Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Thor 2: Electric Boogaloo

The original Thor was released just two years ago, as a precursor to arguably the greatest comic book movie of all time, The Avengers. Taking Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby's conception of a living god existing among humans and his journey to learn from and help them, and cultivating it into an excellent space opera featuring fantastic action, humor and storytelling, director Kenneth Branagh and an all-star cast put forth an amazing production, handily among the best of its kind, besting all but The Avengers and perhaps the original Iron Man (and a few of the X-Men movies if you really want to count the Marvel properties owned and operated by other studios). And so, between the film's relative success (for a B-list character) and the insane popularity of it's 2012 mash-up pseudo-sequel, there was bound to be another entry to the franchise, in this case Thor: The Dark World. But with new director Alan Taylor (a longtime small-screen filmmaker best known these days for his work on Game of Thrones) behind the lens, how much difference should we expect from this sequel, an might that in fact be a good thing?
Whatever you do, don't tell him to put the hammer down.
After the destruction of the Rainbow Bridge at the end of Thor and after being subsequently being cut off from Midgard (that's planet Earth, for those unawares), our titular hero (Chris Hemsworth) and his fellow warriors have been correcting the damage done to the galaxy, traveling between the Nine Realms and putting down the uprisings that have been occurring outside of the reach of the Asgardian warriors until now. When peace is finally achieved, Thor returns home with grief in his heart, still pining for Earth and his true love, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who has been searching the stars for the slightest sign of his arrival. But even as he does return to visit her, he finds the planet in crisis, as a rare planetary alignment has blurred the barrier between worlds. Soon the Nine Realms will find themselves in danger once again, and it's up to Thor and his villainous half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to protect the known and unknown universe from a dire threat, as the Dark Elves and their malevolent leader Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) search for a secret weapon to enact their ultimate plan for conquest.
Loki is the one who knocks.
If there's one advantage that Taylor brings to the table over that of the much more renowned Branagh, it's that the former knows his way through a fair share of action scenes. Where Branagh - like many modern directors - did not fully understand how to bring compelling action to the big screen, Taylor brings a whole new skill to the table. This new Thor is chock full of action, from a land and air battle between the Dark Elves and the Asgardians to a portal-jumping fight that travels all over London, Taylor and his crew prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can create wonderful, intelligent and thoroughly thought-out action that is easy for the audience to follow without diminishing its visual wonder. Battles have a meaty weight to them, and while perhaps not as exciting overall as in The Avengers or adopting the humorous overtones of Iron Man 3, they still fit in nicely with the family-friendly tone that Marvel has become known for the past few years. The CGI in Thor: The Dark World also looks far more seamless than in its predecessor, with Taylor making excellent use of what must have been his largest budget to date. There is a much larger range of environments than before, each with its own personality and culture that the director and his team ultimately respect.
Twoo Wuv!
The narrative is also very strong, though perhaps not spelled out as thoroughly as it could have been. Rather than a story about actions, The Dark World focuses on relationships as its main current. At the forefront is the relationship between Thor and Jane, but there is also the complicated brotherhood of Thor and Loki, and the differing relationships between each brother and their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and mother Frigga (Rene Russo). To a lesser extent, we see connections between Thor and his fellow warriors, between Odin and Frigga, and even the chaotic connections between Malekith's Dark Elves and the Asgardians. Even though the plot itself is a bit ragged, with motivations often lost or never fully realized, these connections are expertly explored, and by top-notch actors, as it stands. Hemsworth continues his streak of strong performances in his return to the role that made him a star. Showing a more mature, demure and contemplative side to the what was largely a brash and impulsive character throughout two films, the actor fully embraces his leading man status AND firmly takes the reigns of his franchise, recognizing that it brought him to where he is today. Hiddleston also stands tall, thanks to both an excellent role and a legion of fans who have been clamoring for more Loki since his now-legendary breakout two years prior. Hiddleston is definitely playing a villain, but seems to have garnered such a mass following of those who want to see the character as more of a reformed anti-hero than a straight bad guy. Taylor and his screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, alongside legendary comic writer Christopher Yost) give the fans just that, with a character that is equal party sympathetic and evil, with plenty of room to grow.
No Sif for you!
It's a shame the rest of the characters don't get quite as much development, and as a result their performances as a whole suffer. There are a lot of roles strewn throughout the movie of differing levels of importance, and even the biggest parts sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Though they're often given moments to shine, both Portman and Hopkins are much, MUCH weaker here than they were in Thor. Portman does the best she can with the material she's given, and is still quite good, while Hopkins definitely seems to chafe in his reduced position of importance, as his showing is as bare an effort as is necessary. Eccleston's main antagonist is bereft of depth, though the benefit from deriving material from so talented an actor is that it gives Loki the attention he deserves. Stellan Sarsgard and Kat Dennings both return, but both have reduced character and end up being reduced to mere humorous extras. To add insult to injury some of the gags aren't even funny, though thankfully those moments are few and far between. Rene Russo is one of the few talents to get more to do in the sequel than the original, and her bad-ass take on the Asgardian queen is a welcome addition to the mythos. It's sad she still has a relatively small part in the movie, however. And Idris Elba, who was such a universal delight in the original, returns with more variety to his overall performance. It's too bad Elba seems stuck in supporting roles, as he naturally has the talent to lead his own franchise, given half the chance.
Women might just be the true strength of Asgard.
But the biggest misstep might be the treatment of Jaimie Alexander's Sif and the Warriors Three, played by Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, and Tadanobu Asano. The trailers all tease of a love triangle between Thor, Jane, and Sif, who in the comics has a long relationship with the God of Thunder. But that's all Taylor does with the material; he teases, never going any deeper into the idea. There are two reasons for this. One is that the The Dark World is fairly packed with sub-plots, side characters and quite a bit of action. That leave much less for character development, and Sif's apparent affection for her fellow warrior had to take a backseat to other, more important scenes. The second was an incident early in production, where an on-set accident caused Alexander to suffer a spinal injury, no doubt resulting in a reduced role. Perhaps this will be revisited in Thor 3, but for now it's mere window dressing. As for the other uses of the characters, Taylor generally keeps them for comic relief, and for one major sequence towards the end of the second act, they actually have a bit of importance. Still, Marvel fans no doubt hope that these four - such an integral part of the history of Thor himself - will have more to add in future sequels.
Thor and Loki: Brothers in arms.
There are definitely issues that plague Thor: The Dark World, though despite these missteps, Alan Taylor excels in bringing us the latest chapter in the the character's ongoing epic tale. Even better, he gives his entry to the franchise a personality all its own, borrowing a bit from Branagh's original while adding his own distinctive flare to the final product. While the there are obviously some major differences between the two, the overall quality of The Dark World is just about on par with the original, placing it near the top of Marvel's greatest movie releases. Even if you're not a fan of the superhero genre, I urge you to go out and see this gem, as it's one of those fun epics that doesn't NEED prior knowledge of the series to get by. However, it is true scions of Kevin Feige (the guy who organizes all these movies) who get the best out of this film, and those who live for Stan Lee cameos, post-and-mid-credit scenes, and fun action meeting even more fun humor as our heroes fight to save the day will find little to nothing wrong with this, another successful step on the way to 2015's Avengers sequel.
Wow, Loki really let himself go.

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