Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Icons Marathon: Springsteen & I (2013)

If there was a way to design a movie directly for me, a collection of homemade fan videos about Bruce Springsteen would be high on the list. When you add those clips to exciting live footage from his extensive career, it pushes the project into the stratosphere. There’s little chance that I could analyze Springsteen & I like a normal movie. It would be impossible (and disingenuous) for me to separate my fandom and try to consider Baillie Walsh’s documentary in the normal fashion. Instead, I’d rather discuss it from the perspective of an avid fan that can’t get enough of Springsteen’s music. His resilience in a fickle industry has been remarkable, and he’s showing few signs of slowing down at age 64.

This film includes fan-made clips describing their experiences with the Boss and what’s attracted them to his music for so many years. A middle-aged guy breaks down in tears while even thinking about what those songs have meant to him. It’s clear that people are connecting with the music on a different level, and I can sympathize with that relationship. Men and women of all ages describe a personal bond with Springsteen despite never having met the guy. A young truck driver sees herself in his songs and takes inspiration that it’s okay to do the job she loves despite having a master’s degree. It’s easy to get cynical in the face of such heart, but there’s a genuine love within each participant. 

A connective part of each video is listing three words that describe Springsteen in the fan’s mind. While many cite his genuine demeanor and working-class roots, those wouldn’t make the cut for me. It’s true that his affable personality sells the music on a different level, but it’s impossible for me to know the true guy behind the image of “Bruce Springsteen”. My choices would be “relentless, powerful, and consistent”. What the studio cuts of his songs don’t convey is the ferocity that comes across in the live setting. The songs take on a life of their own, and that soul has developed so many hardcore fans. Some tread the line into obsessive territory, but there’s warmth that helps to mostly avoid that stigma. 

When I think back to my all-time favorite concerts, two from Springsteen would definitely make the list. I was a late arrival to the E Street train and didn’t become a huge fan until after the reunion tour in 2000. That interest was cemented in 2003 by an incredible show at Milwaukee's Miller Park. It was the second time I’d seen them on The Rising tour, and they had such a loose feeling near the end of that run. I had a similar experience in St. Louis near the conclusion of their Magic tour. They played nearly four hours, took many requests from crowd signs, and maintained the momentum throughout the show. Any band can play a long set, but few can keep the fans right there with them for the entire running time. It’s a skill that takes years to master and explains Springsteen’s continued relevance. 

Some of Springsteen & I’s highlights depict impromptu moments on stage that show why he’s charmed so many people. An Elvis impersonator known as “The King” recounts getting the chance to perform “All Shook Up” on stage with Springsteen in Philadelphia. We catch the video of this fun moment while he goes through the surreal feeling of actually singing with his idol. What makes this conversation special is the guy’s wife, who has so much pride in seeing him realize his dream. Another memorable story talks to a man who was dumped right before the concert. He channeled this sorrow into a sign to play “I’m Going Down” and ended up getting a hug on stage from Springsteen. This nightly connection with regular people may seem transparent and part of the act, but it feels surprisingly natural. 

Walsh was wise to include performances that energize the low-key home videos and give added relevance. A couple dances in their kitchen to “Radio Nowhere”, and then the perspective shifts to Springsteen playing the song to a stadium of fans. The older footage shows the rawer side of his work in the ‘70s when the E Street Band was coming alive. When combined with the more recent concerts, it presents a through line from the idealistic rocker to the giant we know today. One participant talks about the power of those early shows, when Springsteen wasn’t a giant face on a video screen. The audio recordings from the late ‘70s are truly remarkable and reveal such promise from a guy who took his shot and won. It’s fitting that the film closes with “Born to Run” with live clips from the past five decades. It may seem corny for everyone to return and thank Springsteen for his music, but that simple message connects so many of us. We’ve bonded at concerts and in our cars over the songs that just never seem to fade no matter where we are in life. Thank you, Bruce. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Icons Marathon: The Punk Singer (2013)

Kathleen Hanna in The Punk Singer

When you label someone the voice of a movement, can they ever live up to expectations? Such was the case with Kathleen Hanna, who became the face of the “riot grrrl” scene while leading Bikini Kill in the ‘90s. Working alongside bands like Huggy Bear, Bratmobile, and Sleater-Kinney, she helped to initiate the third wave of feminism in this country. That’s the basic history, but who’s the person behind that image? Director Sini Anderson tackles this question with The Punk Singer, a sincere documentary that does more than show why Hanna’s contribution was important to the scene. It reveals the complexities in the fiery demeanor, especially when a devastating illness ends her time in the spotlight.

