Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Thor: The Dark World Review

Dear Man of Steel,
I saw two different films this year that ended with godlike aliens hitting each other impossibly hard over and over again. One of them managed to keep this fresh and interesting, and had personal stakes for the audience to connect to. The other one was you.

Thor: The Dark World manages to keep its final battle entertaining and engaging, even though it's just a repetitive sequence of blows, by constantly changing the nature of the fight. It keeps shifting location, so the visuals never get stale and the fighters have to deal with their environment as well as each other - caught on a collapsing ledge or sliding down a building. The tone keeps shifting too, breaking the tension with funny moments, which makes the serious parts all the more impactful.
Even though the combatants are pretty much invincible, the fight has real peril and danger because there are human characters running around and helping, almost getting killed in the process. It's a battle over the fate of the world - nay, the universe - but it's the fate of these characters that we actually care about. That's also what the hero cares about, fighting to protect these people rather than just fighting to win.

What I'm saying, Man of Steel, is that Thor 2 does everything you didn't. I hope you're taking notes.

Before the ascension of The Avengers, benevolent god-king of superhero movies, the original Thor was the film that, to me, felt most like a comic book. These are silly films about silly people in silly costumes, and Thor's bombastic, over-the-top tone captured that perfectly. It's just so much fun, from its first frame to its last.
But a lot of people disagree. Thor usually gets ranked at the bottom of the Marvel pile for exactly this reason - people don't like that it's silly. So, when Marvel announced that gritty Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor would be at the (winged) helm of the sequel, and later when all the stills and footage looked like Lord of the Rings, there was a real danger that this light-hearted series had been turned into, well, you.
But rest assured, though it even goes so far as having "Dark" in the title, Thor 2 is every bit as light and breezy as its predecessor.

What Taylor does bring is a sense of realism that was missing from Kenneth Branagh's very operatic original. This is the same thing you were aiming for, Man of Steel, but Taylor understands that it needn't sap the joy out of the experience. The acting here is more naturalistic, and Asgard feels much more like a real place, but the movie still knows how to find enjoyment and humour in that - something you completely forgot. Though it does carve out a more believable world for itself, nested within the larger Marvel Universe, that doesn't prevent it from shoving the massive God of Thunder into a tiny car or having Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd in his pants. Realistic doesn’t have to mean serious.

Yet The Dark World has its share of serious, too. The plot this time kicks off when Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster becomes the unwitting host of the Aether - an ancient, all-purpose alien superweapon. This is staggeringly convenient, of course, but it works because it immediately gives Thor, and us, a reason to heavily invest in what is otherwise a very bland McGuffin. Thor spirits Jane away to Asgard to figure out what’s going on, and the two quickly rekindle their romance because, in both cases, wouldn’t you?
The seriousness comes from the fact that Jane is slowly dying from exposure to the Aether, and that having it also makes her a target for the villains of the piece. They want to use the Aether to destroy the universe but, problematically, they’re also the only ones who can get it out of Jane. This all works to make her a more active part of the story than last time, as she finds herself at the centre of the conflict rather than watching from the sidelines.

For that reason and others, it’s a stronger and more propulsive story than the first Thor, rushing us through scenes and locations where the original often meandered. This is great in that everything feels very urgent and energetic, but not so great in that is skims over things that probably needed more explanation and depth - namely those villains.
The Dark Elves are a race who existed before the universe (somehow) and who now want to destroy that universe. They have awesome designs and technology, which leads to some brilliant action, but there’s barely anything to them. They feel both underused and underserved - especially their leader, Malekith. There's talk of his backstory and motivations, but there's nothing there we can actually latch onto. He basically boils down to angry guy with grudge. He's certainly no Loki - but the film ultimately gets away with that because Loki is Loki, and he's here too.

In a lot of ways this is actually Loki's movie. He has the strongest character journey, going from traitorous prisoner to untrusted ally and beyond. This is probably Tom Hiddleston's best performance yet, as this arc means he can play more than just the jealous prince. Loki gets to be a brother and a son; an enemy and a friend; wrong but also wronged. More than anything else, though, Thor 2 reminds us that Loki is the God of Mischief, not of Evil, and he gets to be far more of a trickster here than he has in the past.

Loki, like Jane, also has more to do. That’s something that applies to almost every character, actually. Even minor players like Kat Denning’s Darcy, Rene Russo’s Frigga, and Idris Elba’s awesome awesome Heimdall are far more involved in the story this time. Sif and the Warriors Three may be missing a member for some reason, and they may even have less screentime, but they feel more fleshed out and have a bigger impact on the plot. Everyone feels necessary and important.
The only person with less to do, weirdly, is Thor himself. Because the main arcs of the film aren’t his - they’re Jane’s and Loki’s - he sometimes seems to just be along for the ride. It’s never a problem, though, because Chris Hemsworth continues to embody the character so wonderfully. Whether he’s cheerfully destroying rock monsters or angrily confronting his brother, Thor is such a great presence that you don’t mind his reduced role.

Any other problems are similarly minor. An important scene involving Malekith's face is mishandled, and a subplot with Sif is implied but never takes off. There's also nothing that comes even close to that one blisteringly hot kiss from the first film. But these are tiny complaints, drowned out by the overwhelming positives - and when Hemsworth gets his shirt off, in a scene that’s somehow even more gratuitous than the first Thor, you’ll be willing to overlook all of them.

Thor: The Dark World is a great addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe but, far more than that, it’s a great continuation of the Thor series. It takes the groundwork of the original film and builds upwards in every way. The world and characters are both more fleshed out and more grounded; the story is more focused and polished, and gives every single character (except one) something to do; the action is bigger and better; and all the while it sticks to the world and the light-hearted tone established by its predecessor.

The reason I'm telling you all this, Man of Steel, is that the first Thor suffers from many of the same problems as you: characters are underdeveloped or don't have much to do, and the story is nebulous and unfocused. If Thor 2 can build on these problems to become something stronger, then I'm hoping you can too.
Of course, Thor still worked because it offset these problems with an abundance of fun and energy, where you opted for darkness and brooding. You can learn from Thor 2 here, as well. This world feels as real as yours, without having to sacrifice its sense of humour. It feels more real, in fact, because it's easier to relate to the people who live there.

Failing that, at the very least, please try to learn something from that final action scene. When I watch two space-gods repeatedly punch each other, I want to see variety and creativity, I want to see highs and lows, peaks and troughs, I want to feel real human stakes and, above all else, I want to enjoy it.
And that's exactly what The Dark World delivers.

Best wishes for the future,
Matthew


P.S. One last thing to learn from Marvel is that you should call your sequel Man of Steel 2, either with or without a subtitle. Dropping the numbers from their non-Iron Man films is the one slip-up Marvel have made thus far, and now is your big chance to exploit it. Who knows - being easy to arrange on a shelf might make all the difference!