Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

After getting my ass blown out of my seat by The Avengers and Iron Man 3, the latest film set in the interconnected Marvel film universe, Thor: The Dark World, is something of a disappointment. That's not to say that it's a bad film, mind you; it's anything but. By the standards of a big-budget Hollywood superhero film made by anybody other than Marvel, it's spectacular. The problem is that Marvel has raised the bar as to what a superhero movie can be, and Thor: The Dark World is the first film of theirs in a while that isn't an unqualified bullseye. Large parts of the film felt missing, as though they had been left on the cutting room floor; I noticed, checking Wikipedia, that this film was tied with The Incredible Hulk for having the shortest runtime out of any Marvel film. The result is that quite a bit of the spectacle here feels comparatively empty. However, it's ameliorated by the fact that this film's characters have already had at least two prior films' worth of development -- the original Thor and The Avengers. This is the beauty of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (from here on referred to as the MCU), the fact that the filmmakers, instead of being forced to explain all manner of story points and character motivations, can build upon what has grown into a vast shared universe that is increasingly resembling those of the comics it's based on. Mind you, it also means that you need to watch past films (in this case, Thor and The Avengers -- and I am probably going to spoil those films, so stop reading if you haven't seen them) in order to have a sense of what is going on here. Reviewing each individual Marvel film feels strange, given that they're more like episodes in a really big-budget TV show than stand-alone films in their own right. What I'm getting at is, Thor: The Dark World doesn't stand on its own two feet as a movie, but as the latest installment in the MCU, it still shines, even if it's not the best the series has seen.

Thor: The Dark World sees the title character, a cosmic being/Norse god known as Thor (Chris Hemsworth), on a campaign to bring peace to the Nine Realms of the universe after his home world of Asgard's giant teleporter, the Bifrost, was destroyed at the end of the original film, cutting Asgard off from the rest of the universe and causing it to fall into chaos. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Thor's onetime girlfriend from the original film, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), has figured out that a "convergence" of the Nine Realms is causing all manner of funky anomalies where the laws of physics stop behaving normally. While studying these anomalies, one of them causes her to get infected with a kind of dark energy called the aether, whose presence awakens a bunch of ancient space elves who wish to use that energy and the convergence to take over the universe. If this makes any sense to you, then clearly you've been keeping up with the MCU films. If any of it did not make sense, then this movie, on its own, will not improve the situation; the MCU has gotten to the point where its continuity is developed enough that going back and watching some of the earlier films is the only way to figure out what's going on. We're in the territory of a long-running soap opera, where if you haven't been following these films from the start, some of the finer details are going to require explanation from somebody who does. As somebody who falls into that latter category, I obviously got quite a bit more out of the film than somebody who's just started watching this series of films. It shouldn't still feel strange seeing a film call back to completely different stories the way that the MCU films do, but the fact that nobody seems to have pulled this off on the scale that Marvel has makes it something unique in Hollywood. If you're into it, it really does feel like you're watching a great TV show, where the stories keep going after the credits roll.

But if you haven't seen the films that Thor: The Dark World is following upon, then how is it? While you're probably going to miss some stuff, you'll still have a blast. The action scenes are pretty much what you'd expect from a film budgeted at $170 million -- lots of explosive CGI spectacle -- plus some epic sword fights and war scenes pulled out of a fantasy epic. Visually, this film wears its unique "Norse sagas meets sci-fi" influences on its sleeve, its world looking just as creative and gorgeous as it was in the first film. Director Alan Taylor's style here doesn't match Kenneth Branagh's epic, Shakespearean helming of the first film, but still makes it feel like a worthy follow-up. All of the cast members are as good as they've always been. Chris Hemsworth is once again badass as Thor, feeling like he's as ready to down some mead as he is to bash elves, while Natalie Portman's human astrophysicist/love interest Jane feels fleshed-out and more than just a plot coupon. Her rapport with Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, and Jonathan Howard as the rest of Jane's team brings some great levity and gut-bustingly funny moments to the film, making for a fun contrast to the drama up in Asgard, while she also does a great job selling Jane's relationship with Thor. Last but not least, there's Tom Hiddleston, the man who launched a thousand fangirl squeals, as Thor's brother Loki. Still the same trickster he always was, but this time an anti-hero reluctantly assisting Thor, Hiddleston is both intensely charismatic and good-looking in a way rarely seen from Western actors not named Johnny Depp. His screen time was much too short, as he and Hemsworth have some great bromantic chemistry here, and when he was on screen, this film truly came to life.

This was a sign of most of the problems I had with this film, the fact that, setting aside, it just didn't feel epic enough. Maybe it's The Avengers' shadow looming over it, but I noticeably did not have this problem with Iron Man 3, which had all the right stuff needed to be a truly great action blockbuster. Thor: The Dark World, on the other hand, felt like it had left out some important pieces, most notably the love triangle between Thor, Jane, and and the Asgardian lady-warrior Sif (Jaimie Alexander). This is probably the first time that I've ever complained about a superhero movie spending too little time on the love story, with Alexander's solid performance (she should be in the next Resident Evil movie instead of Milla Jovovich) feeling like a bit part as we get little sense that Thor and Sif had become lovers between this film and the last. That one could be forgiven by the fact that Alexander suffered a serious back injury during production, which could have led to a reduced part, but it doesn't forgive why a number of other critical story points likewise felt glossed over. This is most pronounced with the villain Malekith (played by Christopher Eccleston), who was pretty much a generic doomsday villain with little motivation beyond bringing darkness to the universe. At least some explanation as to why he's doing this, even just an exploration of his desire for revenge, would've made him more than a one-note baddie. It was a combination of the pre-existing MCU foundation and the strength of the cast that the film was largely able to overcome these problems for me.

Score: 4 out of 5 (if you're an MCU fan), 3 out of 5 (if you're not)

It doesn't live up to the high standards of The Avengers and Iron Man 3, but even if you haven't seen the prior films, this is an enjoyable diversion this November. If you have been seeing these films, then a lot of this one's problems -- though not quite all of them -- will be overcome, and you'll have yourself a damn good time.

(Oh, and two pointers. First, as always with these films, stay through the credits. Second, see this film in 2-D if you can, because the 3-D transfer was a waste of money that made the film look worse.)

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