Will Norris lives in Springfield, the state capital of Illinois (in Midgard) and runs off of a rich, high-octane blend of comics, heavy metal, martial arts and all things geek. When not running the show at Springfield’s Own Magazine, he’s teaching kung fu and comic-book drawing. He writes like he speaks and thanks the gods for editors.
Funny thing about comic-book films: When fan service is a prominent ingredient, they become less of a meal for the masses. There’s the tricky feat of bringing superheroes to the big screen — a proper balance between what a general public will devour and what initiated comic aficionados will not just approve but adore.
Every comics fanatic has an extensive list of writing runs (story arcs from certain authors) that represent a character’s quintessential depiction. As a lover of Norse mythology, it never got better than Walt Simonson’s run of Thor in the 1980s.
I always dug Thor — God of Thunder, Avenger, modern-day Viking who said “nay” instead of “no.” But it wasn’t until Simonson took the reins that Thor felt legit. Badass legit. Simonson’s Thor was of Asgard, and as such we learned what the Asgardians and the Nine Realms were all about. This was the Thor that became the deity worshiped and praised by the Vikings of Midgard (aka Earth … because Vikings) — mighty warriors of great power that divinely inspired my Norse forebears to pile into dragon-ships, form shield walls and charge headlong toward Valhalla. Where could a kid in the ’80s get a piece of that action? Enter Walt Simonson, writing and drawing The Mighty Thor™.
Under Simonson’s hand, Thor became epic and eschewed the simple formula of that month’s villain rolling into New York City, Thor thrashing him, rinse, repeat. Simonson’s Thor was torn between Asgard and Midgard. He had spent most of his time tethered to Midgard by way of Donald Blake, the frail doctor within whom Thor was “trapped” as to learn humility. But as years of solo adventure and avenging redeemed him, Blake got all the substance and Thor the clean-up.
Simonson’s opening act: Remove the shackle of a mortal tie and simply take as given what readers knew for years. Thor was now worthy. Simonson knew the God of Thunder’s centuries-long legend and that Thor could become a far more compelling character on his own, untrammeled by a human anchor. Thor didn’t need an alter ego. He needed to go home, and that meant finally embracing his destiny as future king of Asgard. It’s a role Thor was reluctant to play, but even a god cannot escape his wyrd.
Here’s where comic dreams come true: After two previous films, Simonson’s Thor is the one we see in Thor: The Dark World — humbled by his own trials, having learned a great deal in his time among mortals, bold where he once was brash, confident where he was once cocky.
The God of Thunder now understands consequence, not only for himself but also those closest to him. For once, Thor sees a bigger picture and is part of something far larger than himself — emotionally invested in Asgard and Midgard. To balance the two requires that he belong to both. As such, there’s no place for crown or throne.
Prior to Simonson’s run, Thor rarely spent time in Asgard. Placing him there created a more intriguing son of Odin but also secondary characters who were more than just bit players. Thor’s fellow Asgardians had purpose. Odin was more than an All-Father judging from afar, he was king of the Realm Eternal. Sif wasn’t just the prince’s paramour when removed from Midgard, she’s a swift sword and no warrior’s arm candy. These Asgardians sought and fought battles. All the time. And their enemies? Efficacious, often giant, made of fire and ice, infused and empowered with ancient magic … all gunning for Asgard.
Dark times for the Golden Realm indeed.
Those characters and circumstances that surround Thor are also exactly what The Dark World offers. The initial cinematic outing left me terribly unsatisfied. But when the sequel’s trailer dropped, I was onboard as a direct result of one thing: Dark Elves. From the opening moment of the film itself, we’re deep in the Nine Realms; what casual viewers take in as bad-guy backstory is straight-up Simsonson Svartalfheim to fan folk. Those of us who define Thor by the Simonson gospel know: We are finally seeing our Thor.
Yes, there are Midgard moments and mortals at play, but we can let those slide … or fast-forward as necessary. I never understand the need to inject unnecessary human subplots when the otherworldly offerings are themselves rich enough (cough, every Transformers movie, cough). A small price to pay, I suppose, for the rest of The Dark World reveals gods battling in wars as they were written under Simonson’s pen — grand and worthy of song, enshrouded in darkness, against adversaries whose mad machinations are destruction and murder for the sake of it. In Malekith, Simonson gave us a villain who refused light and peace, for it would render pointless the war that forged him. So unrelenting in his desire to pitch all Realms into eternal night was Malekith that Odin’s own father, Bor — and I actually yell his name when he appears onscreen in The Dark World — had but one solution: “He killed them all,” as Odin tells Jane Foster.
