Thursday, November 14, 2013

THOR: THE DARK WORLD Is Cosmic Craziness That Ushers In Marvel's "Phase 2" Era


- And now we get to the fun part. I mean, let's face it, we all love superheroes, but I could live without another origin story anytime soon. Especially when said origins tend to be told in such a by-the-book, cut-and-paste manner on the big-screen. But man, Marvel seems to have a lot of ambition these days. They've moved firmly into "Phase 2" of their Marvel Cinematic Universe plan, and they are going boldly into the fringes and not looking back. THOR: THE DARK WORLD has a lot of the familiar elements that have made Marvel movies so popular and accessible: the light and bouncy tone, the mix of epic action with liberal doses of humor, the blending of fantastic fantasy with street-level authenticity. In short, the Marvel movies are emulating the formula that made Marvel comics so successful back in their Stan Lee-written heyday. But now, we're getting to the Jack Kirby of it all. The larger-than-life stuff, the cosmic stuff, the flat-out weird stuff. The kind of stuff that, until now, has still largely been confined to the pages of comic books - a format blissfully unconstrained by budgetary concerns and delightfully conducive to the sorts of mind-melting ideas that emanated from the mind of Kirby, Jim Starlin, Walt Simonson, and the other iconic writer/artists who made superhero comics into cosmic space-opera on an epic scale. So yes, THOR: THE DARK WORLD has quippy dialogue, inventive action, and a much better-developed romance between its leads than we got in Part 1. But I have to confess, what endeared it to me so much was that, above all else, it seemed to be about big and weird and cosmic ideas in a way that most live-action superhero movies have not yet dared to approach.

All that said, I don't want to act like this movie is the second coming of superhero movies. It's still got a couple of issues that, ultimately, keep it a step behind the best Marvel movies like The Avengers and (in my opinion) Captain America. But before I dive into what doesn't work, let me talk about what does ...

First and foremost - Chris Hemsworth. Before the first Thor was released, I think I and many others wondered how the character could translate to screen without seeming like a big, goofy joke. I think about 80% of the answer to that question lies with Hemsworth. He pretty much is Thor, and not only that, but he's slowly but surely been developing as an actor (case in point: his excellent turn in this year's Ron Howard film, Rush). His Thor is larger-than-life and Olympian, but also believably human. And he glides rather effortlessly between charged-up superhero action, Shakespearean melodrama, self-deprecating comedy, and more earthbound romance.

Not far behind Hemsworth in the "Franchise MVP" category is Tom Hiddleston as Loki. You couldn't have THOR without Hemsworth, but THOR would be a lot less awesome without Hiddleston, who simply kills it in this sequel. If anything, you're left wishing that the movie didn't take so long to get Loki involved in the story. Here's the thing about Hiddleston - Marvel movies, and superhero movies in general - have had their share of stars-playing-villains who still, at the end of the day, felt like movie stars playing comic book villains. Hiddleston, to an even greater extent than Hemsworth, pretty much IS Loki in these films, and that full-scale transformation is even more pronounced here than in Part 1. The guy seethes with such otherworldly villainy that he alone helps you buy into THE DARK WORLD's general cosmic craziness. Hiddleston sells it because he's so darn believable as Loki that he, in turn, lends a credibility by osmosis to all of the other gods and monsters in the film. I never would have expected this, but Thor vs. Loki is now the best hero/villain rivalry in the entire Marvel MCU.

Overall, I think THE DARK WORLD makes better use of its supporting cast than the first film did. Natalie Portman gets a larger and more filled-out role here as Jane Foster. She's much more pivotal to the story than before, and her rleationship with Thor is less the annoying schoolgirl crush of Part 1, and more of a genuine-seeming affection that puts her on more equal footing with the God of Thunder. Sir Anthony Hopkins is once again a lot of fun as Odin, and Rene Russo actually gets some substantive (and, surprisingly kick-ass) moments as Thor's mom Frigga. Meanwhile, Jamie Alexander makes the most of warrior-woman Sif's limited dialogue - in only a few key scenes, she establishes an "it's complicated" status with Thor that lends the character an air of tragic bad-romance. And as for everyone's favorite broke girl, Kat Dennings - she seems less annoying and more funny than in the first movie, working well as genuine comic relief. Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd is also quite funny this go-round as nutty professor Erik. While it's a shame he doesn't get more dramatic moments (given the actor's chops) it's still fun to see him rant and rave like a crazy person and share a great moment with Stan Lee (appearing in his now-customary cameo, True Believers). Finally, I'll mention the great Idris Elba as Heimdall. It seems odd to have such a fantastic actor in such a minor role, but hey, Elba makes Heimdell super badass in his brief appearances.

One note on Portman though. Look, I'm a huge fan - she kills it in movies like Black Swan and is a top-notch actress. But one thing about Portman ... I just don't know if she's at her best in these types of comic-booky roles. Her default mode of acting is super-serious and intense. That works well in a dark drama like Black Swan, or even in a comedy that makes fun of her seriousness, like Your Highness. But she doesn't necessarily nail the sort of slightly self-aware quippiness needed to knock it out of the park in a Marvel movie like Thor. And so, as in the first film (and as in other pulpy sci-fi fare like Star Wars), she feels a bit wooden here. Like I said, Jane Foster is written better and has more to do than in Part 1. But if I had to point to one actor who just feels a bit out-of-place amid the epic comic book hamminess of Hemsworth, Hiddleston, Hopkins, etc., it'd be her.