The Punk Singer – Directed by Sini Anderson; Starring Kathleen Hanna, Adam Horovitz, Kathryn Wilcox, Johanna Fateman, Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, and Corin Tucker

Combining archival footage with more recent interviews, Anderson does an excellent job presenting the different stages of Hanna’s career. Music was the outlet for an artist with so much to say, yet it put her on the public stage as a target. It’s refreshing to see so many talented women participating in this project. We’re lacking typical guys like Rolling Stone’s David Fricke that appear in so many documentaries. Instead, pivotal artists like Kim Gordon, Corin Tucker, and Joan Jett give their impressions on Hanna’s work in the ‘90s and beyond. On the surface, she was just a punk singer, but her role became so much greater. It also riled up the male establishment and brought attacks from all corners of the spectrum.

The Punk Singer

The first hour focuses on Hanna’s time with Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and spotlights the music without getting too rhapsodic. Concerts were rougher affairs at that point, and mosh pits were no joke at club shows. It wasn’t a hospitable place for most women, and Hanna wouldn’t stand for it. While her approach to bringing women to the front might seem obvious, that move was very rare. Beyond the hype, it’s the practical moves that stand out within the furor. This material works because we hear plenty of humble comments from Hanna about her experiences. The incisive stage presence of her younger days has given way to a committed yet much different persona. She’s grown up a lot in the past few decades, though the anger towards the divisive system remains as strong as ever.

There are few guys on screen in this film, and that choice makes this story more unique. One exception is Hanna’s husband Adam Horovitz, whose stabilizing presence helps her through the difficult times. The section on their romance is really touching. Despite being a great match, the couple moved slowly because of the challenges for touring musicians. The Beastie Boys’ social consciousness has frequently been under reported, and some still equate them with the image of partying young guys from their first record. His presence is fairly limited in the movie, but their strong relationship comes through from those scenes. Horovitz shoots a harrowing moment of Hanna revealing the side effects from medicine to combat her Lyme disease. It’s hard to think of such a vibrant performer reduced to such a difficult state.

Kathleen Hanna in 2013's The Punk Singer

The Punk Singer was the first place where Hanna revealed the reason that she quit performing in 2005. She didn’t realize until five years later that she had contracted Lyme disease. This final segment is difficult but reveals the emotional core that drives the film. It does more than portray an artist's glorious past. Anderson and Hanna are using the film to come to terms with her illness. I’m typically fidgety when watching movies at home, but I was glued to the set during the last act. We observe a singer with so much energy reduced to a shell of her former self. Watching her take the stage again with The Julie Ruin is such an affirming moment. Plenty of challenges remain, but she’s on the path to a brighter future.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The World That I See: Reads and Listens #12

I’ve yet to mention the end of Television Without Pity, which was one of my regular sites for a long time. What really sucked me in were the extensive recaps of The Amazing Race and Survivor by “Miss Alli”, known today as Linda Holmes from NPR’s Monkey See blog. The early seasons of those shows were much different than how they are viewed today. Survivor was a phenomenon with huge viewing numbers but wasn’t as focused on the strategy like today. The Amazing Race was a less popular upstart with diehard fans loving it and hoping for just another season each time. I read the very long recaps of each episode, and that experience just added to the fun. I haven’t kept up with TWOP as much in recent years, but I still have fond memories of digging into the long posts after each new episode.

Here are some interesting blogs and podcasts that are definitely worth your time:

Speaking of Holmes, her warm piece about Say Anything has an excellent grasp on what makes it so affecting 25 years later. She describes how it’s more than your standard teen love story for so many reasons. The label of Lloyd Dobler as “perhaps the single most human 19-year-old that the films of the '80s and '90s gave to us” might sound like a stretch, but there’s some real truth to it. What I love about Cameron Crowe is the heart in his films, even the less interesting ones. That compassion is everywhere in this movie, and Holmes’ piece makes me want to watch it again very soon.

One of my favorite ongoing blog series is “In Character” from Alex Withrow at And So It Begins. He picks a character actor that’s a familiar face but not might be a household name and spotlights the top roles from that person’s career. His latest subject is Gary Cole, who is widely known as Bill Lumbergh from Office Space. That only tells a small part of the story, however. I first saw Cole in the TV series American Gothic as the evil Sheriff Lucas Buck. He’s delivered so many great performances over the years, including Kent Davison in Veep. Alex does great work on his blog, and his spotlight on Cole is just another example of why you should be reading his work.

