Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

It has been two years since the God of Thunder first exploded onto our cinema screens and Chris Hemsworth’s third outing as the Asgardian prince with an incredibly heavy hammer. Personally, I really enjoyed Thor and was looking forward to seeing what the sequel had to offer. As I’ve already mentioned Thor is probably my favourite superhero and I think he has a lot of potential for film adaptations. Especially because the literature nerd in me loves the fact that I am essentially watching a Shakespeare play about Norse gods with a comic book twist. Plus, what kind of card-carrying Hiddlestoner would I be if I didn’t relish the thought of watching the most beautiful and talented actor around get to grips with his evil side?

Thor: The Dark World opens on a Lord of the Rings style flashback which lets us witness, in all of its dark and grainy glory, a great battle between good and evil. Many years ago Thor’s grandfather gathered the armies of Asgard and set out to Svartalfheim to prevent the leader of the Dark Elves, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), unleashing the mysterious Aether and turning the world to darkness. So the first few minutes of The Dark World are as intensely Fantasy as you can ever expect to see. Every genre trait that you can imagine is dropped on the audience in one fell swoop. It’s over-the-top and lacking in subtlety but, to be fair, it’s a wonderfully epic sequence that manages to justify its derivative nature. Let’s face it, if you’re going to adapt the adventures of a Norse god onto the big screen then you either go all in or you go home.

However, before we really get to grips with the story that comes out of this prologue, The Dark World first sets out to tie up any loose ends that may have been left hanging since The Avengers. We see Thor (Chris Hemsworth) deliver his brother back to Odin in chains and watch as he is sent to live out his days in a jail cell. So there we have it, only a few minutes in and Tumblr are gifted with the image of Tom Hiddleston in handcuffs. Marvel really knows who they’re making films for these days. The fangirls favourite has now become more appealing to all the hormonal youngsters out there as the Loki we come face-to-face with is at his lowest point; angry, beaten down and no longer possessing the familial support of his brother or father.

Whilst the God of Mischief stews in confinement that is far too comfortable when compared to the severity of his crimes, Thor is working hard with his loyal band of warriors to restore peace in the Nine Realms. Apparently, destroying the Bifrost at the end of his premier outing had greater consequences than merely preventing him from getting it on with his physics hottie back on Earth. Speaking of which, Jane Foster and her mismatched team have made their way to London to continue their search for unexplained science-stuff. A mere six years after Valve released their popular puzzle game the science friends are able to start having fun with portals after they stumble across an abandoned warehouse rating high on the WTF scale. Unfortunately for the world’s prettiest astrophysicist, Jane is transported to a strange place; a strange place that just happens to be the exact point where Odin’s father hid the Aether. No surprises for guessing where this is going then.

With the Aether back in play, the foundation is set for Malekith to do the very thing the Daleks did just in time for the finale of every Russell T Davies season finale; he and his remaining Elves reappear to carry on with their deadly dealings. Thor must use his mighty hammer to save his home, the woman he loves and everything he has just been fighting to unite. Thanks to massive pre-release spoilers we are all well aware going in that, in true Wife Swap tradition, the God of Thunder must work alongside the one person he would do anything to avoid. Can the brothers set aside their differences and prevent their world from being destroyed? The plot is hardly inspirational and what follows is going to come as little surprise to most. However, just like the first film, The Dark World approaches the narrative with such self-awareness and in a tongue-in-cheek manner that is doesn’t really matter.

Thor: The Dark World is far from being the slickest offering that Marvel has presented us with over the years. Yes, it’s no Avengers but nor is it Iron Man 2. It keeps moving thanks to the strength of its cast. Hiddleston and Hemsworth are a wonderful team and their chemistry and inherent charm is infectious. It is a relationship that more than eclipses the other significant relationship on screen. Unfortunately, the combined talents of Hemsworth and Oscar-winner Natalie Portman are not enough to bring any kind of chemistry or realism to this flat and dull romance.

In fact Portman as a whole is pretty hard done by here. Many reviews out there praise the increased role she has been given in this sequel but, rather than being a positive thing it only goes to show just how forgettable she was in the first one. There is an interesting role reversal where Jane, finding herself on Asgard, is placed in the fish out of water position and is given a few good lines as she gets to grips with this new culture. However, she is mostly used as the damsel in distress who is called upon sparingly to look at some ridiculous science gadget and attempt to relate the magical events to real world ideas. It is a purpose that is not evidence enough to make her presence seem necessary and, when she’s not taking part in one of cinema’s least convincing love stories, she is constantly overshadowed by the superior in every way Darcy (Kat Dennings).

For his part, Hemsworth is given slightly more to work with in his third outing and we see Thor start to become more than just a loud and comical fish out of water. Thanks to Thor, our hero is no longer plagued by hubris but is finally preparing to be the leader that his father expects him to be. The Thor we see now is just as confident as the one we are used to but with the necessary humiliation and dedication to help others that is required of a Norse God. There is still a hint of humour surrounding the character (Hemsworth is allocated a few more juicy one-liners and sight gags than last time) but Thor is all about emotional development as we see him battling with romantic and familial demons. Ultimately though, it is Hemsworth's innate likeability that makes the character work so well on screen. Without a doubt he’s joy to watch in the role but, of course, that could just be down to those magnificent arms.

