Friday, November 8, 2013

Thor: The Dark World Review: Marvel Finally Crosses the "No Newbies" Line

Rating: PG
Director: Alan Taylor
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins
Release Date: November 8, 2013
Presented in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D

Review written by Andrew Braid

As the new Marvel Studios logo greets us at the beginning of Thor: The Dark World, it acts as a signal to audiences everywhere as to where the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is headed. That message should be ringing loud and clear as Anthony Hopkins' Odin narrates the past tale of the last known battle with the Dark Elves led by the powerful madman (or mad-elf, I guess...) Malekith: Marvel's Phase Two is in full swing. If you're still working through Phase One (culminating in last year's colossal smash The Avengers), then you'd better catch up fast, because Marvel has no interest in slowing down for the uninitiated.
You'd think that this would be a bad idea from a marketing standpoint (because every major blockbuster is pressured to be as accessible as possible for every manner of audience), but here's why you'd be wrong. For starters, it's a sequel for crying out loud! Particularly in an era where serialized storytelling is becoming increasingly popular and viable (and in multiple cases exceedingly rewarding), it's just common sense in most cases to see the previous movies first. Once a  series goes on long enough these days, it inevitably crosses that point of no return, when it can no longer afford to try and awkwardly placate itself to every person possible and must instead turn its focus to moving headlong into its overarching narrative, full speed ahead. By the time David Yates took over the Harry Potter film series with Order of the Phoenix, the series just flat out stopped giving a crap to the idea of anyone new jumping in at this point. By the sixth film, there is absolutely no way whatsoever for you to get into the series unless you go watch the previous movies beforehand. This is when the series truly became like a massive-budget miniseries, and in terms of quality it ended up being the best decision the series ever made. Each new installment flowed seamlessly into the next, the tone and style felt more consistent than before, and there was a sense of assurance, of trust in its (very) devoted audience that allowed the series to make something like Deathly Hallows Part 1, where much of the movie feels like an indie character piece with so much wandering around forests that you'd almost forget the film has a budget large enough to bail Detroit out of bankruptcy (yeah, that's a bad joke- because it implies that Detroit will still be a city after I post this review). Harry Potter proved that this kind of long-term movie serialization was a viable model for Hollywood, and Marvel is proving with hit after consecutive hit that this long-term planning can be expanded to encompass  various film series (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America), crossovers (The Avengers), and television shows (Marvel's Agents of Shield).
Movies will never be the same after this.

