarin and the Red Skull).
So while The Dark World was the weakest of Phase 2, it can hardly be called a failure in any sense of the word. It was a solid step forward for a franchise that was never all that far behind the competition to begin with. It boldly established a number of plot points that would prove critical in later movies and could have easily soured fans to the entire franchise. And, above all else, it was a fun, light-hearted romp through the Nine Realms that was nearly as enjoyable as anything else Marvel had ever put out.