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Non-Review Review: Thor – The Dark World

Thor was a gem. I’d argue it remains the best of the Marvel Studios films, expertly and enthusiastically embracing the heightened melodrama of comic book storytelling and boiling it down to faux Shakespearean elegance. With Kenneth Branagh directing and a fantastic cast, the film hit on a lot of the old-fashioned comic book spectacle. Yes, it was sheer nonsense, but there’s something surprisingly affecting about hearing Anthony Hopkins intone Stan Lee’s decidedly corny dialogue. This is sheer unadulterated pop, filtered down and distilled.

A lot of that carries over to Thor: The Dark World. “Some believe that before the universe, there was nothing,” Hopkins’ Odin assured us in the trailer, in a narration omitted from the film. “They’re wrong. There was darkness…” Sure, physicists and scientist might weep at the suggestion, but Hopkins is able to imbue the ridiculous line with a surreal gravitas. “I like the way you explain things,” Jane tells Thor at one point, and the British accents lend the goofiness a strangely convincing air.

It doesn’t make any sense, and it’ll hurt your head too much if you think about it, but that’s entirely the point. This is a movie about a Norse god with an English accent and flying hammer.

It's... wait for it... hammer time!

It’s… wait for it… hammer time!

To expect it to make sense is to misunderstand completely. Instead, The Dark World is strongest when it embraces the broad sweeping archetypal appeal of these sorts of stories. Brothers betraying brothers. Family feuds with the entire universe at stake. Giant magical rock monsters. Ominous and portentous dialogue. Beautiful scenery. Grown men in silly outfits acting as if the end of the world is about to unfold, but there’s still time to strike a dramatic pose.

The production design is quite lovely, as the film blends stylish swords-and-sorcery with decidedly retro science-fiction. Malekith’s space ship looks like a giant Sword of Damocles, dangling right over Asgard and Greenwich, ready to fall. Investigating strange goings on, Jane and D’Arcy and Ian the Intern find themselves at a make-shift Stonehenge assembled using cargo containers. These touches are inspired and eye-catching, even if the script itself might have benefited from that sort of ingenious design.

It feels like an understatement to describe Thor: The Dark World as having had a troubled production history. The project originally hired Patty Jenkins to direct, which would have made her the first woman to direct a Marvel Studios film. Unfortunately, Jenkins and Marvel couldn’t quite agree on the direction of the project, prompting them to part ways – although the two reported remained amicable, even if it was suggested some other members of the production were less than thrilled.

I loose my elf-control...

I lose my elf-control…

So the studio hired director Alan Taylor to take over the project. Unlike most of the other Marvel movie directors, Taylor doesn’t have a lot of experience in film – he didn’t approach the project with the experience of Kenneth Branagh or Jon Favreau or even Joss Whedon. Instead, Taylor has a wealth of television experience. The most relevant would seem to be his work on Game of Thrones, which is arguably somewhat similar to the tone you’d expect from a Thor film, albeit with less nudity and graphic violence.

However, the rumour is that the studio clashed with director Alan Taylor over the final cut of the film. This isn’t a good thing. Marvel Studios have a reputation of being quite tough to work with. Writer and star Ed Norton found himself kicked to the curb when he refused to throw himself entirely behind the studio’s mandated cut of The Incredible Hulk, despite the fact that the scenes cut suggest a far stronger film at the heart of that movie. Similarly, Jon Favreau was reportedly struggling with the studio over the final cut of Iron Man 2.

It isn't (b)Odin' well...

It isn’t (b)Odin’ well…

It’s worth noting that the two movies with the aforementioned personality conflicts are generally considered the weakest of the Marvel Studios films, although I think that there are bits of vision that shine through. It’s not a nice way to do business, and it suggests a reason that so many of the Marvel films feel rather hemmed in. It’s hard to imagine that Christopher Nolan could have made The Dark Knight while working under those sort of studio-mandated restrictions.

And the biggest problem with The Dark World is the difficulty it has finding the right tone. It often works better as a collection of scenes than it does as a film. Like Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel before it this summer, and The Avengers last summer, The Dark World features a fairly overt cinematic take on the iconography of September 11th. However, while those movies waited until the third act to delve into that imagery, The Dark World barely waits a half-an-hour before we get suicidal attacks and planes crashing into towers.

They're on a boat, and they're going fast, and...

They’re on a boat, and they’re going fast, and…

This leaves the movie with a tonal problem. The villain launches a devastating attack less than half-way through the film. It’s clearly intended to be brutal, with the movie even killing off a secondary character to ensure that the audience is suitably shocked. It’s an efficient way of establishing the credentials of an otherwise bland villain, but it causes problems when the rest of the film tries to return to a pseudo-comical style.

It’s always fun to watch Thor interact with the real world, and little touches like the Norse god hanging his hammer on a coat hook or riding the Tube are fun, but the bantering between various characters feels a little off. Thor and Loki spend a significant portion of the movie reacting with anger to what has unfolded, so while it makes sense for Loki to mask his own emotions with playful joking, Thor’s humour feels a little off-putting. It seems almost as if the events we’ve witnessed have no real weight.

