Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Thor: The Dark World (Marvel, Disney, Buena Vista, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a DVD of one of the latest Marvel movies: Thor: The Dark World, a sequel of sorts to the 2011 Thor film that I regarded as one of the better big-budget action blockbusters made recently. It had a committee-written script (five writers were credited, not including the three who came up with the concept of the Thor comic book back in the 1960’s) but fustian direction by Kenneth Branagh (the over-the-top approach that had annoyed me in Branagh’s Shakespeare films and his adaptation of Frankenstein actually served him well in a superhero movie) and genuinely good acting from the principals: Chris Hemsworth as Thor (the fact that he has a body to die for — and a personal trainer helping him keep it — didn’t hurt either!), Tom Hiddleston as Loki (more recently he’s gone onto Branagh’s turf by playing Henry V in the BBC-TV miniseries The Hollow Crown and done quite a good job, steering his performance on a middle ground between the openly heroic ones of Laurence Olivier and Robert Hardy and the cynical, manipulative one of Branagh), Natalie Portman and Jaimie Alexander as Thor’s main squeezes (Portman as the Earth girl he falls in love with but can’t stay with because he has to hot-foot it back to Asgard and blow up Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge that links it to Earth; and Alexander as his goddess-girlfriend), Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Renée Russo as his wife, Frigga. All those people returned this time around — as did Kat Dennings as Darcy, assistant and generally obnoxious sidekick (though quite a bit less obnoxious in this one) to the Portman character, Jane Foster (who’s supposed to be a nuclear physicist as well as a drop-dead gorgeous set ornament) — but the spirit didn’t. Thor: The Dark World is an odd movie because it almost totally lacks the depth of the first one — virtually all of it takes place in Asgard and therefore there isn’t the poignancy of Thor as a protagonist literally torn between two worlds — and the acting simply isn’t as good either (Hopkins in particular looks so bored with the role of Odin I’m surprised there weren’t stagehands with spears poking him to wake him up when he fell asleep during takes) — yet it’s still a nice piece of comic-book entertainment.

The villain this time is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, who played John Lennon in that rather odd BBC-TV biopic Lennon Naked, focused on the two years in Lennon’s life between the breakup of the Beatles and his move from England to the U.S. in 1972), leader of the Dark Elves — which, I joked to Charles, is going to be a jolt to anyone whose idea of elves was conditioned by The Lord of the Rings (though he pointed out to me that there are “dark” elves in Tolkien, too!) — who apparently pre-existed the gods and ruled the universe (or at least the nine planets linked by Yggdrasil, which in this version of the Norse myths isn’t a giant ash tree but a series of wormholes in space) with the help of a force called the Aether that’s depicted as a bunch of giant red tendrils going in and out of various people’s (or entities’) bodies. Malekith seemed to have so much trouble harnessing the Aether that I couldn’t help but joke, “Wouldn’t stealing the gold from the Rhinemaidens have been easier?” In any event, once the gods emerged there was some sort of fight to the finish between Malekith and the Dark Elves on one side and Odin and the gods on the other, and Odin extracted the Aether and had it buried on Earth. “Just wait; someone’s going to frack it,” I joked — and the movie’s actual plot (from another writing committee: Don Payne, who died of bone cancer shortly after coming up with his contribution and to whom the movie is dedicated, and Robert Rodat came up with the story, and Christopher Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely wrote the script) is almost as silly: Jane Foster and her research team discover an odd part of London (after the tongue-twisting names of the realms of the gods, the frost giants and the other legendary creatures of Nordic myth, seeing a subtitle reading “London” in the same font is a bit of a jolt — “London? I’ve heard of that place!”) that contains a field where gravity has essentially ceased to exist, and it turns out that the Aether was buried there and works itself free, implanting itself into Jane’s body.

The rest of the story is a series of wars, rumors of wars and more or less exciting battle sequences as various races encounter each other on the battlefield — fighting with a rather odd mix of medieval and sci-fi weapons — with Thor and Loki ultimately having to join forces and commandeer a space plane (apparently Malekith had not only invented mechanical flight but had perfected it to the technological level of the “tie-fighter” spacecraft in Star Wars) and fly it to Earth to defeat Malekith and return the Aether to what it should have remained in the first place, one of six energy crystals — only one of the post-credits sequences that have become a trademark in Marvel films shows a character called “The Collector” who’s seeking unimaginable power by collecting them all. There’s also a comic-relief character called Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), a nuclear physicist who goes dottily crazy in the manner of British mad scientists and is arrested for lecturing at Stonehenge … in the nude (memo to the honchos at Marvel: the next time you do a nude scene in one of your movies do it with one of the many cast members who are genuinely hot!), and is next shown giving a lecture in an asylum and taking a white and a black shoe to demonstrate the conversion of the nine planets linked by Yggdrasil that’s about to happen and give Malekith his chance to regain his power. “Can I have my shoe back?,” drawls one of the patients — played by Marvel co-founder Stan Lee in his usual cameo. It seems that Malekith can regain the Aether and take over the universe if he can do so during the convergence — but he only has a one-minute time window, sort of like applying to be a firefighter in Los Angeles.

Anyway, it ends (more or less) the way you expect a superhero movie to end, with the good guys triumphant, the bad guys defeated, only there are two, count ’em, two post-credits sequences that make things a bit more ambivalent than that: the one with the Collector and another in which Thor makes a brief appearance back on Earth (now that Bifrost is functional again — it was destroyed at the end of the first movie but was fully operational at the start of this one, with no explanation of how it got fixed) and gets to kiss Natalie Portman for the first time in the series, only a flock of ravens (anyone who knows Wagner’s Ring, especially Götterdämmerung, will remember that ravens are the harbingers of Odin/Wotan) flies by and a monster follows them. Thor: The Dark World got piss-poor reviews but made a ton of money at the box office, and deserved it; it’s not much of a film but it is a fun superhero action romp — and it’s one movie that probably does lose a lot being shrunk from the big theatre screen to a medium-sized TV image, letterboxed, from a DVD. It’s not the movie its predecessor is, but then one really didn’t expect it to be — and at least it’s got a few nice in-jokes, including one in which Loki’s magic turns Thor into his Asgardian girlfriend Sif (and quite frankly, I think she’s a much more interesting character and a better match for him than the Earthling drip Natalie Portman is playing!) and then turns himself into Captain America (blessedly this film’s only reference to The Avengers), in which guise Loki likes the hot look of his codpiece but complains it’s uncomfortably tight — the best example of the wry wit that pervades this film and helps make it watchable.