Friday, October 25, 2013

The Rare Sequel Better Than The Original: How Thor: The Dark World Became THE Superhero Movie Of 2013!

The Good: Special effects, Performances, Moments of characters.
The Bad: Malekith comes across as monolithic, Romance plot is underdeveloped.
The Basics: Thor: The Dark World surpasses Thor as an engaging journey with enough character and deeper themes to remain compelling throughout.

Sequels, admittedly, have a tough time of it, especially the longer a franchise goes on. In a year where Marvel is trying to flesh out its universe with the television show Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and surpass the spectacle of The Avengers (reviewed here!) with Iron Man 3 (reviewed here!), the second Marvel blockbuster attempt for the year hits theaters at a time when it is hard not to be pre-disappointed. With Ender’s Game promising to blow the roof off of special-effects driven action movies only a week before Thor: The Dark World hits screens, Marvel had to sell a compelling story in order to truly land the Thor sequel as a success.

Fortunately, it does (for the most part).

I was not a huge fan of Thor (reviewed here!), though I will openly admit that it has aged better in hindsight than many of the Marvel Universe films, so if anything my expectations were lowered for Thor: The Dark World. But Thor: The Dark World has what Thor lacked: an appreciation for the unique setting of Thor within the Marvel Universe and a villain who was more than just an empty suit. Despite being somewhat underdeveloped and underused, Thor: The Dark World includes a villain who raises the stakes admirably in a way that Iron Man 3 was not able to do credibly. If the stakes in The Avengers were New York City and Earth, Thor: The Dark World ratchets the potential catastrophe up in a way that it seems hard for Guardians Of The Galaxy to follow: the nine realms of the universe are all poised to fall in Thor: The Dark World!

Having returned to the magical realm of Asgard, with Loki as his prisoner, Thor is once more bound by family and mystical barriers that keep him away from Earth and physicist Jane Foster. While Thor adapts to life back on Asgard by bringing peace to all the realms, on Earth, Jane is trying to get on with her life. When Darcy pops back up with information on mysterious readings in the atmosphere, Jane is enticed and they find a gravitational anomaly in an abandoned warehouse. There, Jane is teleported to the Dark World where she touches the Aether. The Aether possesses her and she is returned to Earth, which draws Thor back to Earth. Thor takes Jane back to Asgard to try to save her life from the Aether. Soon after, the Dark Elf Malekith leads an attack on Asgard. As the remaining enemy of the Asgardians – the Frost Giants were not the only ones! – the Dark Elves make an attack of Thor’s homeland that illustrates the power their leader, Malekith can bring to bear, Thor and his friends find themselves in a struggle that threatens all nine realms. To that end, Thor breaks Loki out of his Asgard prison.

After reconciling for their time apart, Thor, Loki and Jane continue their work and relationship together. Malekith’s plan soon becomes painfully clear; a celestial event, the Convergence is soon to occur and that will allow Malekith to lay waste to all nine realms at once. To stop Malekith and the creatures he employs and sets free through the rifts caused by the Convergence. Journeying to the Dark World, Thor, Loki, and Jane try to lure Malekith away from Asgard and Earth, but when Malekith takes the Aether for his own, at a tragic cost, Earth becomes the focal point for Malekith's vengeance and Thor must save the world again.

Given that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. just began (and was already given a full-season order) and there are plenty more Marvel film sequels with release dates announced, the fate of Malekith’s plan is pretty well telegraphed. Whenever I look at a villain, especially one who wants to either rule the world (which always seems much more of a hassle than it is worth) or destroy the world/existence, the key question for credibility is “why?” Malekith is given a glossed-over revenge story that takes a back seat to the Loki/Thor buddy action movie that Thor: The Dark World turns into. In fact, even more than the hints of a love story – Marvel apparently does not want to tread anywhere near a Twilight-esque love story that would actually develop genuine emotions between their superheroes and a love interest - Thor: The Dark World cries out for a Director’s Cut that might restore scenes to the film (not just as deleted scenes on the inevitable Blu-Ray, but actually integrated as a true director’s cut) that make Malekith seem more well-rounded and truly compelling instead of clinging to an old wound with a perverse sense of overreaction for his revenge.

One of the fundamental problems with Thor was that the romantic subplot between Thor and Jane Foster was largely under-developed. The basis of Jane’s relationship with Thor was, largely, that he was The Other, the proof she rationally needed to believe in the fantastic. As anyone who has ever been in a romantic relationship knows, that wears off. In fact, it is a poor excuse for starting a relationship (even Darcy’s obsession with Thor’s physique has more long-term lasting power than the sense of wonder one might have to explore a finite space). To that end, Thor: The Dark World does what it absolutely has to in order to keep the relationship between Thor and Jane plausible, if not sustainable: Thor shows Jane Asgard and that rekindles what little they (substantively) had between them before Jane becomes a plot point to motivate Thor. Jane Foster rapidly becomes as ineffectual as Natalie Portman’s Padme Amidala (though, to be fair to Portman, the scenes in Revenge Of The Sith that made Amidala into a compelling leader were cut from the film! Whether such scenes for Thor: The Dark World exist is unclear) and Jane becomes an unfortunate damsel in distress character that Portman seems bored with portraying.

Christopher Eccleston, who is usually magnificent in good as Malekith, but the downgrade in my esteem for him comes not from anything he does, but from how Malekith is written and presented on screen. Eccleston presents great vocal emotional range, which is pretty much all he can do behind the make-up and CG effects for Malekith. Only a hint of his true acting range is presented in a single scene where he is able to infuse genuine emotion behind his eyes and hint at the depths of Malekith’s loss and anger.

With most of the main cast either appearing in seriously small roles amounting to little more than cameos (Kat Dennings, for example, appears as Darcy for a decent chunk delivering her lines exactly as one would expect from the Two Broke Girls star), the brunt of Thor: The Dark World falls on the performances of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston is able to play Loki with more depth than in The Avengers where Loki was a facilitator and tool for much of the film, albeit with some wonderful lines. In Thor: The Dark World, Loki is a beaten man (demigod) who is rebuilding his presence and Hiddleston makes the process as convincing as possible without ever having the sense that Loki is either lost entirely or becoming confident too soon after his imprisonment. It’s a tough balance, but Hiddleston nails it.

There is a tough balance for Chris Hemsworth to play as well. Thor is a fantastic character and having such a larger-than-life godlike character, especially in moments in our real world, can come across as cheesy or invincible in a way that obstacles he faces are ridiculous. Hemsworth finds a way – usually with his eyes and smile – to deliver lines that allow him to play Thor as a credible and realized character who is not taking himself entirely too seriously. That is a tightrope that Hemsworth navigates well.

Director Alan Taylor balances the character moments and quips between Thor and Loki fairly well with the dramatic fantasy setting of Asgard and the other realms. While the final chase through the nine realms between Thor and Malekith once again illustrates how directors today try to equate special effects with speed (the settings are hardly as developed as Asgard or Earth and the way they are bounced between is sometimes more frustrating than satisfying), what is shown is immaculate.

Ultimately, Thor: The Dark World has the character elements needed to rival Ender’s Game to keep the science fiction piece from stealing a second weekend at the top of the box office and to leave viewers glad Marvel has once again overcome expectations.
For other works with Christopher Eccleston, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Unfinished Song
G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra
Heroes - Season 1
28 Days Later . . .


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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