Oh brother, oh bother!

Oh brother, oh bother!

That undermines The Dark World more than any amount of pseudo-science or philosophical naval-gazing might. Thor is an Asgardian, but we need to react to something approaching his humanity – the audience needs to invest and engage with him. The fact that he’s back in “laughing jock” mode so soon after so grievous a loss makes it harder to relate to him or to empathise with him. It points out that this is just a nice-looking blockbuster with impressive special effects.

The Dark World is all over the place. In a way, you can see the logic of its construction. There’s a conscious design to the film. The movie takes the elements people reacted to last time – the lightness, the sense of humour, Loki and D’Arcy – and increases their presence here. The problem is that part of the reason that these elements worked so well was because they were balanced. There can be too much of a good thing, and it’s possible to over-empathise elements that worked well in smaller quantities.

Nothing to shout about...

Nothing to shout about…

Kat Dennings is pretty great as D’Arcy, and was one of the reasons that Branagh’s Thor worked so well, serving as a marked contrast to the self-seriousness of all the Asgardian characters. Here, however, D’Arcy is isolated from the action, and from Thor himself. It would make sense to let the character to go – to feature her at the start with Jane and then to return to her at the climax. Instead, the film opts to keep following her, meaning that we keep cutting from what is going on with Thor back to exposition scenes on Earth with D’Arcy.

Again, it’s not that the scenes with D’Arcy aren’t funny and that Dennings is miscast – it’s just that the movie seems to have difficulty figuring out how to strike the right note. It’s the biggest problem with a movie that otherwise works quite well. Branagh gave Thor one of the finest supporting ensembles of any of the Marvel superhero movies, and The Dark World gives them a bit more room to work.

What the Ecc(leston) is that?

What the Ecc(leston) is that?

There’s more of Idris Elba’s Heimdell here and more of Jaime Alexander’s Lady Sif. Rene Russo is given something to do as Lady Frigga, and it’s impressive how much space that The Dark World devotes to the female players in its ensemble. Natalie Portman felt a little superfluous in the first entry, but is pushed very much to the fore here. It’s a shame that the studios won’t gamble on a female-led superhero film, but it’s nice that Marvel Studios seem to be making a point to push their female characters to the fore.

There is also more Loki, which makes a great deal of sense. The Dark World seems like it has been written to respond to what fans liked about the earlier films, so Loki remains a force to be reckoned with – despite serving as the primary antagonist of both Thor and The Avengers. Loki and Thor were the two ensemble players least well-served by The Avengers, with the film conveniently overlooking the impact of the finalé of Thor to get the Norse god on Earth, and being somewhat cagey on the issues of Loki’s motivation.

"Trust me, compared to some of the places I've been, this is actually quite pleasant... Have you READ Norse mythology?"

“Trust me, compared to some of the places I’ve been, this is actually quite pleasant… Have you READ Norse mythology?”

In Thor, Loki wanted to impress his father and prove himself worthy of the throne, suffering from second-child syndrome on a massive scale. In The Avengers, he suddenly wanted to conquer Earth and allied himself with an alien invasion force. There wasn’t a lot of connective tissue there, and The Avengers wasn’t clear on why Loki was doing what he was doing. Was it petty revenge against Thor? Was it an attempt to save his own skin from the aliens he claimed to lead? Was he just a complete sociopath?

Opening mere moments after the end of The Avengers, The Dark World tries to give us some motivation for Loki’s actions. “All this so that Loki could have a throne?” Odin demands, suggesting that Loki’s attempt to conquer Earth was really just another desperate plea for attention. It’s hardly the most nuance explanation, but it’s a better fit than anything The Avengers offered. More than that, though, The Dark World does try to offer a bit of insight into Loki and his actions, retroactively offering explanations and justifications.

Sif-in' through the wreckage...

Sif-in’ through the wreckage…

When his mother is appalled by the damage Loki was caused, Loki is dismissive. “A mere handful of lives compared to those taken by the All-Father,” Loki rationalises – and The Dark World dares to suggest that he has a point. Even more than Thor, The Dark World suggests that Odin is far from a benign authority figure. When Thor inquires about the Dark Elves who once fought his grandfather, Odin matter-of-factly states, “They’re all dead.” No survivors. No prisoners.

Odin claims to enforce peace of the nine realms, but seems comfortable with authority and peace build built upon genocide. When Asgard is attacked, Odin is perfectly willing to spill the blood of every single one of his subjects – to order every one of his people to their deaths. There’s a sense that Loki is the product of a culture that equates authority with power, and power with might. In that context, his attack on Earth seems rather like his attempted genocide of the Frost Giants at the climax of Thor – an attempt to make daddy proud in the only way he knows how.

Heavy is the head that wears that helmet... have you seen the size of it?

Heavy is the head that wears that helmet… have you seen the size of it?