Thor may have given his name to the title of this sequel but we are never in any doubt that it is actually 
Hiddleston who is the main attraction here (for both audiences and money-hungry distributors). Loki gets the majority of the juicy lines and is able to have the most fun with his character. That said, Loki hasn’t exactly developed since the original Thor and is still, underneath the fantastic cheekbones and theatrical performance, a jealous child who just wants his brother’s favourite toy. You can’t fault Hiddleston in the slightest but, given his popularity with everyone, there has been no need for him to be anything other than he was from the start. Well, with slightly longer hair and feeling a little sorry for himself. Considering this is also Loki’s third outing it would have been wonderful to see a bit more depth to the character.

Something which I would also say is true for much of the supporting cast. There can be no denying that there is a great range of acting talent on show within the realm of Asgard but very few characters are really living up to their potential. Antony Hopkins is the ideal casting as Odin but, understandably I suppose, has relatively little to do (there is a slight chance that this is simply a personal thing as I’m of the opinion that most movies are flawed due to their lack of Hopkins). Idris Elba is always memorable as the all-seeing Heimdall to the extent that I want him to be around more. The same can be said for Ray Stevenson’s Volstagg who seems to be less like the Falstaffian wonder he should be and more like the stock fat character you see in classic episodes of Little Britain. Most heinously of all though, Christopher Eccleston and his Elvish band are forever on the outskirts of the action. After their appearance in the prologue, it takes a large portion of the film for them to reappear and then another long wait before they do anything about it. Like the Chitauri in The Avengers, the Dark Elves are nothing more than a flimsy plot device to bring all of the characters together. Hardly the terrifying bad guys we’re used to these days.

Jamie Alexander and Rene Russo in their roles as Sif and Frigga (Thor’s mother) are, in a similar fashion to Portman, “developed” here. Alexander has, from what I can tell, received a great deal of praise for her role but has in fact done very little. In the first film she was just the jealous female sidekick and now she is the jealous female sidekick who has a small fight scene and some slight banter. Then she disappears. Sif deserves to be used in a better way not least because, in a world of beefy, drunk men and stupid scientists, we deserve an ass-kicking female. So I demand to see more of Jamie Alexander in the future (and that’s not just a reference to the insanely revealing dress she wore to the premier).

Speaking of insanely good-looking things, in terms of aesthetics The Dark World is pretty damn impressive: the initial reveal of the shiny new Bifrost and the expanded Asgard slaps you round the face in such a pleasurable way you’ll think you were that woman in 50 Shades (I assume. I haven't read that shit.). There are some truly breathtaking set-pieces throughout the film: Malekith’s assault on Asgard is a great action sequence and a later scene showcasing an Asgardian funeral where light and CGI are used to tear-inducing effect. Just like the first film, it is the scenes that take place away from Earth that prove to be the most exciting and enticing to watch; probably because, despite how wonderful London may be to look at, it can’t compete with a shiny CGI space realm.

For the most part, the plot that unfolds in London feels either unnecessary or that it’s trying too hard. There are a lot of moments of forced humour and dull moments of exposition. The scene where the portals are first discovered goes on for far too long and Chris O’Dowd’s bizarre appearance as a potential love interest for Jane just wasted time that could have been spent making the Dark Elves feel like more of a presence. There is only a brief section of the film where his character helps more the plot forward and a friend and I were able to rewrite that to something much funnier and less time consuming.

However, by far the greatest sin that this film commits is the development of Dr Eric Selvig. Apparently, that time that Loki took over his brain caused some pretty serious damage and the once reliable scientific mind is now struggling with his grip on reality. This meant that for the majority of his scenes Stellan Skarsgard was left to frolic around in certain states of undress. This not only took valuable time away from the major plot points but has caused permanent scarring to my visual memory. It’s one of those things that clearly sounded hilarious in a script meeting but never found its feet in the final film.

I instantly loved Thor mainly because of how unlike traditional superhero films it is. Branagh, Hopkins and Hiddleston brought a theatrical and Shakespearian quality to the narrative that stays true to Stan Lee’s influences for the original comic. It was understated and introduced the idea of a wider Marvel universe wonderfully. The focus was on the set-up, the characters and the rules of this new world. In terms of action sequences there was really only one or two fairly minor ones which, as far as I can tell, is the major disagreement people had with the film.

In an attempt to counteract this, director Alan Taylor (his first outing as feature film director) decided to throw as much as possible at this sequel. There is an abundance of action set pieces, interesting new locations, unnecessary exposition and callbacks that manage to inflate the underdeveloped plot to three times its actual size. I don’t understand why we had to go from such a well-crafted and unashamedly subtle introduction to a cluster-fuck of genre stereotypes and CGI. As you watch you can almost hear the execs ticking off bullet points on the Michael Bay and JRR Tolkien check-lists.

The Dark World isn’t a terrible film: I’ve watched and walked out happy from lesser films. It’s just not a clever one. I liked it but I can’t ignore the fact that I wanted more for Thor. However, I did appreciate the handy reminder that Captain America: The Winter Solider is on its way thanks to a pointless cameo by Chris Evans. After all, it had been about an hour since the actual trailer had been played for us. Gotta make sure the money keeps rolling in I guess.

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