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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Everyone loves the cinematic version of Iron Man.  As for the rest of the Avengers, they often play to mixed reviews.  So before I express my opinion on Thor: The Dark World, I should divulge that I am a big fan of the first movie, so much so that I believe it to be one of the most underrated Marvel Studio film.  But this is not an article about the merits of the first film, so I digress.  In regards to Thor 2, the best I can say is that it is entertaining; and the worst that I can say is that the script is definitely not its strong point.  The net result then is a highly uneven finished product.

In the general timeline of the Marvel cinematic universe, Thor 2 takes place two years after the events of The Avengers and a few months after Iron Man 3.  The crux of the film rests on a rare occurrence called the convergence, when the nine realms come into complete alignment.  When a dark force known as the Aether awakens Malekith - a nefarious being who wishes to use this alignment to destroy the nine realms, Thor must form an uneasy alliance with his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in order to preserve all life.

What is recognizably different about this film from its predecessor is its look and feel.  Gone is the cleanly Shakespearian aesthetic crafted by Kenneth Branagh in favor of the rugged medieval Game of Thrones vibe of Alan Taylor.  If the first movie had the god-like Asgardians residing in the clouds, this movie has them firmly planted in the mud.  What Taylor does well in this film is balance some sense of regality with the grit of raw and-to-hand combat with sci-fi visuals that promise to eventually take Marvel’s narrative towards the Guardians of the Galaxy.  At face value, none of these elements readily go together, but in this film they somehow seem to mesh. 

What Taylor misses the boat on is tying up the machinations of the different sets of characters into some kind of cohesive story.  There are a lot of things going on in this film and a lot of moving pieces – and at times it’s hard to discern the rhyme and reason behind the action unfolding onscreen.  Are the answers to these questions embedded in the film’s exposition?  Yes, but buried in random scenes and not nearly fleshed out in the way that they should be.  I suspect that this is the result of what can best be described as spotty editing marked by more than a few questionable cuts.

What I really enjoyed about the movie is the work of the featured members of the cast.  In this film, there is no doubt that Chris Hemsworth is Thor.  Sure, he was solid in the first outing, but from the outset it is crystal clear that in this, his third time wielding the hammer, he fully owns the character.  And while many are quick to shower praise upon Tom Hiddleston and Natalie Portman for the chemistry that their respective character share with Thor, it takes two to tango and thus an equal share of that praise has to fall upon Hemsworth’s shoulders.

Speaking of Tom Hiddleston, his Loki is the exception to Marvel’s cinematic rogues’ gallery in that his is the only one that is complex and fully realized.  Thus, for many he is as much a draw to this film (if not more so) than the lead character himself.  All of that credit goes to Hiddleston who has quickly proven himself to be a very good actor.  Sure, the character of Loki lends himself to the snappiest lines, but Hiddleston delivers them in such a way as to keep the tone both light and menacing - a nearly impossible balance to maintain. 

And as for Natalie Portman, what’s not to like about her Jane Foster?  Portman plays her smart, smitten, and strong - a worthy equal to Hemsworth’s Thor.  For all the things that this film is, at its center it is a love story and the driving force behind that arc is Portman.  It’s not a perfect performance, but it is a layered one and that’s not something we always get from good actors appearing in tent pole films.

One of my larger complaints about this film is how the supporting cast is handled.  Jamie Alexander, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, and Tadanobu Asano as Thor’s fellow Asgardian warriors are given very little to do in this film and are thus rendered mostly insignificant.  Likewise, Christopher Eccleston as Malekith, continues Marvel’s run of churning out fairly uninteresting villains.  Eccleston does little more than deliver sparse lines while wearing poor make up.  You could have picked someone up off the street and gotten the same exact result.

Then there is Stellan Skarsgard and Idris Elba – two seasoned actors, who just seemed to miss the boat with everything they were doing.  It’s certainly not for a lack of trying, but the way their scenes played out never seemed right.  Unfortunately, that feeling of complete apathy emanating from the cast comes from its most accomplished member.  Anthony Hopkins as Odin delivers an uneven, detached, and lazy performance that runs completely contradictory to all that was established in the first film.  With every expression and line delivered, it feels like Hopkins has zero desire to be where he is.  That his character spends most of the movie off screen turns out to be a huge plus for the film’s overall quality.

So as you can see, there are things I liked and things I loathed.  But what does any of that mean to you?  It means that if you love superhero movies or all things Marvel, then go see this movie.  It’s fun to see these characters again and watch them come to life onscreen.  And it’s Thor and Loki and Natalie Portman looking great on screen.  It is all such a welcome sight in a year when good action movies have been scarce.  But if you’re a bit more ambivalent about the genre then you may want to save this one for a rental.  It is after all, a bit lean as a straight narrative.  Regardless, whether you love it or hate it, you have to admire Marvel’s approach to developing this story arc across multiple franchises.  Here’s hoping that when all is said and done, the payoff lives up to the expectations.

Standout Performance:  Tom Hiddleston.  He does nothing in this movie to hurt his status as a fan favorite.