Thor: The Dark World

November 18, 2013


I have long approached the Marvel Cinematic Universe project with fascination and a minor degree of excitement about the possibilities of such a venture without being overly impressed with the end products, The Avengers excepted.  Of all the individual character films, I felt the first Thor was the most successful.  It expanded the universe – quite literally – with a deftness and humour that can so often sink a big-budget spectacle when it comes to introducing vast worlds and new mythologies (Green Lantern, anyone?).  Comic book superheroes are arguably most accessible when they’re weighted in the real world, so for instance Spider-man is easily relatable because he’s just a kid in New York City with some amazing powers and the wider audience doesn’t have to stretch too much to go along with it.  Of course we live in a different world than we did 15 years ago, where the nerdy intergalactic aspects of these types of things were shunned by the mainstream as being “ridiculous” and “nerdy” since nowadays all of the old comic book geek stigma is gone.  Still, introducing the 9 realms to a wider audience wasn’t an easy task, but by contrasting the busy, Roger Dean-esque world of Asgard with the bright, clean lines of the New Mexico desert, and by extension the operatic family drama of Odin and his ilk with the fish-out-of-water silliness of a demi-god wandering through small town America with a bunch of scientists, the pill was easy to swallow.  Thor: The Dark World operates on the basis that the heavily lifting has already been done (many people loathe the origin stories and wait for the characters to properly act already established in the sequels), but it turns out the character introduction wasn’t the only reason the fantastical/grounded dichotomy worked.  The new Thor spends most of its time not understanding the careful balance of the first entry, and suffers for a long period for it.  

The reins being passed from Kenneth Branaugh to HBO vet Alan Taylor, who presumably got the job based on his stellar work on Game of Thrones amongst others, there’s a clear feeling of brand control on the part of Marvel.  This has been something of a bugbear of mine since the second Iron Man film and the larger Marvel game was fully in place.  What’s intriguing is that the visual blandness isn’t nearly as bad as it once felt, and part of Thor 2‘s problem is that it expands too rapidly without having the script to back it up.  We’re treated to another tedious prologue where we learn of the Asgardians defeating Malakith (Christopher Ecclestone) and his Dark Elves and burying the MacGuffin on earth to keep it out of everyone’s hands.  This, of course, is silly, but I guess they couldn’t have predicted that thousands of years down the line, that power source would be discovered and infected by the most boring human on earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, doing nothing at all).  Foster is whisked away to Asgard by Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and all types of tedious betrayals and plots come crashing in as Malakith and his ilk invade planet/city.  It’s the kind of sequence where we’re treated to an Asgardian bringing up a shield defense around the citadel only to have it immediately taken down.  Why is it there?  Well presumably to explain why the Dark Elf infiltrated the prisons, but like everything else in the first 90 minutes of the movie, it’s so undercooked it’s hard to imagine that Taylor or the screenwriters saw it as anything other than perfunctory.  There’s some nonsense about Odin (Anthony Hopkins, phoning it in as per usual) being upset that his wife, Frida (Rene Russo) has died and he’s hell-bent on vengeance, so Thor must escape to the Dark World to do this and that and other thing.

Much of this involves Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) being pulled back into the action and the giant question mark of loyalty that surrounds him.  Loki is probably the best single character other than Tony Stark that the franchise has created, and while it’s fun on occasion to watch him there’s a feeling throughout that he’s written in because people like him and nothing else.  Hiddlestone’s fun, shifty performance threatens to overwhelm Hemsworth’s impressive work as Thor, and it’s a testament that he manages to hold the screen well even when the script is failing him.  Hemsworth understands just how to play the absurdity of the part, and injects enough aloof humour to keep Thor from being a godly bore (note how well he plays the scene of getting into the Volvo).  Elsewhere Kat Dennings continues to be the cloying quippy sidekick and Stellan Skarsgaard is relegated to goofy insanity.

