Friday, November 8, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

I've been getting a little burned out with all the Marvel Studios movies lately, truth be told. They've built an impressive brand in a very short time span - especially considering how long it took for comic book movies to enter the mainstream. I've enjoyed the ride so far, but it's just been a bit tough for me at these films as they keep coming down the pike according to formula.

So it was with higher hopes that I entered Thor: The Dark World. The trailers made it out to be something of a departure from previous Marvel works, with a greater emphasis on the Norse mythology upon which the eponymous character and his series is based

In a very Tolkien-esque opening prologue, we learn that before the universe existed, forces of darkness beyond comprehension reigned supreme. The dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) sought to use this dark power - called the Aether - to destroy the universe. After being defeated by Bor, Odin's father, Malekith retreated into space while Bor and the Asgardians - unable to destroy the Aether - hid it away where it would never be found again. Fast-forwarding to the present, the movie catches up with the mighty thunder god (Chris Hemsworth) after the events of The Avengers as he wages war in the Nine Realms to restore peace after Loki's rebellion. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been brought to Asgard in chains after an unsuccessful attempt to subjugate humanity, and placed in prison. But when Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) accidentally stumbles upon the Aether, the very fabric of the universe is threatened and it's up to the thunder god to save us all from oblivion - yet again.


As I mentioned before, Thor: The Dark World wisely roots its narrative in the fantastical worlds of Asgard while occasionally visiting Earth, instead of the other way around as in the first Thor film. The real appeal of these movies - for me at least - is the way these ancient Norse tales have been adapted and recast as part of a modern fantasy/sci-fi mythology. The production design of Asgard itself is truly impressive and immersive - rooted in the architecture and artisan traditions of ancient Scandinavia, with some Star Wars thrown in for fun.

In place of an unruly and somewhat petulant hero, the Thor of this film is much more mature and even-keeled. He still lets loose with the lightning-struck fury for which he's known, but he's not wrestling the crippling hubris that characterized his first outing. This means that there's not much character development to be had this go round, but I think it's a fair trade off to see Thor fully come into his own rather than having little temper tantrums and being sent to Earth to "learn his lesson." Tom Hiddleston of course impresses as the beguilingly charming trickster god Loki, and I think I finally understand the fangirl appeal for him and his character.  Christopher Eccleston is still surprisingly recognizable under all his elven makeup, and his ice-cold visage and stern voice lend his villainy some actual menace - though he seems to have little motivation beyond just being evil and trying to destroy everything. The familiar cast of Earth-bound characters is back, and Kat Dennings provides some characteristic comic relief.

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I feel as though we've entered an era in visual effects where convincing realism is the rule rather than the exception. To compensate for this equilibrium, films have to find new ways to show us things we haven't seen; this usually equates to scaling things up as much as possible. Thor: The Dark World strikes a nice balance here, offering us a pleasant blend of big-time spectacle and practical visual effects. There's some tasteful restraint where I often expected the film to go overboard, and I'm once again to pleased to announce that the "shaky cam" effect is practically non-existent in this film. This means that, unlike Man of Steel for example, you can emotionally invest in the action rather than simply flinch every five minutes as something blurry and out of focus whizzes into the camera. And while this movie features plenty of action, it also takes its time to develop its story. It's ultimately thrilling, but isn't in a rush to get your adrenalin pumping.


While Thor: The Dark World wisely managed to avoid some of the shortcomings of its predecessor, there are some things it seems this franchise just can't surmount. The main thing that comes to mind is Jane Foster, Natalie Portman's character. Portman is a fantastic actress, so the fault doesn't lie with her. Jane is simply not a compelling character, and there's precious little reason for a romance to bud between her and Mr. Tall-Blonde-and-Godlike - apart from the fact that "it's in the script." It's even less forgivable when you consider the actual chemistry he has with fellow Asgardian and battlefield badass Sif - played by the exceptionally lovely Jaimie Alexander. Portman gives it her best shot, but she simply can't overcome a character that's almost painfully paper-thin; two movies have given her almost nothing to work with. Rene Russo - who plays Thor's mother and Odin's wife Frigga - is also surprisingly undercooked in a role that could have been much more compelling.

Towards the beginning of the movie, we're introduced to a kind of Asgardian magic that acts like a hologram - showing things that aren't there or allowing characters to appear as someone else. It's never fully explained how it works, and it certainly doesn't need to be. But what starts out as a nice visual effect quickly becomes a plot point, as we find several characters using this "shapeshifting" ability to advance key elements of the story. This is at the heart of Loki's trickster powers, as it's a major part of the Norse mythology that initially gave birth to him - so it felt appropriate for him to use it. But when we find others employing it without any seeming reason as to how or why, it kinda bugged me. Maybe you won't find this quite so nagging.

And while two stingers (one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene) didn't do any real damage, they also felt completely unnecessary.


In a few places this film struggles with tone, though I'll admit I couldn't immediately think of ways to remedy this problem. For example, during the big climax we're treated to the majority of the film's laugh-out-loud moments - as Jane uses what basically looks like a glorified Etch-A-Sketch to cause temporal and gravitational distortions. What this amounts to is Thor and Malekith falling in and out of our world - fighting - as they're thrown through other realms or teleported from this corner of the field to the other, as Natalie Portman brings all her acting skills to bear on furiously twisting a knob back and forth (re: almost nothing to work with). The whole time I couldn't escape the idea that if we sped up the action we'd be watching some kind of silly Buster Keaton or Benny Hill routine, complete with a zany Tin-Pan alley soundtrack.

But even in that moment, I couldn't deny that I was enjoying the hell out of what I was watching.

So ultimately, in spite of being a mixed bag, Thor: The Dark World delivered on its promises. It's a strangely compelling blend of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, so it came as little surprise that I enjoyed it while noting its shortcomings. Moreover I was pleased to discover that it does indeed stand out from the rest of the Marvel Studios ventures, if only by a little bit. Fleshing out the worlds and realms beyond makes for far more compelling material than the Earth-bound wandering of the first Thor.

For my money, this is one of those rare sequels that actually outdoes its predecessor - though it's certainly not a cinematic game-changer. But in the same way that The Wolverine offered something of a respite from the comic-book-status-quo, Thor: The Dark World proves that there's room to explore genuinely compelling material despite the limits of a blockbuster label.

And it goes great with a day's worth of Amon Amarth albums, too.