November 13, 2013

THOR: THE DARK WORLD Is A Funny And Frenetic Course Correction

"Why are there so many shoes here?"
Flying in the face of all logic and history, the various franchises in Marvel's cinematic universe only seem to get better with each installment.  (Not counting Iron Man 2, which would easily be the weakest of the Phase One films were it not for the the lethal combination of Rockwell and Rourke.)   It's a rare sight to be sure, and if this trend continues then I suspect that by the time Avengers 3 rolls around, my head will simply explode from too much awesome.

The first Thor was problematic at best.  Bart and I talked about it while recording my second podcast episode (coming soon!) and I think it's the kind of movie that might actually hold up better on repeat viewings because you can really latch onto the stuff that works (a.k.a. most of the Asgard stuff) and then go make a sandwich during the stuff that doesn't (a.k.a. all of the Earth stuff).  But that film totally nailed the single most important thing it had to do right: Chris Hemsworth is absolutely perfect as Thor, so good that you're willing to stick with him through a middling plot on the promise that you'll get to see him in a better story somewhere down the road.  Thor: The Dark World delivers on that promise.

What's most striking is the film's easy confidence.  In his first adventure, Thor is presented as a sort of buffoonish frat boy, someone who wants all the adventure and glory of being king without the burdens of responsibility that come with the crown.  It's all about his journey from arrogant fool to wise leader, and the fact that said journey felt half-baked and played second fiddle to Agent's Coulson's New Mexico Adventure was one of my main sources of frustration.  But when we catch up with Thor here, he's not only fought off Loki's Chitauri army in New York, he's also put down chaos and uprisings across many worlds and once again brought peace to the Nine Realms.  But he no longer takes any joy from battle, recognizing it instead as a solemn duty.  Gone are the days of Thor (both the character and the franchise) rushing around haphazardly trying to find himself while learning not to be such an ass.  Instead of robbing Thor of his mighty hammer Mjolnir, this film allows him to wield it with instinctive ease, as if the hammer were truly an extension of his own body.  This Thor is a leader of men.  Nay, a leader of gods.

The story is still pretty bare bones, but at least this one has some gravitas: Malekith, leader of the Dark Elves who literally predates the universe, wants to wipe out all of existence an supplant it with his own using a swirling MacGufifn called the Aether.  He was almost successful 5,000 years ago when the Nine Realms were last in total alignment, but he was defeated by Odin's father Bor.  Now the Realms are once again about to align and Malekith is back to finish the job.  So it's your basic "stop the bad guy with the super weapon" plot, and in truth Christopher Eccleson is tragically wasted as Malekith, a villain who's virtually devoid of all personality short of pure menace.  But at least this time the fate of the entire universe hangs in the balance, which is a fair step up from the fate of Random New Mexico Town.  Not only that, but we actually get to visit at least four or five of the Nine Realms, which really broadens the scope of the story while setting the stage for some of the larger, more cosmic moves that Marvel will be making with next year's Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Whatever the story may lack in originality, it makes up in sheer execution.  In fact, I often had to remind myself that I was watching director Alan Taylor's big screen debut.  I'm a fan of his work on Game Of Thrones and that surely helped prepare him for the sort of heightened reality of a superhero franchise that largely revolves around palace intrigue.  Whereas before everyone was trying their damnedest to make everything sound Shakespearean, now they're able to breathe a bit and let the elaborate sets and costumes do the work.  Taylor absolutely runs circles around Kenneth Branagh, although it probably helps that every third shot isn't a Dutch angle.  But Taylor also manages to make the earthbound stuff interesting as well.  There's a fabulous blending of sci-fi and fantasy here, and while that concept was vaguely discussed in the first Thor, here it's actually executed with a deft touch, until you've got a bunch of physicists using homemade inventions to battle an invading force powered by an ancient mystical artifact.  That's fucking cool.  The action sequences are a huge step up both in terms of quality and quantity.  In fact, the film virtually bounces along from one set piece to the next, but each one is exceedingly well staged both physically and emotionally; every battle has clear stakes and some kind of hook or setting that sets it apart from all the rest, whether it be something simple like a throne room sword fight or something extremely elaborate, like the film's final battle that hinges upon the use of some really fun Portal-esque physics.