So Portman's Jane Foster is sort of a mixed bag, but overall, it does feel like this movie is much more chock full of substantial female characters than the previous film, and as compared to most Marvel movies. Less substantial, however, is the movie's big bad - the dark elf (yes, you heard me) named Malekith, played by Christopher Eccleston (unrecognizable behind transformative makeup/costuming). Malekith is a visually-cool villain - a monstrous, otherdimensional creature who leads an army of raygun-wielding evil warriors that look like Kirby drawings come to life. Awesome in concept, for sure. But the problem with Malekith is that he's just sort of there. We know that his realm was destroyed thanks to a magical MacGuffin known as the Aether, and that he now seeks to reclaim the Aether and use it to cause major destruction (to further complicate things, the Aether has been absorbed into Jane's body, making her invulnerable, but also slowly killing her). The thing with Malekith is that all he really needs is an extra scene or two to really sell his appetite for cosmic destruction. And I've heard that these scenes may exist, but were cut for time - in which case I'd be very eager to see them as originally shot. Because, hey, sometimes having an evil dark elf who just wants to %$&@ $%&# up is fine ... 'nuff said (to quote Stan The Man). But just a little something to make this dude pop as a character would have gone a long way.

Luckily, there's more than enough conflict and intrigue between Thor and Loki - who must forge an uneasy alliance to take on Malekith - to make up for Malekith's lack of personality. Hemsworth and Hiddleston are the engine that makes the movie go, and, by having him in the background for much of the film, THE DARK WORLD builds him up into that much of a greater (and cooler) potential threat.

Where THOR gets sloppy is in its plotting. There are a metric ton of cool ideas in this movie, but a lot of it feels sort of fast and loose. I talked about Malekith being sort of a nebulous character, and about the Aether being your typical sci-fi movie MacGuffin. But there are lots of other things that stand out as feeling not-fully-thought-out. One example I'll toss out there: the use of Loki's (admittedly cool) illusion-creating powers. While this ability leads to some cool moments, it also feels overused - to the point where something happens, and then you immediately expect it to be revealed as an illusion. Another example is a cliffhanger-y element of the ending that is sorta cool, yet also feels like a bit of a cheat. Who knows if and when the how's and why's of the reveal will be explained, but I was left with a bit of a feeling of the movie not quite playing fair with us. Overall, THE DARK WORLD packs in so many characters and plot points that it's no wonder it elicits the occasional "huh?". The fast pace is a blessing and a curse - giving the film a sugar-rush sensibility, but also a feeling of giving potentially great moments and scenes short shrift.

At times though, there were moments that truly wowed me. A viking-like Asgardian funeral scene - rife with eye-popping imagery and looking like a fantasy painting brought to life - may actually be my favorite scene of the film. Conversely, the final battle between Thor and Malekith's forces is pretty imaginative - with Portal-esque location-warping hurtling Thor and his adversary from place to place in a flurry of action-packed, dizzying jumps. Director Alan Taylor does a great job with the action, infusing the CGI f/x-fests with a degree of old-school fantasy feel, with moments that evoke the iconography of classic 80's fantasy films. Whereas the first film sometimes felt flat visually, this one has much more comic book grandeur, and the fantasy worlds of Asgard, etc. seem full of life and fully-realized.

The movie perhaps feels a little more disjointed than it should thanks to some oddly-placed post-credits scenes, with one in particular feeling like it should have simply been the last few minutes of the movie. But the other post-credits scene - a prelude to Guardians of the Galaxy, of sorts - left me giddy from its sheer cosmic weirdness. This scene helped reinforce the sentiment I expressed at the beginning of the review - that Marvel's "Phase 2" was ushering in an era of full-on Kirby comic-book weirdness, an era in which the kinds of things that fans thought they'd never see outside of the comics are actually materializing on screen. Now, I don't just say that from the fanboy perspective of "look, an obscure character from the comics is appearing!" I'm not even enough of a Marvel geek to be able to say that credibly. But I do say it from the perspective of a fan who's been growing weary with superhero films - adapted from stories that tend towards the weird and out-there - becoming increasingly cookie-cutter and generic and bland. What I love about these stories is the imagination, the weirdness, the colorfulness, the subversiveness, and the idea that anything can happen. For Lee, Kirby, Shooter, Simonson, and the like - there were never any limits. The universe itself was the canvass. And to see these movies get to that point, embracing all this stuff (I'm still traumatized from the second Fantastic Four movie's "cloud" Galactus) ... it's incredibly cool.

So yeah, THOR: THE DARK WORLD's got flaws, and it feels overstuffed at times, and its main villain is undercooked. But its got an infectious sense of fun that won me over. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it, flaws and all. If this is the beginning of the new anything-goes, post-Avengers era of Marvel movies, then hell, alls I can say is "excelsior."

My Grade: B+

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