Lauren Brooks always has plenty to say at Man I Love Films, and her column this week is one of her most interesting pieces. She tackles the auteur theory and its limitations on interpretations in film criticism. While I think it can be applied to certain figures in cinema history, I agree that the director is given too much emphasis in the final outcome is a movie. Of course, I have a feeling that new obstacles would arise that might distract us from having more complex discussions. Regardless, it’s an interesting topic that deserves more attention. Lauren is the right person for the job.

Steve Honeywell at 1001 Plus always has plenty to say, and I’m right with him with his take on Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. I admire it greatly, yet watching it a second time doesn’t sound very exciting. It’s a gorgeous film with interesting performances, especially from Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. Even so, there’s something about the movie that pushes me away. I’ve seen Magnolia plenty of times, but Anderson is working on a much different plane with his last movie.

I’ll close this week in a much different sphere with the world of theme parks. One of the best Disney blogs is Passport to Dreams Old and New despite the infrequent posting schedule. Foxxfur’s latest essay moves across town to Universal Orlando to explore The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride. It’s one of the most stunning achievements that I’ve ever seen in themed entertainment. The combination of 3D visual effects and physical sets works so perfectly, and the attraction is so much fun. This post delves into why it works so well and compares it to the similar Transformers attraction at that resort. Here’s an excerpt that summarizes the article’s points:

Although Spider-Man's 2012 visual upgrade has helped close the gap between the two rides in many respects, Spidey is still an intentionally cartoonier experience. I often decry tooniness in my articles, but it just works like gangbusters in Spider-Man. Spidey has an immediacy lacking from the usual take-you-inside-the-cartoon visual vocabulary employed successfully by, say, Roger Rabbit's Car-Toon Spin (which it vaguely resembles). Some of this can be attributed to Universal Creative's successful adaptation to the tone of comic books and pulp adventure serials: crazy action with a healthy seasoning of sarcasm. The villains in Spider-Man are absurd: instead of simply trying to kill you for discovering their secret hideout they take time to terrorize you with various objects (electrical plugs, pumpkin bombs, tongues) in a way that makes nearly no sense at all but adds to the sense of lighthearted menace. This same ride wouldn't work with Batman villains.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Icons Marathon: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks

What is it about Walt Disney that keeps enthusiasts so enamored nearly 50 years after his passing? An obvious reason is Disneyland, which remains one of America’s cultural touchstones. When you combine that success with so many animated classics, it’s easy to see why the Disney Company remains so prominent. On the other hand, many of us were born well after Disney was gone. I’ve only seen videos of his TV programs, yet I’m intrigued by the guy. He was cantankerous and so powerful, yet he created the image of the friendly grandpa for the general public. That isn’t an easy feat, yet that persona remains in place today for a whole new generation of movie goers and theme park fans.

Given the continued interest in Disney, it’s surprising that he’s never been portrayed in a significant fictional film. One reason is how protective the Disney Company is about the face of their organization. Millions of visitors aren’t going to Disneyland because they love Bob Iger. This Icons marathon will give me the chance to look at different ways to view unique individuals of the past and present. In Saving Mr. Banks, Tom Hanks plays Disney as the friendly public figure, but there are hints about the more forceful guy lurking beneath the surface. Despite what he says to P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), his interest in adapting Mary Poppins isn’t just to fulfill a promise to his daughters. Disney sees the commercial potential for a hit yet faces an equally determined opponent every time he meets with her.

Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks.

Saving Mr. Banks – Directed by John Lee Hancock; Starring Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, and Jason Schwartzman

Although Disney plays a key role, the real protagonist of this story is Travers. She may be opposing his plans to put her prized work on the big screen, but it’s hardly a one-sided affair. Travers has justifiable reasons to distrust Disney since her primary goal is protecting the source material. Once the movie hits it big, the image of Mary Poppins will always be Julie Andrews flying with an umbrella. She recognizes how signing her rights away would make it a much different tale than her book. There’s also a personal connection that goes back to her childhood in Australia. Her father has many similarities with her version of Mr. Banks, though his final destination wasn’t flying a kite and singing.

