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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Review: Thor: The Dark World

Marvel Phase 2 got off to a capable, but not necessarily stellar start with Iron Man 3. A film that focused on the after-effects of Tony Stark's involvement in the monumental team-up film The Avengers. Thor: The Dark World turn its focus onto the Asgardian side of the "Iron Man - Captain America - Thor" Marvel triumvirate. The previous outing with this character was a big misfire that downplayed Thor's more otherworldly exploits for a "fish out of water" tale and a severely undercooked romantic entanglement. What worked in the previous installment was the time spent on Asgard and getting to understand the deeper cosmic arena in which the Marvel sandbox can play in, it was also helped by tremendously good performances from Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston which almost made the tedious endeavor worthwhile. The sequel, by and large, works to rectify some of those weaknesses by giving us a reverse of the previous film's scenario, but also carries some problems of its own.

After a dreadful prologue that clearly aims for Lord of the Rings territory, but lands more like Green Lantern's pre-movie exposition dump, we're reunited with a Thor (Hemsworth) that doesn't want to become Asgard's King and is struggling with the longing he feels for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) back on earth. Meanwhile, Loki (Hiddleston) is rotting away in the kingdom's dungeon paying for his crimes committed in both the previous entry and in The Avengers. On Earth, Jane find a mysterious force in a London warehouse that awakens the ancient evil Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who is seeking out the "Aether" that she becomes imbued with. Fearing for her safety, Thor is able to return to Earth and bring Jane to Asgard, and due to attacks from Malekith and tragic circumstances, our hero must team with his wayward brother to save the day.

Director Alan Taylor had a pretty big task ahead of him, as Thor is arguably one of the tougher Marvel characters is translate to screen and Kenneth Branagh's effort in 2011 showed just how easy it is to fumble with the material. Taylor doesn't necessarily have a signature style of his own, but his work acquits well enough to the "Marvel house-style". His vision of Asgard is a few steps removed from the "Shiny Oz" that permeated the last film, and the dirtier back alleys of this mecca that he presents wouldn't be out of place in his work on Game of Thrones. Scenes that take place on Asgard have a uniquely Star Wars-like flavor that gives the realm a bit more personality than just another Green Screened/CGI mess, the action scenes of Malekith's ships attacking are especially evocative of that landmark trilogy.

Additionally, Taylor and the script by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely does an admirable job fleshing out the more intriguing characters in Thor's supporting cast, such as the Warrior's Three (save for Hogun) and Lady Sif. The audience finally has a reason to connect with these otherworldly characters, as they're given some form of personality and a much more effective role to play in the story, albeit a small one. In all, more or less everything about the Asgardian elements of this sequel are a huge step ahead of the previous film, playing with a fuller scale of these Kirby and Simonson concepts. Also, Hemsworth and Hiddleston have never been better than they are here, with some incredible chemistry, having been given the ability to grow together in these roles. If there's been an MVP of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that isn't Robert Downey Jr, it's Tom Hiddleston, who perfectly embodies the duplicitous nature of the character while also being exceedingly charming.

Yet, troubles still remain, both old and new for Thor: The Dark World. As with it's previous entry, the scenes that take place on earth with that segment of the supporting cast (Darcy, Erik Selvig) continue to flounder. Many of the scenes feel like they were culled from a network television sitcom rather than a major motion picture, and the forced humor falls flat. Poor Stellan Skarsgaard is particularly a victim of these poor choices as his Dr. Selvig is now a ranting loon, as a consequence of his possession by Loki in The Avengers. While the idea is intriguing, the way it's presented is just far too broad and strikes all the wrong notes. And in a reverse of the growing chemistry between Hiddleston and Hemsworth, Portman continues to have no believable romantic yearnings for the big lug. Portman is given more screen-time, but her character continues to be nothing more than a "damsel in distress" and a fairly bland one at that.

Malekith is another issue altogether. He may be the worst villain of the entire Marvel movie roster. He's given a paucity of discernible personality traits, and he's backed up by another faceless army of goons in a growing line of films that have them (see Captain America and The Avengers). I'm not sure why Marvel opted to hire an actor of Eccleston's stature when he barely even speaks any lines, is completely unrecognizable, and his motivation is about as one dimensional as villains come. He lacks anything resembling menace and for a film that centers on his supposed threat, that is a huge problem. The presence of Loki helps off-set a good deal of that, but it just feels like a massive opportunity was wasted here to create something much more compelling. The Aether that he's chasing down is also a rather lame MacGuffin, but it at least gets a form of satisfying explanation that wraps into the greater Marvel Universe.

It's been reported, in places including this very site, that Taylor was regularly clashing with Marvel Studios over creative decisions and one can't help but feel the stronger parts of Thor: The Dark World were a testament to his work and where things began to fall to the way-side may have been a result of compromise (or lack thereof). I'd be interested to see a director's cut at the very least, perhaps there's a suitable villain in there somewhere. Regardless, what works, works well and I can't say I was ever bored, I just wish the stakes felt a little higher. But the foreknowledge that an Avengers 2 is coming, amongst other Marvel films, is starting to cut into the tension a bit and some staleness is starting to creep in as well.

I give it a B-
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