May 28, 2020
Bad Superhero Movie Showdown 2013: Thor: The Dark World vs. Man of Steel
Welcome back to Bad Superhero Movie Showdown, in which we compare two reviled superhero movies to definitively answer the question of which one fails the most.
In 2013, Marvel released a third Iron Man film, creatively titled Iron Man 3, as well as the Thor sequel Thor: The Dark World. But most moviegoers saw these movies as direct follow-ups to The Avengers, the highest grossing film of 2012, meaning Marvel could have released a half-assed Thor sitcom and it still would have cracked half a billion dollars at the box office.
…Which is more or less what they did, as Thor: The Dark World is chock full of silly side plots, dumb comic relief characters, and lame Whedonesque quips (many of them supplied in a uncredited polish by Joss Whedon himself) that ensure the stakes always feel ultra-low despite an existential threat to the entire multiverse. Four years later, Thor: The Dark World remains, according to Rotten Tomatoes, the worst reviewed of all Marvel Cinematic Universe entries.
Meanwhile, DC/Warner Bros decided to wipe the perfectly serviceable Superman Returns from public memory in a misguided attempt to create the Dark Knight of Superman movies, complete with the contributions of Dark Knight vets Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, and Hans Zimmer. They also brought on director Zack Snyder to do his best Nolan impression, without anyone realizing that the Nolan-esque approach to superheroes was completely wrong for Superman. Man of Steel would go on to sharply divide audiences, and despite being the first film in seven years featuring the most famous superhero of all time, it barely out-earned a mediocre Thor sequel. But which of the two films is worse? Let’s find out!
Round 1: Worse Hero
In Thor: The Dark World, Chris Hemsworth is just as charming and generically heroic as he was in the first film; if you liked him there, you’ll like him here. The sequel has plenty of weak links, but Hemsworth isn’t one of them. Just don’t try to open any non-Thor movies on the strength of his name alone.
In Man of Steel, one suspects that Henry Cavill could have been a decent Superman if he’d actually been given some Superman-type stuff to do. Instead, he spends the entire movie grimacing, glowering, looking determined, and screaming in physical and emotional anguish. Sure, he saves the odd oil rig worker and school bus full of kids, but it seems the filmmakers got him all confused with David Banner from the ’70s Incredible Hulk TV show, as a haunted Clark Kent makes his way from town to town living under assumed names.
If this version of Superman has an identifiable personality, I have yet to discover it (and that includes the character as seen in the following two DC movies).
Round 2: Worse Villain
In Thor: The Dark World, Christopher Eccleston appears, as… wait… let me look this up. “Malekith”. Without the help of Google, I never would have remembered the name, nor much about this character. He’s the former ruler of the “Dark Elves” who wants to turn the entire multiverse into “dark matter”. Why? Because he’s the bad guy, and “dark matter” just sounds evil.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have long been accused of having a “villain problem”, where the films’ primary foes are consistently lacking in complexity and only exist to set up conflicts between the heroes, and Malekith is pretty much Exhibit A.
In Man of Steel, Michael Shannon plays General Zod with all the scenery chewing and over-the-top bravado a person could want from a comic book villain. He’s as tempestuous and boiling over with rage as Terence Stamp’s Zod in Superman II was cold and merciless, but Shannon makes it work and delivers a villain who, aside from a couple of dumb decisions, seems genuinely threatening and intimidating. Not only that, but he has a stated goal—creating a new Krypton on Earth, a purpose for which he was genetically bred—that goes slightly beyond “he’s evil”.
Loser: The one played by Christopher Eccleston.
Sorry. I forgot his name again.
Round 3: Worse Love Interest
In The Dark World, Natalie Portman returns as Jane Foster, and continues to provide little reason why Thor would fall for her, other than she looks like Natalie Portman. Worse yet, in this movie Jane literally becomes a walking MacGuffin, as she gets infected with “the Aether”, an ancient weapon that looks like floating cough syrup, and then does absolutely nothing except get shuttled from Earth to Asgard to the titular Dark World to keep the villain from getting his hands on the weapon.
Man of Steel puts a bit more effort into making Amy Adams’ Lois Lane a fleshed-out character, and a real reporter with drive and ambition, even if it is via awful lines like “I get writer’s block if I’m not wearing a flak jacket!” It appears they tried to avoid turning her into just another damsel in distress, but when you get right down to it, she’s mostly here to get rescued a lot, especially when she does stupid things like attempting to take a flash photo of an alien robot, or standing right on the edge of the loading ramp of a cargo plane in flight.
Loser: Lois Lane.
While Jane does nothing of note, we kind of already knew from the previous film that she had no personality to speak of. Lois Lane feels like a much bigger wasted opportunity. And by exposing Clark’s identity to Zod and his followers, she kind of actively makes the situation worse.
Round 4: Worse Story
Thor: The Dark World is all the explanation you need for why it took four years for Thor: Ragnarok to be released; The script feels like a total rush job. We get a paper-thin villain with a paper-thin scheme to destroy not only the Earth, and not only Asgard, but all Nine Realms of existence, and yet, Thor doesn’t even bother to call up any of his new Avenger friends to help beat up Malekith and save the entirety of the multiverse. Sure, you can’t expect the Avengers to show up in every Thor movie, just like you can’t expect them to show up in every issue of Thor’s solo comic book, but this just highlights the problem with having every single superhero movie be a big overblown action spectacle where the entire world is at stake.
