Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, March 6, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

It wasn't noticeable at the time but the Marvel Cinematic Universe was going through some real growing pains in Phase Two. Some of the films attempted to blow up the universe, in ways interesting and deeply frustrating. Others were characterized by shake-ups behind the scenes, resulting in films that felt somewhat weighed down by the pressures of the still growing cinematic universe. “Thor: The Dark World,” for example, had a director switch fairly deep into pre-production. Natalie Portman insisted Patty Jenkins direct the film. When she left and was replaced by Alan Taylor, largely an undistinguished television journeyman, Portman was irritated. (Explaining why she would make no further appearances in the MCU.) The resulting film received some of the harshest reviews the comic book movie franchise has ever faced. But, as with the widely dismissed first “Thor,” I actually think “The Dark World” isn't that bad either.

Following the events of “Thor” and “The Avengers,” the sons of Odin have been separated. Loki is locked up in Asgard for his crimes. Thor, meanwhile, occupies himself by quelling outbreaks of war across the Nine Realms. His thoughts are really with Jane Foster, on Earth. An astrological event called the Convergence occurs, connecting the nine realms and causing weird stuff to happen on Earth. This causes Jane to unwillingly become the vessel for the Ether, a weapon of immense power. Thus, the Dark Elves and their leader Malekith are awaken. A foe thought long banished by Odin, Malekith is determined to take the Ether and reclaim control of the Nine Realms. Thor has to rescue Jane, form a shaky truce with Loki, and put the hammer down.

Okay, yes, “Thor: The Dark World” has some glaring flaws. The most prominent is its plots, a preposterous collection of mystic events drawing a whole bunch of characters together, in pursuit of a MacGuffin of vast but vague power. There's a lot of heavy-handed exposition in “The Dark World,” designed to explain the specifics of its world and powerful plot devices. Furthermore, the  movie is hassled with one of the MCU's most inessential villains. Malekith the Accursed, a colorful baddie in the comics, makes no impression on the viewer. We gain no insight into his mind or motives. He has no discernible personality. He's just an evil dude in a black costume, there to push the heroes into a conflict. Christopher Eccelston plays the part under heavy make-up with a distorted, frequently subtitled voice. Not only could anyone have played this part, you could have slotted any member of Thor's rogue gallery into the role and the story would be largely unchanged.

Yet the cast, the characters, and their interactions still go a long way. No matter how grouchy she might’ve been during production, Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth still have a likable chemistry. Jane’s clear infatuation with Thor is still delightful, as is the back-and-forth they have. Taking the human scientist to Asgard, letting her react to this fantastical world, was a good idea. As fun as that is, it’s the relationship between the brothers that are the juiciest. Loki tries to present a villainous exterior but the pain and resentment he feels is easily seen. He might’ve graduated to full-blown super villain by this point but he’s still a wounded boy looking for love and approval. That Thor can never totally trust Loki lends a nice edge to their partnership here. And it’s just fun watching two characters with so much history interact, in ways both playful and serious.

As with the first “Thor,” the sequel's sense of humor is an unexpected but highly appreciated element. Jane is introduced on an incredibly uncomfortable blind date with a fittingly awkward Chris O'Dowd, a plot thread that comes back at an amusingly unexpected time. The very smart decision was made to bring back Kat Dennings' Darcy, whose lackadaisical sarcasm and slight cluelessness is expertly deployed throughout several scenes. (Her shouts of “Mew-mew!” near the end always gets a huge laugh from me.) Stellan Skarsgard's Dr. Selvig also returns, as a surprising source of comedy. A little rattled after “The Avengers,” Skarsgard gets to delve into a hilariously eccentric side. Once Thor arrives in London, there's an amusing moment where he has to use the subway. The goofy sense of humor is an ideal contrast to the Shakespearean opulence of the Asgard scenes. Though even those moments have some solid comedy in them, like Loki's shapeshifting attempt to cheer his brother up.

Alan Taylor's direction doesn't have the same theatrical quality Kenneth Branagh brought to the first film. Some of his shots are a bit flat and the action scenes feature a little too much slow-mo. However, “The Dark World” still has an inventive quality to it. The final battle between Thor and Malekith has the two being tossed through various portals, leaping all across the city and the Nine Realms. Since Thor is summoning Mjolnir at the time, the magical hammer is zigzagging all across the globe, leading to an especially satisfying pay-off. Just in general, the production design in the sequel is excellent. The ships shaped like elongated blades or classic boats, the blank faces of the Dark Elves, the golden spires of Asgard. It's all pretty cool looking.

Even fairly early into Phase Two, the Marvel Machine was already unstoppable. Despite meeting few other people who actually like “Thor: The Dark World,” it was still a huge commercial hit, becoming the 10th highest grossing of the year. It's definitely among Marvel's more flawed films, with a shrugging plot and a truly forgettable adversary. However, I still think “The Dark World” is a decent popcorn flick and a solid follow-up to the first in the series. It's got some imagination, the cast is still having a good time, and it ultimately satisfies. [7/10]

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