It’s all pretty bad until, perhaps predictably, we get back to earth for the final quarter of the movie.  Alleviated from the pretensions of massive Nordic saga exposition and hijinxs, the film settles down into a nice quippy rhythm (the funniest scene comes around here, and it’s really just an aside involving the Hammer and a coat rack) before truly impressing with a climactic action sequence which is far and away the most original done in the MCU, and the second most exciting behind the Avengers finale.  As opposed to the requisite CGI monster vs CGI good guy slugging it out, Taylor and the writers use the grounded aspect of earth (in this case, Greenwich, which I don’t think is accessible by one train from Charing Cross but I digress) and the inter-dimensional possibilities of the 9 realms to create a dynamic, fun, and genuinely thrilling climax.  It’s nonsense, of course – some kind of ill-defined gadget can warp space/time because some hastily explained “convergence” concept that is never really given its due – but it’s wildly fun and inventive.  The beats are good, the characters are given their own things to do rather than just watching Thor swing a hammer, and there are tiny breaks for humor (the aforementioned underground sequence, for one).  Even if the villain is a non-starter and the stakes are the normal “the whole universe because oh I don’t know whatever”, and there is a bit of a heroic walk through CGI storms, it really takes the possibilities of Thor and his 9 realm mythology and makes something of it.  If Marvel wants to push itself to introduce the absurd intergalactic plotlines of the comics into the mythology of the films, this is the way to do it without feeling torturously staid and boringly ridiculous.

So the film is a mess, despite it’s finale, and it’s a real shame.  One can’t help but feel the larger project (everything leads to the next Avengers films, although, bizarrely, this film’s post-credit sequence seems to be teasing Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers 3 more than anything else) is forcing this individual film into a space of “it has to be done” rather than something that should be done.  Iron Man 3 was impressive for its character work and its dealing with the consequences of past films, and oddly it felt like a more complete, proper film than just something to fill time.  Thor: The Dark World feels like a rush job where nobody took the time to work out the scale of the venture and just threw things at the screen that wouldn’t interfere too much with the larger mythos.  I’m fine with that if it gives us smaller, interesting movies but when you’re knee-deep in Dark Elves and some sort of red mist that’s permeating the galaxy then you need to take a step back.


5 Responses to “Thor: The Dark World”

  1. Greg Says:

    reins not reigns. while the idea of intertwining different properties was initially quite a pleasant surprise, a large part of the problem as you’ve pointed out here is that the audience is left feeling that the individual pieces are serving a larger master and can’t really be enjoyed on their own.

  2. chiaroscurocoalition Says:

    Cheers, it is now fixed!

    I really did feel Iron Man 3 worked on its own, even if it was informed by previous events. The difference is having a script in place, and a good one at that. There’s a danger of overwhelming everyone by having to hit all these set targets for so many multiple films.

    • Greg Says:

      Since I’m lazy and can’t be bothered to dig up what you thought about IM3 (not MI:3!) I’ll just say that while it may have worked on its own, it was kind of an uneven movie. Maybe I’m expecting too much from these things since I had such an affinity to the comics when I was growing up.

      The problem besides having to do homework and watch all of these movies (which at 2 hours or whatever every summer isn’t that big a deal) are all the supposed TV tie-ins. Yes, there is this great and wonderful universe of comic book characters to explore but studios seem to forget that prior to the multiverse thing, these comics existed on their own with distinct storylines before they all merged in the last decade or two.

      And all of this doesn’t address the fact that studios seem to not want to do original stories at all anymore. (And I’m stealing this from a podcast) but you have movies like 21 Jump Street which frankly doesn’t even need that tie-in — it was a decent enough movie on its own without having to exploit the nostalgia factor.

      • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

        In regards to IM3, I was impressed because it was basically a Shane Black movie (Down to drug-addled has-been actors!) until the perfunctory final action spectacle. Marvel needs more personality in their projects, and it’s great when they sneak through.

        I agree with you in general about Hollywood not making original films as much, though I’d disagree with 21 Jump Street not using its original brand to great effect (not just the basic story, but the Depp cameo was perfect).

        Especially since the bottom fell out of the DVD market, Hollywood execs have no real model for deciding which pictures to make, so they rely on sequels and brand names (hence It’s a Wonderful Life 2 just being greenlit). They make few movies because they’re hedging their bets on the big budget tentpoles. Spielberg and Lucas have said that it’s inevitable that a string a major flops is on its way and it’s going to change everything, but I’m skeptical. The Marvel enterprise is probably the greatest example of this, but then it’s also the most fascinating for all those “homework” reasons you mentioned. I’m really interested to see how Guardians of the Galaxy goes, because as far as name recognition etc that’s got close to nil when it comes to mainstream audiences.

        • Greg Says:

          I was impressed because it was basically a Shane Black movie

          So much so that it’s basically Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Though I’ll admit to not having seen the movie myself.

          You move onto something different than my original argument re: Jump Street.

          Oh, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely understand the economic reasonings behind the desire for sequels and the building of “brands”.

          I’m with on you the skepticism. Hell, Lucas himself is the prime example. Despite how shit the prequels were, Star Wars is still massive business, to the point where Lucas profited to the tune of several billions.

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