As much grief as Man of Steel gets, there’s a solid story somewhere in here. While overly complicated like a lot of Nolan’s ideas, the plot is about as good as one could hope for from a Superman origin story, mashing together familiar elements from the first two Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve movies while not drowning in nostalgia for those films like Superman Returns. Frankly, the film is really a victim of flawed execution.
Man of Steel has two scenes that were clearly meant to be big emotional moments: the death of Jonathan Kent, and the moment where Superman kills General Zod… and it utterly botches both of them, leaving us with more questions than answers. Clark couldn’t use super-speed to pull Jonathan out of that tornado before anyone even noticed? Superman couldn’t just fly Zod up into space to prevent him from frying that family of tourists instead of snapping his neck? Superman basically executes the villain, and five minutes later a random soldier is giggling about how “hot” he is?
Though I should add that, when talking about Man of Steel‘s story, I’m not accounting for the all-out destruction porn that makes up the final half-hour of the film, which I assume was communicated in the script via a full page with nothing written on it other than “SUPERMAN and the KRYPTONIANS fight” in a 28-point font.
Loser: Thor: The Dark World.
I have to believe a director other than Zack Snyder could have shaped Man of Steel into a much better movie. Thor: The Dark World is a big nothing and a total lost cause.
Round 5: Worse Dialogue
The screenplay for Thor: The Dark World, officially credited to Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, is easily one of Marvel’s clumsiest scripts, as evidenced by these gems:
Loki: It’s not that I don’t love our little talks, it’s just… I don’t love them.
Odin: You must think I’m a piece of bread that needs to be buttered so heavily!
Thor: Jane, I don’t know where you were, or what happened, but I do know this…
Thor: I know…
Jane: You do?
Thor: Do what?
It took (at least) four people to write this dialogue.
Man of Steel‘s script, credited solely to David S. Goyer, doesn’t fare much better, giving us golden exchanges like:
Superman: I can’t be a part of this.
Zod: Then what can you be a part of?
(Said during an apocalyptic dream sequence/mind meld where Superman is sinking into a ball pit of human skulls, and casually saying “I can’t be a part of this” like his high school bros just asked him to help TP the principal’s house.)
Superman: [to Jor-El] Why am I so different from them?
(Because you’re an alien, you doofus!)
Lois: You know, they say it’s all downhill after the first kiss.
Superman: I’m pretty sure that only counts when you’re kissing a human.
(What? Also, to make this extra cringe-worthy, this supposed romantic moment is happening while they’re standing in the ruined hellscape that was once Metropolis.)
Loser: Thor: The Dark World.
Most of Man of Steel’s terrible lines (save the “kissing a human” bit) can be easily ignored. But The Dark World is one of those rare movies that completely undercuts almost all of its most suspenseful and dramatic moments with banal one-liners.
Round 6: Worse Side Characters
The Dark World is a movie where Darcy the intern, the first film’s comic relief character, gets her own intern and comic relief character. And then Dr. Selvig becomes a third comic relief character, as we’re meant to believe that being possessed by Loki in The Avengers made him a little bit nuts, leading to pointless scenes like Selvig running around Stonehenge naked for no apparent reason.
Meanwhile, thanks to his breakout appearance in The Avengers, Loki, despite previously trying to kill members of his own family as well as subjugate the entire human race, now finds his status downgraded to “misunderstood bad boy” so that he gets to be Thor’s sidekick for this little adventure. It seems that instead of what one would expect from a sequel, which is exploring its characters more and giving them greater depth, we might know even less about these people than we did at the start of the film.
Man of Steel showcases a few generic Daily Planet employees, including Perry White, that bald guy, and “Jenny” (who we’re supposed to really, really care about once she gets trapped in a collapsed skyscraper), along with several stock government/military types, including the Colonel, the General, the Science Guy, and Soldier Who Thinks Superman Is Hot. And don’t even get me started on the random priest who shows up for one scene to say nothing of any importance. Basically, the film wastes vast amounts of time on characters who are totally interchangeable.
Loser: Man of Steel.
At least Thor’s backup crew might have a slim chance to redeem themselves in future MCU installments. It’s clear we’ll never see most of the characters from Man of Steel again, and that was obvious even before we knew the sequel would be a backdoor Batman movie.
Thor: The Dark World.
I went back and forth on this, but ultimately I decided that other than the botched moments of high drama and the endless destruction porn of the final half-hour, Man of Steel is more or less acceptable. The director was at least trying to live up to the superhero movie standard set by The Dark Knight, even if that standard eluded his limited talent and skills. Zack Snyder was trying to present big ideas here, even if those ideas can be mostly boiled down to “Superman is Jesus”.
Thor: The Dark World, on the other hand, is just a big waste of everybody’s time. It’s a movie that exists because people expected another Thor movie. And I’ll always give the nod to films that try and fail spectacularly over films that say nothing and are nothing and aspire to be nothing. I’m convinced every copy of Thor: The Dark World could disappear tomorrow and it would take at least six or seven months for anyone to notice.