But it's not all just a battle royale.  For all its dour marketing, this movie is funny!  Really funny!  And I'm not even counting poor Stellan Skarsgard, who's been largely relegated to a pantsless clown here.  It helps that the cast all seems a bit more comfortable in their own skin this time around, so we can get more character based humor, as opposed to the first film's zany fish-out-of-water stuff.  One of my favorite jokes (aside from a quick but excellent cameo halfway through the film) is a simple, throwaway bit where Mjolnir is zooming around the sky trying to catch up with Thor as he's teleported from location to location.  That by itself is pretty entertaining, but at one point it whips past Kat Dennings' Darcy, (greatly improved this time around) who calls out after it and once again butchers the hammer's name.  In fact, I think she calls it "Meow Meow."  It's dumb, but it slayed me.

The Dark World has its problems to be sure, but they're mostly minor quibbles.  The Naked Selvig stuff is absurdly broad and really toes the line of annoyance.  Anthony Hopkins doesn't sleepwalk through the film so much as he just seems annoyed to be there.  It might not be quite so jarring were it not for Rene Russo, whom you'd be forgiven for having no memory of in the first film.  Last time she was essentially a grieving prop, but Russo has turned Queen Frigga into a smart, ass-kicking lady in a film full of smart, ass-kicking ladies.  We finally get a sense of what she really means to both Odin and Thor, but it's Frigga's relationship with Loki that's really heartbreaking and provides even more layers for an already complex character.  I can't believe I'm saying this, but Russo might be the sneaky star of this movie.

I can't believe I've gotten this far without talking about Loki.  Hiddleston deserves a lot of credit, as I think there was a serious danger of Loki-fatigue after his role in Avengers.  But the character is given a really wonderful arc as Thor's semi-willing partner in crime that allows him to grow a bit and perhaps even reclaim some of his soul without ever losing his trademark mischievous guile.  You never quite trust Loki, but you do empathize with him a bit.  Part of that comes from the writing, but mostly it's the quiet humanity that Hiddleston brings to the role.  There's a scene about halfway through where Thor visits him in prison and while at first Loki's cell appears immaculate and well furnished, Thor instantly realizes that it's just another one of his brother's trademark illusions and demands Loki show his true self.  The trickster does, revealing a trashed cell and the distraught demi-god lying crumpled in the corner.  It's a simple but strong moment for both characters, proving that Thor has learned from the past ("Are you ever not going to fall for that?") and that Loki might be more scared and petulant child than evil overlord.  Loki's a character that seemed destined for stagnation, but instead he's only gotten more interesting with each outing.  If Marvel announced a Loki film tomorrow...well that's a terrible idea, but I might still show up just for Hiddleston.

And then there's Lady Siff and The Warriors Three.  Aside from the brief but excellent prison break sequence in the first half, they still don't seem to know what to do with these guys.  In fact, they all disappear halfway through the film, except for Hogun who actually bows out in the first ten minutes.  It's a real shame, as they all manage to do some pretty solid work in their short screen time.  Zachary Levi is a huge swashbuckling upgrade from the wooden Josh Dallas.  It's easy to see why they wanted him the first time around and I left the theater wishing there was an Errol Flynn biopic in development somewhere.  Jaimie Alexander really connects with Hemsworth and makes Lady Siff feel more and more like the warrior woman that Thor is supposed to end up with.  In fact, I was sure they were laying the groundwork for the demise of Jane Foster late in the film.  The romance angle was pretty rushed the first time around and it's not much more fleshed out here, coasting almost entirely on the charm of Portman and Hemsworth.  At this point I think that's the best we're going to get out of this franchise.

Still, this is a vast improvement over the first Thor.  With no more Iron Man movies on the horizon and no plans for Mark Ruffalo to get a standalone Hulk film, that leaves Thor and Captain America as the only Avengers with established franchises.  Winter Soldier looks like it could be the best Marvel film yet and I expect that Cap will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting for Phase Two.  But a week ago Thor felt like simply another cog in the Marvel machine, something to tide me over until the surefire madness of Guardians Of The Galaxy.  (Wait till you get a load of that post-credit stinger!)

Now I'm genuinely excited to see where this franchise goes.

Title: Thor: The Dark World
Director: Alan Taylor
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston, Rene Russo, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, Zachary Levi, Jaimie Alexander
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - AMC Boston Common (2D)

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