Sunday, November 24, 2013
Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013)
The Thor series begins to find its own identity, feeling less like an Iron Man spin-off. Mythology is convoluted and story lacks a compelling arc, but, as an action movie, it's elegant and attractive. One of the better movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Recommended.
Thor's second solo feature doesn't disappoint, but neither does it surprise. It's a well-executed blockbuster, better than the first Thor (2011). Honestly, all I've ever really asked for from a Thor movie is fight scenes where one superpowered character hits another a mile through the air, only to see them soar that mile back into the fray. Thor: The Dark World delivers that, better than did any of the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. The action is not as exhilarating as in Man of Steel (2013), but it's arguably more tastefully done and, at the very least, more coherent. Yes, even as Thor and his foe find themselves hurtling across dimensions with each blow—a clever touch, emphasizing the more cosmic scale of this property compared to the other Avengers' solo adventures, as well as adding a bit of humor to the climactic struggle, as the characters must contend as much with unpredictable spatial anomalies as with one another.
Among the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, I would rate Thor: The Dark World second best so far, behind only Iron Man 3 (2013). In other words, "Phase Two" is, for me, a pleasing step up from the first round of releases (the yawn-inducing Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show notwithstanding, if that even counts as part of Phase Two), which leaves me optimistic for the near future.
Compared to Iron Man, what the Thor (and Captain America) films have lacked that leave them feeling more like second-tier releases is a larger-than-life personality on a par with Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark. Chris Hemsworth is close to perfect as Thor, but he's still basically just a good-looking, charismatic guy reading lines. He doesn't elevate the character or the movie the way Downey did with his performance in the first Iron Man (2008), hence why Iron Man will continue to be the Avengers' ace for as long as Disney and Marvel can get Downey to keep coming back. At least, this time around, the filmmakers were more confident in allowing Thor: The Dark World to mostly stand on its own strengths instead of riding Iron Man's coattails. To the film's benefit, there are no gratuitous appearances by S.H.I.E.L.D. characters, nor any obvious setup for a future non-Thor film or character (excepting that really awful and out-of-place mid-credits scene with Benicio del Toro).
Though this film perhaps fails to alter its title character's B-lister status among movie superheroes, there is and always has been more compelling drama contained in Thor's strained relationships with his father and brother than can be found in any of the Iron Man films. It is that drama, along with the fantasy grandeur, that grants these movies whatever just barely unique personality they possess within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Which is why it's such a shame that there's not even more of that stuff—more Loki, more Odin, more Lady Sif and the Warriors Three, more Idris Elba as Heimdall, more Asgard and more Bifröst Bridge.
The scenes on Asgard were the best part of the first Thor, and it's nice that the sequel spends a greater amount of time there, but still too much of the film is taken up by the comic relief Earth contingent of the Stellan Skarsgård and Kat Dennings characters. I seriously question whether these characters actually add anything at all to the story. For most of the movie, they're not even in communication with Thor, and, any time the story cut to their investigations in London, even before anyone would begin to speak, I would lose patience. They are never altogether so obnoxiously manic and loud as the comic relief characters in, say, a Michael Bay Transformers movie—they're more comparable, I'd say, to a Jar Jar Binks—but they nevertheless feel unnecessary and unwelcome.
And Thor's love interest, Jane Foster, is as bad as the rest of them—a total waste. Their relationship is based on almost nothing; they knew each other for, like, a day (out of the, what, thousands of years that Thor has lived?), they have no real chemistry, and they're both busy people. I don't buy the romance between them, and I don't buy them losing sleep over one another. And if Chris Hemsworth maybe doesn't have all that much to work with playing arguably one of the dumber and more one-dimensional superheroes in Marvel's roster, Natalie Portman's role is even considerably less inspired as that superhero's civilian main squeeze. And, Oscar-winner though she may be, Portman has, frankly, never done great work in roles where she's not motivated by the material. In my opinion, it would be best for everyone if they simply cut this character loose as the series moves forward. I question whether there needs to be a romantic interest for Thor in these movies at all.
I confess, I haven't read too many Thor comics. I have read Walt Simonson's well-regarded run from the 1980s. Malekith, the villain in Thor: The Dark World, debuted during that run and was the closest thing it had to a persistent antagonist, but, honestly, he kind of sucked and was no more compelling a character in the comics than in the movie. What I enjoyed about Simonson's stories, however, was how he really ran with the idea of "superhero comics as modern mythmaking," which, obviously, was especially appropriate when dealing with Thor. Written with a sense of awe and earnestness, Simonson's run read like the comic book equivalent of a lofty Odyssey-style epic, as Thor journeyed across realms and confronted exotic foes and myriad trials on his heroic mission, which could also be a journey of self-discovery for the brooding god, who, at the time, had no enduring love interest in the comics and was facing the prophecy of his own death. That's the sort of direction I would like to see the third movie go in.