Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thor: The Dark World - Marvel's Trailers May Take a While, But They ARE Worth It

Well, I promised there'd be other things besides the cheese this month, especially since November/December marks when the industry starts bringing out the big guns for award season and/or the holiday market.

With this, we come to the latest in Marvel's post-Avengers afterglow-Thor: The Dark World.

As the Marvel sequels go, this was the one I've been particularly interested in seeing, mainly because while the first Thor is entertaining, it wasn't without its problems. It had a good cast and some great character interplay,which led to some fun humor, but the plot had some serious start-stop problems due to the split between two worlds and two ultimately very different storylines (mythical power struggle and fish out of water) having to reconcile.

With the set-up now taken care of, I wanted to see how this sequel would handle things. The resulting film does about what one could hope for from a sequel. It still has some problem areas and room for growth, but it also does improve on some of the faults in the first film. So while it's got some areas that could be better, it does at least appear to be developing.

The story, loosely based on a story arc by Walter Simonson, introduces the enemies known as the Dark Elves. Part of a race that existed before the nine worlds that make up the current Marvel canon [NOTE: if this is confusing you now, I'm gonna be honest, the film's not gonna be much more of a help: Anthony Hopkins's narrated prologue is clearly set up so that if you aren't already on board from the first movie, you're not gonna have a particularly good time getting on now.] the Dark Elves' leader Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) decided things were better off before the other people came into play. So he set about trying to bring back the old darkness using an ancient power called the Aether. Odin's father got wind of it and things went south for Malekith fast. His forces were defeated, the Aether hidden, and he went into exile.

Flash forward to (for the movie) present day. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has finally sorted out the various messes caused by his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston,) and yes, this includes the events of The Avengers. With Hammertime at an end, his thoughts now drift back to Earth and his long distance love interest, Jane (Natalie Portman, actually getting to do more this time around.) Of course, he's being encouraged to let her go and focus on his own world by Odin (Anthony Hopkins,) because hey, in a plot like this, someone's gotta take that stance. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Jane has been burying herself in work since the end of the first movie. As a result of this, while investigating a phenomena that soundly turns the laws of physics into a quasi-playground (which leads to a couple of amusing gags) she winds up finding out the Aether wasn't as well hidden as Asgard had previously thought.

"Sure, it was incredibly dangerous, but it WAS a great way to sort out that whole distance problem..."

Without giving too much of the plot away, all Hell breaks loose. The Dark Elves are back and determined to stage a successful encore of their previous act, Thor and Odin lock horns over how to deal with the Aether (for reasons I won't get into in the interests of surprise) and in the midst of all this, Loki may have a part to play in the ensuing chaos as well.

As an overall plot, this has more going on for it than its predecessor did. I mean, the first was fun, but it was also a rather by the numbers story in a lot of ways, and you could tell where much of it was going from the get-go. Here, it's a bit harder to predict where things are headed, and they even manage to pull a couple of decent surprises. Not likely the kind of thing that will make you stand up in your seat in shock, but still at least showing a bit more of unpredictability this time out now that all the players have been established. While the entire backstory requires a fair amount of early infodump in order to make everything work, it at least gets the bulk of that out of the way fairly early rather than having to keep stopping and explaining every time something else comes into play.

This film also improves on the storytelling front. The transitions between Earth and Asgard have improved considerably on this outing, for one. While there are parts where the Earth sequences DO feel like they're being just somewhat played out for comedy, they don't feel as jarring as the transitions the first time out did. I actually kind of feel bad saying this, since I have a lot of respect for Branagh as a director, but Game of Thrones alum Alan Taylor feels much more comfortable playing in the world than he did. The way Asgard is depicted, in particular, is a massive upgrade - and this is from someone who actually thought the Asgard plot line was the stronger part of the first movie. Taylor's experience working on Game of Thrones was a big asset on these scenes, although it does become a little obvious at points (in an early scene where Odin is speaking with Loki, I found myself wondering who replaced the Iron Throne. The way the scene was composed and shot looked like an extra sequence from the show.)

I brought up the comedy in the Earth sequences in the last paragraph, which is something I do want to address a bit more on its own. While the change isn't as jarring this time around, it is still somewhat problematic in its own way. On the one hand, the Earth sequence DOES lead to a major plot point in the story, and helps set up the film's last act. The problem is, once Jane goes to Asgard, the Earth sequence feels like it's just spinning its wheels to get to the point where it's relevant in the story again. While there's some bits of humor to be found in Darcy (Kat Dennings) and a new intern left to their own devices, as well as Eric Selvig (a largely pantless Stellan Skarsgård) having gone somewhat off the deep end after the end of The Avengers, the sequences start to feel repetitive after a while and by the time Jane and Thor make it back to Earth, it feels like a blessing simply because it's finally moving events forward again.

"Yes, I know, he's not actually a part of this shot. Just...just shoot around him and pretend you don't see him, men."