Tom Hiddleston is great as usual, and Loki remains Marvel’s most intriguing big screen villain. The movie does feel like it is trying too hard to redeem the character, to present him as a flawed but inherently noble character who simply needs more love and affection from those around him. It’s hard to reconcile with his actions on screen, and some of the hints towards redemption don’t feel entirely earned. Still, The Dark World rather cleverly teams up Loki and Thor, allowing Hiddleston and Hemsworth a chance to play off one another.

Thor was arguably the Marvel movie that managed to most closely capture the spirit of the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby Silver Age comic book. Sure the movie might have disguised the magic and mysticism in the language of science-fiction, but Branagh’s depiction of Asgard felt remarkably true to the work of Kirby on the title, creating a palpable sense of modern myth-making and blending a decidedly sixties pop aesthetic with shades of faux Shakespearean drama. As such, it’s no surprise that Thor: The Dark World reaches back to draw on more classic comic book stories.

Down to Earth...

Down to Earth…

Most of Marvel’s modern movies tend to be influenced by relatively recent stories. The Avengers was heavily inspired by Mark Millar’s work on The Ultimates, for example. Iron Man 3 drew from Warren Ellis’ Extremis and Matt Fraction’s The Five Nightmares and Captain America: The Winter Soldier will lean heavily on Ed Brubaker’s celebrated run on the character. All these stories and runs were published after 2000. In contrast, Thor: The Dark World reaches much further back for inspiration.

Thor: The Dark World takes its influence from the celebrated work of Walt Simonson in the eighties, arguably the definitive post-Kirby writer and artist on Thor. The movie’s villain is the “dark elf” Malekith, and the supporting villain is Kurse. Although the persona Kursa first appeared in Jim Shooter’s Secret Wars II miniseries, the character Algrim the Strong also appeared in Simonson’s run as a puppet of Malekith.

Malekith is a bit of a problem character. He can’t help but feel a little bland when measured against the other comic book villains over the past few years. His motivations are generic (omnicide!) and his dialogue is bland (lots of boasting and cursing). The only really interesting part of the character that remains in the final cut of the film is Christopher Eccleston’s distinctive Manchester accent, which stands in marked contrast to the upper-class elocution of the citizens of Asgard. It seems to hint at class conflict across the nine realms – with Odin and his faux!British gods lording it over the more working-class fantastical characters.

Keeping a sharp watch...

Keeping a sharp watch…

Malekith is instead so generic that the movie pauses after half an hour to have him do something to earn the audience’s dislike instead of their apathy. The Dark Elves are undefined and anonymous, and it feels like a waste of a fine actor. Even his henchman “Kurse” feels like a wasted opportunity, having little more development than the stone monster that Thor vanquishes in the first few minutes. (The stone monster that is a shout-out to the first ever Thor story.)

Rumour has it that Malekith’s origin and motivations were cut from the film to make room for more Loki. Which feels like false compromise. After all, the massive success of The Lord of the Rings (and the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings) clearly demonstrate that there is a massive audience for a fantasy epic running over two hours. Indeed, two of the most successful Marvel movies – The Avengers and Iron Man 3 – run over two hours, so the incredible tight control exercised by the studio over the runtime of The Dark World feels a little surreal.

The Dark World isn’t a bad film, but it’s not a great one. It feels like a mish-mash of elements that work fine individually, but never gel into a satisfying whole.

6 Responses

  1. Great review as always.

    I have to admit while I like the Thor films I find the science fictionisation of them a little much. I suppose I’d prefer a little more full blown fantasy than simply saying ‘nope they are just aliens’.

    • I suspect the science-fictional-isation is probably a result of Disney’s rather careful “kid’s gloves” approach to their cash-cow franchises. Last thing you want to do is to provoke the Westboro Baptist Church or other crazy conservative religious organisations who might object to a film about literal gods, even with a small “g.” For a film aimed at families, “they’re aliens” works better than “they’re gods.” Even if the latter leads to the wonderfully interesting “they’re stories” or “they’re legends”, which is the thing I really love about Thor as a character – he’s a living story. But then you’d risk offending all sorts of people who are offended far too easily.

      That said, I did like the fantasy trappings. The design of the ship to resemble a sword, for example, or the Stonehenge constructed from shipping containers.

  2. Hugely agree with you when you comment on the tonal imbalance of the film. The first Thor was a gem. A wonderful comic book film and origin story. It hit the right note. This film felt like it was serving a greater purpose in the overall Avengers arc, rather than being a standalone film in its own right. I feel like the rest of the Avengers outings are going to be like this.

    • I hope not.

      I liked Iron Man 3, even if it bent over backwards to avoid being too political. (Sure, a war machine branded with the American flag would be welcomed as he randomly breaks into buildings across the Middle East! Oh, this terrorist extremist isn’t a terrorist extremist at all, he’s just a front for yet another rich white capitalist bad guy!) I have hopes for Captain America, if only because Redford wouldn’t have signed on if he felt his politics were given the short shrift – I don’t always agree with Redford, but I think it’s important to explore that sort of stuff with a character like Captain America.

      But yes, I worry that Marvel is playing too hard to the big middle. I don’t think we would ever have gotten anything as clever or as insightful as The Dark Knight from Marvel Studios.

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