Thursday, November 14, 2013

Film Review: Thor: The Dark World

I finally got around to seeing Thor: The Dark World for a second time and I must say that I found it a lot more impressive upon rewatch than I did initially. The problems I had with it on a macro level (which I'll get to in due time) are still there, but the problems I had with it on the micro level of the sheer storytelling in the moment have vanished. Where I initially thought that the film had eliminated some of the storytelling flare of the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe films in favor of straight action, I now see that the story is a lot stronger than I gave it credit for and the manner in which it is being told is actually rather masterful. I held off on writing my review of the film after my first viewing because I have a lot of faith in Marvel's ability to create good films (at the very least, I have faith in their ability to create good films in this Avengers dominated run. I'm willing to simply gloss over the flaws in some of the X-men and Spider-Man movies and the complete ridiculousness that was Fantastic 4 as anomalies), and so I left the theater acknowledging that if I didn't enjoy the film as much as I should have, then the problem was probably with me as a viewer and not with the film. In the end, I think this proved to be the right move.

The film opens with Odin (played as always by the incomparable Anthony Hopkins) giving a voice over recap of the the beginning of the universe and the war fought between Asgardians and Dark Elves over the elves desire to return the universe to the darkness from whence it came. Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) is the leader of the Dark Elves and he's looking to use a MacGuffin weapon known as the Aether to basically end the world as we know it. Odin's father stops him, hides the weapon somewhere where it'll never be found (because that always ends well) and tells the world that Malekith, who scampered off when the battle was lost, is dead. Fast forward a few thousand years and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is being locked in the Asgardian dungeon for the rest of his life for the crimes he committed on Earth during The Avengers, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is fighting to restore peace and balance to the nine realms which fell into chaos after Loki's actions in the first Thor. And of course there's Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor's mortal, earthbound love interest who's moping about since Thor left her two years ago, but who's been spending her downtime using her awesome scientist brain to track gravitational anomalies over London. So things are tough all over for our group and, of course, when the Aether is found in the place no one would ever find it, and Malekith and his elves wake up from their thousands of years of slumber, wackiness ensues.

The movie is fun and entertaining. The story is straight forward and easily comprehensible (something I didn't realize when I watched it slightly drunk the first time around). And, somewhat surprisingly, it's really funny; consistently funny throughout much of it's 112 minute run time. It wasn't that I doubted Marvel's ability to bring the humor, but after spending so much time with the ever refreshing and snarky Tony Stark, it seemed odd that one of their films could pack in so much humor without him. But more than all of those reasons, I was surprised by the film's subtlety in its storytelling on the second watch. A lot of the story progresses without words, relying on the visual to convey the intricacies of what's happening. I found this to be especially true during a major action set piece towards the mid point of the film where the characters allowed to act and react to the situations before them without any real exposition about what was happening. (general spoiler) When Heimdall (the always amazing Idris Elba) moves to raise the protective barrier around Asgard, he doesn't talk aloud to himself about what he is doing or needs to do; he simply does it and there's never any confusion as to what is being done. So while this can leave things seeming a bit murky to the slightly inebriated brain, it makes perfect sense when sober, and I'm sorry for initially thinking the film was cumbersome and convoluted before, Marvel, I was wrong.

But that's not to say that I don't have problems with the film, or more specifically with its place within the series as a whole (significant spoilers and specific story elements to follow). Aside from the extreme lack of scenes featuring a scantly clad Chris Hemsworth (only one shirtless scene? really?), I only have two serious complaints. 1) I feel that Thor is the only Avenger with his own franchise thus far who isn't getting very much emotional development. 2) I think the series would have been much better served by allowing Loki to remain dead. I'll admit, that I'm more capable of being swayed on that second one, but in the moment it kind of irks me.

About Thor's emotional development: While it's clear that Thor underwent a great change in character after the first film, I don't feel as though the same can be said about this one. I'll admit that it's possible that the filmmakers intended the moment when he confronts Odin at the end of the film to tell him he can be the protector of the nine realms but he can't and won't take his rightful place on the throne to be the defining character moment, but if that's the case then I have to say it didn't work for me. First off, I was never under the impression that Thor becoming king of Asgard and ruling from the throne was ever going to happen. Given everything they want to do with the Avengers franchise, that just never realistically seemed to be in the offing to me. Secondly, I never really got the impression that Thor was interested in taking the throne to begin with. Early in the film Odin tells Loki that the plan is for Thor to finish bringing peace to the nine realms and then to become king, but we never hear that aspiration from Thor himself. It's set in stone by way of his birthright, sure, but what reason are we given to believe that all of the fighting and struggling to bring the nine realms to heel is being done, on his part, simply so he can get to his throne sooner? Giving up something someone else wants you to have but that you never really wanted in the first place (and something that would stall the story progression were you ever to possess it anyway) doesn't really count as character growth to me. Furthermore, Thor's mother, Frigga (Rene Russo), dies in this film and it's clearly a moment meant to spark a change in everything, but beyond his grief, I'm not sure I feel comfortable saying that Thor emerges from the incident as a different man than he was prior. Compare him to Tony Stark who underwent a serious progression within his most recent film, and Steve Rogers who appears to be being confronted with the same kind of big character moments in his upcoming film (based on the trailer at least), and you've got a character who seems to be being left behind by the Marvel writing staff.

As for Loki's death, allow me to say that I fully understand why the creative team would want to keep Hiddleston around. Even though I'm not one of the many many fans of the series who thinks that Loki is just the greatest thing since sliced bread, I do understand how invaluable Hiddleston has been in the role and how much fun he's constantly been on screen. I also understand the desire to stay true to the comics the films are based on. But seeing as how the films in most of the MCU have been adapted from Marvel worlds and characters more so than direct stories and comic runs themselves, I'm not of the opinion that the films have to remain as staunchly true to the source material as a Harry Potter or a Hunger Games adaptation has to. I would also point out that between Agent Coulson being returned from the dead in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Bucky making his return in The Winter Soldier, I'm starting to wonder if the series (and I do view all of these independent films as one whole series in a lot of ways) has the balls to pull the trigger on something as big and important as a major character death. I love Frigga, but sorry she doesn't count. I felt as though the film had the chance to do something significant with Loki's death and the redemptive elements of it in this film and they squandered it with that ending.

With all of that being said, Thor: The Dark World is a ridiculously entertaining and enjoyable film. The performances always seem to toe the line between headstrong seriousness and self-aware camp (or maybe it's just the Elizabethan language that makes it seem that way), the romance between Jane and Thor is crazy moving and fun to watch, and the film is told with a frankness and confidence that still surprises me when I find it in action films. You'd think after so many Marvel films I'd be used to it. Between this and Iron Man 3, I think Marvel's Phase 2 is shaping up to be every bit as good as Phase 1 was.


  1. You can't redeem Loki. He's the trickster. But beyond that, I agree. I think the problem with making Thor's development be "sorry Dad, I can't take the throne" is that they kind of already did that in the first movie. In the first movie, he wants the throne. He wants it bad. But by the end, he realizes he isn't ready to rule, and what he excels at is protecting and fighting for the realm, but not necessarily ruling anything. He's having the same "development" again and again. We need to see it progress.

    1. We'll just have to agree to disagree on the Loki thing. Not developing a major character is just bad storytelling.