Saturday, November 23, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Alternate Title:  Thor vs. Legolas

One sentence synopsis:  Thor does battle with the Dark Elves, while also dealing with his brother, Loki.

Things Havoc liked:  In terms of film-making, Thor is not a concept that calls for subtlety. Kenneth Branaugh, learned thespian and director though he was, understood this, and created the original Thor film by channeling the King Lear/Tempest side of his Shakespearean experience, giving us a film that was boisterous and rowdy and filled with people screaming their heads off as they endeavored to slay one another with magic weapons that were nowhere explained. This was the appropriate tactic to employ when creating Thor, a movie filled to the brim with viking awesomeness, and it's a tactic that the sequel's director, TV veteran Alan Taylor, has wisely decided to continue with.

The core of the original Thor movie was always Thor (appropriately enough) and Loki, brothers turned enemies turned who-knows-what. Loki served as antagonist for The Avengers of course, but his best work was in Thor, where he was allowed to not only have a complex character arc, but also to plot and scheme and layer plans atop one another while pulling off double and triple crosses left and right, leaving Thor to clean things up in his wake. Their relationship anchored the first Thor, and it anchors this one, as Loki, now post-Avengers capture, is locked away in the dungeons of Asgard, bitterly resentful of his defeat, but still possessed of the same ambivalent motivations that were somewhat lacking in Avengers. The primary threat of the film does not come from him, but from other, larger elements in which he and Thor are both wrapped, which gives us a chance to see the two brothers in more nuanced lights. Despite knowing his reputation for deceit and trickery, I must admit that Loki fooled me more than once in this film, and when you see as many movies as I do, that's no small task.

But let's not turn this purely into Loki's affair, tempting though this may be. Chris Hemsworth is back once more as Thor, and is just as metal as he was previously. This Thor is a more adult Thor, still the same overconfident Viking badass of before, but no longer as cavalier as he was in Thor 1. Indeed, his sense of responsibility for the Nine Worlds seems to have deepened beyond even what his father Odin was looking for, and rather than have him relearn the lessons of the first film, this movie confronts him with the limits of one's capacity to deal with events of such unimaginable scope as to shatter even gods. It's not precisely the most riveting performance, but Hemsworth is a joy to watch (as always), and effortlessly holds down the movie as it jumps from crushing action to raving despair to jovial wisecracks. Alongside him are the other Norse gods, including his would-be paramour Sif, the ever-awesome Warriors Three (though one of them, Hogun, does get weirdly sidelined for no reason I can fathom), and of course, Heimdall, whose Viking credentials I should hope are no longer being questioned by anyone, and who serves a role all his own in this film, watchful as ever over his appointed charge. All of this takes place in a much more vibrant and fully-realized Asgard, a place which now seems like an actual kingdom and not some sterile palace with naught but guards and extras. The best parts of the original movie were the ones in Asgard, as Asgard was an interesting place to visit, filled with color and spectacle and viking awesomeness. Choosing to spend even more of our time in Asgard (or other alien realms) was the right call.

Things Havoc disliked:  Unfortunately, we also have to talk about the things that were not the best part of the original Thor, and which remain so in the sequel, which more or less boil down to everything set on Earth. To begin with, Natalie Portman's character, whom I actually liked in the first film for her spark of life and earnestness to perform patently insane acts of science in quest of truth (and later, in quest of Thor), has here been watered down into (I hesitate to use the phrase) shrinking violet, pining after Thor and moving listlessly about in search for him. That a woman would fall in love with an Asgardian God sent down to Earth to save her life several times from unspeakable fates, I believe. That the affections would be returned, I am afraid I do not, at least not with this version of Portman's character. Portman can act when she wants to, but this performance is just dull, and though it's nowhere as bad as this example would warrant, it does strike uncomfortable memories of her turn in the Star Wars Prequels...

But Portman (who does at least get to go on the adventure with everyone else) is not the main issue. The main issue (for me at least) was Kat Dennings' Darcy, who has gone from mildly-amusing comic relief to gratingly annoying comic relief. Word to filmmakers: it is not funny when someone acts like a complete asshole and gets away with it. Nor does being funny consist of saying nothing but one-liners. Comic relief works when it is properly integrated into the plot, not sidelined off in its own corner to be cut back to for five minutes out of every twenty, and unfortunately, other than acting like a prat and being annoying, Darcy has literally no other role in the plot. Nor (sadly) does Stellan Skarsgard, reprising his role as Dr. Erik Selvig, who apparently has been driven half-mad by Loki's mind-manipulation in the Avengers, something which apparently was put in to excuse extended scenes of him naked or in his underwear. Weirdly funny as that might have been the first time, Selvig's simply doesn't work as a madman, especially when given nothing to do, a theme that runs through all the rest of the Earth-based secondary cast (though I'll admit that seeing The Sapphires' Chris O'Dowd pop in for a cameo role as Portman's ever-suffering blind date target brought a smile to my face).

Finally, a thought or two about the villain and his evil plot. Christopher Eccleston, the 9th Doctor himself, plays Malekith the Accursed, leader of the Dark elves of Svartalfheim, apparently ancient enemies of the Asgardians. I say apparently because he is introduced rather perfunctorily in an opening scene complete with voiceover that is desperately trying to rip off the intro to Fellowship of the Ring. Homages though I don't mind. What I mind is that Malekith is simply a cypher, a revenge-crazed maniac looking to find the MacGuffin to destroy the world. He has no character or plot other than this, goes through his single-minded motions, and battles Thor along the way because that's what the bad guy does in films like this. I don't ask that every comic movie villain be Loki or Magneto, but some form of characterization would have been nice. As it stands he is simply a prop or plot device against which Thor and Loki must fight. And while these fights are entertaining (one particular engagement that winds up hopping between worlds dozens of times was particularly well done), and while watching Thor and Loki react to them is more entertaining, Malekith himself might as well not be there for all the affect he has.

Final thoughts:   Given the above review, I'm sure you would expect me to sum Thor 2 up as a fairly mediocre film, but nothing could be further from the truth. Flawed though it is, in many ways, the core of Loki and Thor and the Asgardians is so strong in this film that it manages to carry it despite these flaws, helped immensely by the director and writer choosing wisely to spend as much of the film as possible with its strongest elements. As a result, while The Dark World is not the fantastic comic book film that the original Thor was, it is still a fun, action-packed, gleeful romp of a movie, one which retains and enhances most of the virtues that the original provided. The Dark World is not a movie that will be remembered as a classic of the genre, but neither does it do anything to tarnish Disney-Marvel's image as the purveyors of extremely high-quality films based on comic books, something I could not say for the lukewarm Iron Man 3.

As with all Marvel films, this movie comes with a mid-credits teaser (two, actually). As with some films I've seen (The Wolverine), these sequences are among the most interesting bits of the entire movie. But unlike the majority of movies for which this is true, that fact speaks more to the promise of those scenes than to any lack of quality in the movie itself.

Final Score:  7/10

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