This isn't to say the Asgard story is without its flaws either. Probably one of the biggest problems this movie suffers from is with regards to its antagonists - despite having an interesting backstory and some good starpower in Eccleston and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, their characters never really seem to actually do much beyond breaking things and brooding on their desire for revenge. After Loki's subterfuge in the first movie, and despite being higher stakes this time around, this feels like a step down. In fact, I've just spent several minutes trying to really come up with more to actually say about them as characters and coming up with nothing - that says something right there for how much of a non-entity the Dark Elves are within this movie. About the one other thing I can say for them is that I did like their aesthetic - even if it did make their first invasion of Asgard look like a version of the beginning of the movie Krull with a MUCH better budget (it's that whole sci-fantasy vs black-clad invaders motif.) If anything, there's more to be said for the conflicts that come about as a result of the Elves than anything they directly do.

There is a part of me that does wonder if this was a result of things being cut from the movie or not. I might not have otherwise said this, but after seeing the movie set up several partial plotlines involving Sif and the Warriors Three that never really go anywhere, and knowing that last minutes rewrites/edits were made, it becomes hard not to wonder if something got left on the cutting room floor.

There are three areas in particular where this film distinguishes itself well. The first of these is the casting - while Thor is lacking in the cocky stubbornness that Hemsworth had a lot of fun playing up in the first film, he still handles the transition a more matured god of thunder well. Portman, meanwhile, like I said before, actually gets a more proactive role here - which, as Marvel women go, is a rather pleasant surprise. They actually didn't forget she has a life outside of Thor and do a good job keeping that part of the character in, even while they still work with their long distance relationship. Hiddleston, meanwhile, more than makes up for the script's waste of Eccleston and Akkinuoye-Agbaje in his not-quite-antagonist role. If there was ever any doubt before this point (could there be?) that the man has fun playing Loki, this should put it out of mind. He still gets some moments to show other range beyond the gleeful mocking/trolling, and he handles those well, but it's when he gets the chance to mess with everyone that he really really shines in the role. The supporting cast all handle their parts well, Dennings and Skarsgård are both mainly there for comic relief first and exposition second, and they do the best they can to keep up the humor where they can, even if the film tends to go a little to often too that well. The Asgard cast continue to deliver well, barring one somewhat odd moment early on where Hopkins seems to zone out (given the scene, he may have felt the dialogue was a little too arbitrary. I can't speak to it for certain, but it really was a bit of a cliched sequence.) That slip remains more an anomaly in an otherwise solid cast.

I know, I know, we've all joked about this, but it bears repeating:
If the disc release for this movie doesn't include bonus footage of Hiddleston doing his best Tommy Wiseau, they will have missed a GREAT opportunity here.

The next we come to the humor. I know, I gave this film some grief for some of the comedy on the Earth parts, but that wasn't because the parts weren't funny. They were, believe me - and as a plus, they DID lead to one of the more entertaining Stan Lee cameos we've had recently. Alongside these, the film balances its dark moments to humor ratio fairly well, and even executes some jokes well enough to provide a nice breath of relief after some of the film's more bleak moments (one sequence I want to invoke here, but I will say nothing to maintain the surprise.) It speaks to how well everyone has settled into their roles, that gags like Thor, on entering an apartment, casually hanging his hangar on a coat hook feels perfectly natural. There's really no jokes in here that fall flat, and even at the very worst, they just occasionally feel like spinning of the wheels, albeit an entertaining set of wheels.

The final area where this film plays well is the action. With each new Marvel film, there seems to be an unspoken challenge to go one better on the action front, and I for one am enjoying the results. Rather than simply going bigger, the last few films have been instead skewing more creative with their fights, and this remains no exception. In particular, I was impressed with the dimension-jumping, reality-bending final showdown between Thor and Malekith at the end of this. It's a sequence that text can't really properly do justice to. I know I say this in several cases, but really, this is one that does need to be seen. It's a mix of the creativity and the fast pace it manages to keep up that helps sustain the whole thing without really letting the gimmick get lax. The fights prior to it are well done, but that finale just trumps them all.

All in all, Thor: The Dark World is a pretty satisfactory follow-up to the first movie. It isn't without its own shortcomings, but it still manages to improve quite a bit on some of the areas of the first film I felt came up light. As a result, it gives a feel that's appropriate for a middle film: it improves on some points of the original, but it also still has some things left to learn. I'm now curious to see if this trend continues to see if they can refine things in time for the third film - which, based on what we were left with here, has potential to be a great new chapter to this piece of the Marvel canon.

Now for some good news/bad news.
The good news - I've got another review lined up for Thursday...and it's a good one.
The bad news - Well, not so much bad, but this one's gonna be kind of a grim one. Very good, but I won't be watching it again for a while.

Hopefully that doesn't scare you guys off! It is a good one!

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