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Film Review – Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World (2013; Directed by Alan Taylor)

Marvel Studios’ mostly-successful translation of comics-style storytelling to the cinematic medium continues apace in Thor: The Dark World. It’s a movie much more immersed in the property’s particular generic mix of the space opera and sword-and-sorcery genres (with a sprinkling of speculative astrophysics) than the grandiose, goofy 2011 franchise kickoff. Is it better, though? That’s quite a separate question.

The Dark World is a sequel to not only Kenneth Branagh’s Thor but also to Joss Whedon’s overweening megahit The Avengers, in which both this franchise stream’s titular Asgardian quasi-god hero (Chris Hemsworth) and its swishy, imperious villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) played a key role. At the same time it’s setting up at least two more movies and probably even more than that; we’ll have to wait to see precisely how the Marvel’s Cinematic Universe continues its rhizomatic expansion and conquest of most of mass Hollywood culture over the next few years to be certain. Such is the nature of the new narrative order heralded by Marvel, which is quite creatively revolutionary but also so nakedly commercially calculating as to inspire knee-jerk cynicism in tempermental critics.

Thor himself was last seen onscreen departing the company of his fellow Avengers after thwarting a trans-dimensional alien demolishing of Manhattan, a catastrophe that was largely the doing of his adopted brother Loki, who is power-hungry but also undeniably chaos-hungry when power proves immediately unavailable. Back in the glittering Space Norse kingdom of Asgard, Loki is led in chains to the dungeons of his kingly adoptive father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Meanwhile, Thor and his lieutenants, the Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, and Tadanobu Asano) and childhood semi-sweetheart Sif (Jaimie Alexander), are occupied with mopping up the lingering rebellions in the Nine Realms ruled centrally from Asgard and reached via Bifrost, a space-time bridge between the Realms guarded ever-vigilantly by Heimdall (Idris Elba). And back on Earth, Thor’s mortal romantic interest Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is in England, adjusting to life without the hunky man-god whom she has not seen for a few years.

But these separated characters are thrust together again by the reawakening of an ancient enemy. The Dark World opens with an expository flashback narrated by Hopkins’ Odin that strongly evokes the similar scene-setting harkening back to an ancient conflict and a dangerously powerful object in some well-known fantasy epic or other. Some eons back, Odin’s father defeated Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) in a tremendous battle and prevented him from destroying (or just darkening?) the universe with an insidious, twisting red-black weaponized substance called the Aether. The Dark Elves either went down in a blaze of glory or were put into suspended animations; the Aether was locked in a stone cube and sent… somewhere (like much of the plot material, this is not made very clear).

But as mysterious astral portals begin to align, Malekith wakes and the Aether finds it way back into the world (or worlds; multiverse theory will fill in some of the blanks left by the script). Jane’s intern Darcy (Kat Dennings, cracking ever wise) and her intern (Jonathan Howard) alert the scientist to bizarre anomalies in an abandoned factory outside of London. Pulled into one of these portals into an unfamiliar off-world place, Jane inadvertently is infected with the Aether. Alerted by Heimdall, Thor shows up to whisk her away to relative safety in Asgard after the dark force now inside her blows up a chunky of rainy Albion. She’s a bit irritated at his long and unexplained absence, although she did see him kicking trans-dimensional alien butt in the ruins of New York City, so she gets over it pretty quickly and there’s enough public displays of affection to piss off Odin (he’s a pretty ornery chap; he could use a nap), who prefers that his heir go for some fine Asgardian stock for a mate, like that nice Sif gal.

Before things can get too advanced in the romantic direction, let alone in the de-Aethering of Doc Foster, Malekith and his Dark Elf minions arrive on the scene in huge spaceships in the shape of obsidian shards to smash the joint up and snatch up Jane and the powerful stuff that possesses her. Heimdall takes down one ship pretty awesomely, but deep losses are sustained before the dark forces retreat. The tragedy that Malekith inflicts upon Asgard’s royal family is powerful enough to unite the sundered brothers Thor and Loki in a plan to take out the Dark Elf and banish the Aether for good.

You couldn’t just take the river boat like everyone else, could you, Malekith?

I haven’t really covered reams of this overstuffed, undoubtedly expensive movie. There’s ample trademarked Hiddlestoning (you know it when you see it) and multiple vintage Loki double-crosses and ruses; there’s the reliable nutball Stellan Skarsgård running around Stonehenge in his underwear shouting about the end of existence; there’s Lost‘s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Malekith’s sidekick, who transforms into a monstrous fire-bull creature. The whole mad outsized generic smash-up climaxes during the astronomically rare Convergence of all of the Nine Realms, which occurs quite conveniently at the British imperial centre of standardized time and space at Greenwich. Although this perfect alignment really should be over the Royal Observatory for maximum heavy-handed symbolism, Christopher Wren’s Baroque masterpiece of the Royal Naval College looks better onscreen and so it gets to be trashed in the course of the closing dust-up (the dome of St. Paul’s even gets dinged by airborne antagonists; somebody’s an architecture critic).

Like I found with The Avengers, it’s a tough slog considering the aesthetic merits of Thor: The Dark World in and of itself. It’s got enormous scope and huge action and amusing comic relief and reasonably authentic (albeit inherently shallow) appeals to emotional investment. Hiddleston is a smirking riot and Hemsworth has got Thor’s bluff charm down to an art (he still seems bashful and a bit uncertain in anything else I’ve seen him in, though; here’s an actor that needs some challenging soon). Even Portman, reduced to a damsel in distress by the requirements of the Aether-soaked plot, manages to suggest new facets of the intelligent but not emotionally distant Jane (though she’s still been doing little but collecting paycheques since she won that Oscar).

But as much fun as I had poking holes in and often laughing at Branagh’s Thor, it might have been the better film. The fish-out-of-water element of that movie, though a common origin-film conceit, revealed comic gifts and empathetic qualities in Hemsworth that are subsumed when he wields his all-smashing hammer. Furthermore, Branagh seemed more comfortable with the cornball grandiosity and heroic aggrandizement of the subject matter, while Taylor (primarily a prestige televison director) overwhelms with sparkling spectacle in his first foray into blockbuster filmmaking. The Dark World is big, brassy, and a bit logically incoherent, but the general Marvel Studios drive towards stubborn quality mostly (but not entirely) pulls it through while laying groundwork for multiple franchise streams to continue to perpetuate. In this way, it fulfills its every purpose with confidence and competence, like a firm, bone-crushing hammer stroke. But artistry, resonance, transcendence? Not around these parts, buddy.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews
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