Friday, November 8, 2013

"Thor - The Dark World Review", or Please, Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em!

L to R: Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth)
and unconvincing CGI sky. Are they even
With the recent announcement of its partnership with Netflix to create four new super-hero series, as well as the success of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and following its merger with Disney, it has to be said the Marvel Studios brand is now one of the most successful and well-known out there. I'm reminded of the feeling audiences used to have for Pixar. All you had to see was that logo with the desk lamp, and people said, "I'll go see that."

Marvel's latest big-screen release, Thor - The Dark World, isn't anywhere near as good as Pixar at its best. It's not even Marvel at its best. But it does have enough of the best qualities of the Marvel style to wind up being a fun time at the movies.

The film opens with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returning Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to Asgard for imprisonment following the events of The Avengers, and then going on to show Thor battling to bring the nine realms back from the brink of chaos due to the loss of the Bifrost bridge that had connected them. Meanwhile, on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) continues her research in London. When she  examines a strange phenomena in the city, she encounters and is infected by, an ancient weapon called the Aether. See, it turns out that a race of Dark Elves from one of the Nine Realms, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), once went to war with Asgard and their secret weapon had been the Aether. Janes' release of it from its hiding place reawakens Malekith, who now is once again on the warpath. Thor must take Jane to his realm, and team up with his treacherous brother Loki, in order to defeat the Dark Elves and save all of the Nine Realms.

The thing that I love about the Marvel style is that they try to make their films straight up adventure films.  Adventure films are different from action films, or thrillers, or science-fiction, etc. It's that spirit of adventure that mixes comedy and action and derring-do. There's a tendency to vie for respectability with super-hero films by making them grim or, worse, realistic. It's what I hated about Man of Steel. Super-heroes should be fun, and they should be slightly silly. The Nolan Batman trilogy was great as an exception, but I don't think it should be the rule. And the reason why Marvel's stuff, even when it's flawed, continues to be popular is because they are trying to make sure you have fun. They aren't embarrassed by Thor's essential goofiness; you get the feeling that they love Thor and his world, and it shows. This whole tone is embodied by the film's best assets; Hiddleston's fantastic performance as Loki and Hemsworth's classically heroic Thor. The dynamic of the two characters means Loki's going to steal the show, and he does, but he'd be nothing in a vacuum. It's the interplay with Thor that gives it meaning. There's a great scene in the movie, after a rare light moment between the two brothers, where Thor says, "I wish I could trust you." Hemsworth's delivery of that line is wistful, and it exemplifies their loaded relationship.

It's also nice to see Portman given a more proactive role, though I still don't quite buy her as a scientist. Wish I could say why. The love story between her and Thor also still doesn't quite land the way it should, though it's not for lack of trying. Maybe it's because the relationship between Thor and Loki is so much more interesting. Additionally, the Dark Elves and their motivation for their war is never really explained. They want to bring back a universe of darkness. Why exactly? Never really explained. They are just the bad guys to fight.

In the end, it's the direction that keeps the film from really rising above just a fun time. First there's the 3D. Marvel has never done a great job at conversion to 3D, and I'd say that in this film, it does absolutely nothing to add to the film whatsoever. It's not even noticeable. The action scenes are not staged terribly well. They're serviceable, but compared to similar scenes in other Marvel films, I'd say that Alan Taylor has so far done the least effective job in creating action set pieces that excite. They're just fights, and sometimes the choreography and the geography of them are muddled. A lot of this has to do with some of the lamest CG landscapes I've seen in a Marvel film. Kenneth Branagh, who directed Thor, brought an elegant style and a solid if unremarkable eye for action, Taylor seems lost amid all the effects.

I'll be glad to see Thor return, as the end credits promise, but I'm going to hope he does so with a tighter  hand on the reigns.

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