That’s the thing: Faced with a threat the likes of Malekith and the Dark Elves, everyone fights. Not a single Asgardian warms the bench here. All gods take up arms. Tyr, the Norse god of honor and battle (bizarrely not mentioned outright by name in the film), stands among his fellow gods in defense of Asgard as do the Warriors Three, Heimdall and Sif. And in Rene Russo’s best moment of ass-kickery since the Lethal Weapon films, we see Frigga is no mere queen but one of Asgard’s greatest shield maidens. Every Asgardian walks away with a fair share of glory and Dark Elf blood on their blades.
This is not needless carnage and conflict, however. Asgard is on the ropes against an ancient enemy reliant on sorcery over swordsmanship. Malekith is more likely to cast magic than throw punches. The Dark Elves’ weapons are rooted in eldritch energy, which give Thor and his allies pause with their ability to attack from great distance instead of a bash-and-smash approach. These heroes are powerful, and it’s only by their deceit, treachery and manipulation that the Dark Elves gain an advantageous position.
Malekith achieves this through Kurse, another Simonson creation. In the comics, Malekith dispatched his second-in-command, Algrim the Elf, to confound Thor. But Algrim became Kurse, a juggernaut of living armor, by way of dark magic. The Dark World similarly delivers Algrim into conflict, planting him among prisoners bound for Asgard’s dungeon only to have his transformation into Kurse compromise defenses from within. Although a comparatively less colorful representation of Kurse, his power level is spot-on — delivering probably Thor’s biggest on-screen beating to date, from which he’s spared only thanks to Loki’s lethal and well-planned interference.
Here is Simonson’s Loki as well, a shift from Thor and The Avengers where he was a spoiled Ming the Merciless wannabe with an acute case of sibling envy. Tom Hiddleston delivers genuinely phenomenal moments in that mode, but fans didn’t get the Loki we knew to be possible until The Dark World.
Loki is a god of mischief — a chaotic jerk, but not aligned with evil. Loki wants the throne, the adoration, the position, the power. With Simonson, Loki finally enacted plots and plans of nuance, delighting as he slighted and confounded the other gods as he sought supremacy and rule. Misdirection and manipulation were his sword and shield. He took a dig at Thor’s adversaries as he stood beside him … for his own gain, of course. But he’s not a complete monster … just the stepson only a mother could love.
In The Dark World, that bond between Frigga and Loki is essential to illustrate that a self-involved, vexatious antagonist could still understand the connection to another. It reminds me of one of the greatest moments in the penultimate Simsonson Ragnarok arc where Thor and Loki head together into the final battle to save Asgard as Odin shouts to them, “For Asgard!” and Loki exclaims “For myself!” in reply. Although not quoted in The Dark World, it’s deftly demonstrated, especially as Loki fakes a sacrificial demise only to secure the throne in the final moments. Top of the world, Ma!
From a Thor who would be king but won’t to a master-deceiver Loki finally manipulating his way to the table’s head, The Dark World is a loving ode to the Simonson era that leaves those of us capable of connecting dots and keeping score able to check off boxes as we go. Yes, Volstagg is a family man, post-Bifrost Heimdall can’t see everything, Harokin’s battle was one for the ages, and Odin will rain down the Einherjar if you tempt his wrath. These are welcome Easter eggs of a different sort — less a subtly placed background object or logo but nods to the faithful by way of dialogue, motivation and character development.
For those without the benefit of this experience, Simonson’s years are collected, easy to find and an epic read. Check them out, and you’ll surely get far more out of The Dark World. Indulge, then, in a return to Thor: Ragnarok and you’ll see even more of Simonson … but I shall leave that love note for another geek.
Midwest Film Journal will post new, weekly entries of “The Marvel Decade” until the release of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27, 2018. Each entry is written by a different writer — some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspires insights or personal connections that they will highlight in their piece.
The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aim to capture with “The Marvel Decade.”
Join us again next week when guest writer Salem joins us to discuss Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
PREVIOUSLY IN “THE MARVEL DECADE”
Iron Man (2008) — Evan Dossey
The Incredible Hulk (2008) — Nick Rogers
Iron Man 2 (2010) — Joe Shearer
Thor (2011) — Aly Caviness
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) — Sy Stiner
The Avengers (2012) – Craig McQuinn
Iron Man 3 (2013) – Rachael Derrick