Monday, November 11, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World (4/5)

Of all the superheroes who have made the leap from page to screen, Thor has been the biggest surprise, if only because he breaks so clearly from the most well established superhero narratives.  The most common blueprint for the superhero film finds an altruistic young man struggling with doing the right thing only to be given extraordinary powers that change his life and the world around him (see Spider Man and Captain America).  This narrative nicely fits within the hero’sjourney narrative Hollywood has loved at least since Star Wars.  And then there’s the popular superhero narrative of a billionaire deciding to give himself to his community by mustering his extraordinary talents and wealth (see Batman and Iron Man).  The advantage of this kind of story is that the hero’s astounding wealth can ground the events in a world that looks a lot like our own, minimizing the audience’s suspension of disbelief.  But the world of Thor is a strange amalgamation of superheroes, mythology, fantasy, and science fiction.  In short, it is a bizarre hodgepodge of influences that only seem to fit together within the logic of comic books.

And yet somehow the first Thor film worked.  A lot of the credit goes to Kenneth Branagh who embraced the loopier aspect of the hero, but still managed to ground the narrative with a combination of mythological family drama and a 1980s fish out of water comedy.  Despite the first film’s laborious finale, the movie succeeded on the merits of everyone involved.  The sequel, Thor: The Dark World, continues to expand on Thor’s universe, spending more time off earth and in the various Nine Realms. 

Thor: The Dark World opens once again with that ponderous signifier of the fantasy genre: the voiceover.  (I understand how this might be necessary in some situations, especially with the overwhelmingly large universe of J.R.R. Tolkein, but there has got to be a better way to build a fantasy world in the medium of film).  Odin’s voiceover introduces Malekith, the film’s villain who hopes to destroy the universe using a powerful weapon known as the Aether, a maroon sometimes liquid, sometimes solid object that also appears to have a mind of its own.  Malekith’s plans are stymied by Bor, Thor’s grandfather.  But he wakes thousands of years later, at a time when the Nine Realms are in alignment, which, lucky for Malekith, is apparently the ideal time for their destruction. This Convergence has shred the boundaries between worlds, which leads Thor love interest and scientific expert in technobabble, Jane Foster to become infected by the Aether. 

Malekith isn’t a particularly compelling villain.  His motivations are murky at best, and it’s clear that his sole job is to move the plot forward.  But luckily the much more compelling villain from the first film and The Avengers, Loki, has also returned.  For the first part of the film, Loki remains locked up on Asgard for his crimes, and he only gets released when Thor decides he needs his help to hunt down Malekith.  At this point it’s hard to imagine a Thor film without Loki.  His charismatic trickster has become the kind of villain you hate yourself for actually rooting for.  Likewise, Chris Hemsworth excels at being unselfconsciously charming as Thor, and Anthony Hopkins manages to be both grizzled and regal as Odin. 

But if there is one aspect of The Dark War that compares unfavorably with its predecessor, it’s a fumbling of the Thor, Loki, and Odin dynamic.  Kenneth Branagh at first seemed like an odd choice for a superhero film, but watching the first film, it became clear that Branagh’s knowledge of Shakespeare made him ideal to explore the relationship between a family of royals (I’m sure I’m not the only person to recognize parallels between Thor and Prince Hal/Henry V).  This is most evident in the character of Odin.  In the first film, Branagh and Hopkins crafted a complex image of a king who excelled at war and yet hated violence, who loved his sons and yet feared for their future.  When Odin banishes Thor, Hopkins plays the character as stern but melancholy.  In the sequel, Hopkins is given little to do but to stomp around being gruff. 

But in general perhaps the biggest asset the Thor films have is a cast intent on ignoring how downright goofy, if fun, the material is and giving performances that craft as fully realized characters as possible, even if their screen time is scant.  Ray Stevenson, Jaimie Alexander, Tadanobu Asano, and Zachary Levi (replacing Josh Dallas) all manage to make the most of their archetypal adventurers even while relegated to the periphery.  Each character could potentially anchor an entire film, so long as they also had a comic book named after them.  As for the earthlings, Stellan Skarsgard turns in a more comedic performance this time around, and Kat Denning manages to barely skirt annoying and manages to be funny.  The Thor films have enough characters to fuel five more movies without relying on the larger Marvel universe. 

The Dark World is directed by Alan Taylor who has worked primarily in television, most relevantly directing a number of episodes of Game of Thrones.  His biggest contribution to the Nine Realms is providing a more lived in feel to Asgard and a heavy infusion of sci-fi elements.  Branagh embraced the comic book origins, making liberal use of Dutch tilts and bright colors.  And while these are taken directly from the art of Thor co-creator Jack Kirby, Taylor’s slightly grimier vision works better on the big screen. Taylor seems heavily influenced by George Lucas circa 1977 to 1983.  Not only does he create a world with a little dirt and grime, but he also melds science fiction with fantasy.  The races of the Nine Realms are just as comfortable battling with sword and shield as they are space fighters.  This goes a long way towards really showcasing what a strange, baroque world Stan Lee and Jack Kirby have created, but grounding it for the film going audience.

The Dark World is a case of one step forward and one step back.  Unlike in the first film, the plot moves along lithely, but in order to do so it has abandoned the psychological depth that differentiated the first film from other superhero movies.  But when this superhero craze started a few years ago, no one really expected a Thor film in the first place.  Asgard and the Nine Realms seemed so loopy, so melded to the page that a film seemed impossible.  Comic books have the potential to present an image of unfettered imagination at work.  The Thor films have shown that, despite the odds, this can translate to the screen. 

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