Thor: The Dark World jumps right into the action, following the events of both the first Thor and The Avengers: God of Asgard and Son of Odin, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is faced with the responsibilities of succeeding the throne to Asgard and watching over the nine realms, yet still pines for his mortal love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who has been back on Earth trying to search for him in the two years since she helped him find his humility and regain his godly powers. But in the middle of a search for the God of Thunder, she inadvertently becomes infected with the destructive force known as aether, the ultimate source of power which Dark Elf leader Malekith seeks so he can consume all realms with darkness (because, um... he's just evil, okay?). Malekith's pursuit of this substance, hidden by Asgard's ancestors for millenia, threatens Asgard and Earth to the point where Thor must ally himself with his gleefully traitorous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), last seen leading the attack on New York in The Avengers.
 The film is breezily paced almost to a fault, with some transitions to the film's consistently funny comic bits coming just ever so slightly too soon after one or two significant dramatic moments (this doesn't change just how funny these moments are, however). It's always keeping things exciting and funny, but one can't help shaking the feeling that there are some extra character bits lying around the cutting room floor which could have deepened the proceedings a bit more. Seeing how the film clocks in at under 2 hours, they probably could have afforded a little more room.
This seems to speak to how The Dark World lacks much of a particular directorial touch to it. Directing duties have been passed to Alan Taylor (television's Game of Thrones), and while he does a great job handling action and comedy in equal measure, it feels rather impersonal, more as if it were directed by the studio than someone with a distinct style and voice. Previous Marvel Studios productions saw directors whose unique approach to the material helped define and shape each of their movies as ones that stood strong as standalone works. Iron Man 3 from earlier this year had writer/director Shane Black's penchants for witty undercutting dialogue and subversive commentary, defining the film not just as an Iron Man movie, but something that was distinctly a Shane Black movie. Kenneth Branagh's overabundance of unnecessary tilted shots in the first Thor may have been silly, but it did give the movie a unique visual personality. Even if it far from hinders the film, it does hold The Dark World back from reaching quite the same heights as fellow Marvel films like Captain America: The First Avenger and the aforementioned Iron Man 3.
Even if none of those points seem to matter much to the average moviegoer, one significant issue for the film is undeniable: it's completely uninteresting villain. Now, note that I don't say "bad", because Malekith does prove a credible, imposing threat for our heroes to face against, and the visual look is solid (as well as quite faithful to the comic books' version of the character). But the talented Christopher Eccleson (a former Doctor Who, no less) is utterly wasted on a part with no personality whatsoever besides stoic evil. I don't care if he spends almost the whole movie speaking in made-up evil elf language, would it kill him to drop a snarky joke? Get a tragic (or at least humanizing) character flaw? Show any kind of emotion? ANYTHING?
Pictured: Boring
 Having said all that, these faults overall don't tend to matter too much, as the film often sweeps you up in just how thoroughly fun it all is, wearing its influences and cosmic comic book roots on its sleeve in ways the first Thor rarely did. Malekith's squadron of ships result in aerial action scenes highly reminiscent of Star Wars (his henchmen are literally what you'd get if Stormtroopers dressed in Lord of the Rings cosplay), and the spectacularly entertaining climactic sequence is stuffed with portal-jumping antics, even tying in a fun callback to the first film (which I won't spoil).
Most vital to the film's success is its fantastic returning cast, with Hemsworth as charming as ever, but removed from his former arrogance and brash, brute nature from the first Thor. His chemistry with Natalie Portman's Jane remains solid, keeping the Earth scenes lively along with Jane's colleagues Darcy (Kat Dennings) and Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). But it's Tom Hiddleston's lovably treacherous Loki that steals the show, more than justifying the reported reshoots done to add more of him into the final cut. He radiates mischievous charisma and scenery-chewing smiles of glee as he lurks around the film, keeping his character ticking as an inevitable time bomb waiting to make its dastardly play, even as he plays more antihero than flat-out villain in this installment. When Thor breaks Loki out of prison for the skakiest of team-ups is when the movie shines most, the humor flying fast and furious, and the brotherly conflict picking up the slack for the flatness of Malekith.
Pictured: The absolute opposite of boring. You know what, Loki fangirls who keep petitioning for a solo spinoff? Keep at it. It's looking like a better idea by the day.

Thor: The Dark World is a film that knows from the get go exactly the movie it wants to be: a fun comic book popcorn blockbuster, one that doesn't just assume but expects and trusts its audience to know the characters and world well enough to revel in its particular brand of cosmic fantasy action and spry humor. While debatable if it's truly as good as the first film, it's undoubtedly a sequel that proves worthy of wielding the hammer.

Oh, and just a reminder: stay through the credits. There's a mid-credits AND post-credits scene this time around, but by now Marvel fans are more than used to this.

Final Review Score: 8/10
+Great action scenes, with an often-creative climax
+Main cast is even better than ever
+Every bit as surprisingly funny as the first film, if not more so
+Unabashedly enthusiastic energy for its comic book fantasy elements
+Basically any scene where Thor and Loki share the screen
-Bland, one-dimensional villain
-Direction is great, but lacks much of a personal sense of style like many previous Marvel films
-A little too briskly paced at times
-Newcomers will require catch up first (if that wasn't obvious)

How should I see it?: In 2D, for sure. It was never really shot for the format to begin with, and word is from most people who have seen the 3D version that it adds little to nothing. See the movie, but save yourself the 3D surcharge if you can.