A surprising amount of the two-hour running time goes back to Travers’ young life with her dad, played warmly by Colin Farrell. He’s full of energy but can’t get out of his own way once alcohol enters the picture. These scenes are presented with such nostalgia but grow quite sad once the situation falls apart. Although they’re effective in explaining Travers’ standoffish behavior, they also feel overdone and make the relationship too obvious. It’s clear where the situation is going very quickly, and more time in California would add some mystery to the dilemma. There’s a sharp contrast between the movie studio and rural Australia, and that’s by design. Even so, the transitions don’t always flow so seamlessly.

Colin Farrell in Saving Mr. Banks

The depiction of the making of Mary Poppins at the Disney Studio is so lively, particularly when Bradley Whitford’s Don DaGradi joins Bob (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) plus Dolly (Melanie Paxson) to present the planned songs. This vision of California shows a bright and colorful place where artists create the magic. Travers isn’t so thrilled by the songs and fanciful inclusions, but her guard eventually recedes to the determined group. How can she resist “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”? The scene with Disney hearing the Shermans play “Feed the Birds” is also one of the best and does justice to his favorite song. Hanks plays the moment so well and shows the man behind all the bravado.

Hanks doesn’t resemble Disney, and it would take a more dedicated fan to comment on how close his mannerisms are accurate. What sells it is the feeling that Hanks embodies the emotional side of the complex guy. The coughs as he enters a room are legendary, and his stories will be familiar to passionate Disneyphiles. When Travers visits Disneyland, Disney’s clearly in his element in the second home that he loves. This sequence is a highlight for a Disney fan and offers a glimpse at its early heyday. Shot at the Anaheim park with some alterations to fit the time period, the fairly brief sequence is convincing.

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks

Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) presents Saving Mr. Banks with such a glossy veneer that it may be too much for cynical viewers. Despite the conflicts with Travers and her tragic past, it’s meant to be an upbeat film that works for a large audience. Writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith bypass some generic plotting and craft a film that also connects with the fan base. That’s no easy feat, and the cast is sharp across the board. We never doubt Hanks or Thompson’s work, and they raise the human stakes for both characters. It’s a down-the middle commercial project, but they bring heart to the story. There are no villains in this battle of wills, and the result of their collaboration was an iconic movie.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Johnnie To Marathon: Drug War (2013)

Louis Koo and Ka Tung Lam in Drug War

It takes a filmmaker with great confidence to spend a film building a world and then destroy it in the final scenes. Johnnie To frequently pulls the rug out from under his characters, particularly when things start to turn their way. Even within the limited sample size of this marathon, the last act has included a turnaround that leaves characters either dead or severely damaged. His latest film Drug War is no exception and ends with a shootout that spirals into an all-out bloodbath. It’s a procedural focused on infiltrating the drug trade through an informant, but that formula changes quickly in the final round. Despite all the indications that a betrayal is possible, the move is still a gut punch to everything that’s preceded it. It’s also brilliant and lifts an already solid story into the stratosphere.

Drug War – Directed by Johnnie To; Starring Louis Koo, Ka Tung Lam, Honglei Sun, Yi Huang, Suet Lam, Michelle Ye, Hoi-Pang Lo, and Siu-Fai Cheung

After a high-flying opening, To pulls back and allows us to become familiar with this ugly world. An undercover drug sting reveals a bus full of drug mules, and there’s nothing glamorous about that job. Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is caught by the cops when a chemical explosion nearly kills him. The pieces are in place for the ambitious pursuit of an extensive drug ring. This material could seem dry in lesser hands, but the deliberate approach is what makes it work. It’s the attention to detail that gets us engaged and sets the story in motion. Conversations are filled with tension, and the stakes keep rising as they pursue the bigger fish. Captain Zhang’s (Ka Tung Lam) team is ready to tackle this job and has the skills to make it work, but they’ve chosen a shady partner who could lash out if pushed too far.

Johnnie To's Drug War

Even after seeing Louis Koo inflict mayhem in Triad Election, it’s hard to think he’s really such a bad guy. Casting him makes us identify with Choi, and that just sets up the smokescreen. The shot of him talking with Zhang and Yang Xiaobei (Yi Huang) lays out the limited options for his future. The camera sits behind their heads and traps Choi between them like two ends of a vice. He has no power in this situation, and that helpless feeling makes him even more dangerous. Zhang and his team are all business; this isn’t the first informant they’ve coerced into assisting them. It’s a risky game with few certainties, but the rewards could bring down some major players dealing drugs throughout China.

Drug War is a rare To film shot in mainland China, and it focuses on the vigilant efforts of law enforcement that go beyond the expected police work. There’s a remarkable sequence with Zhang and Choi meeting with an overly exuberant drug contact. Zhang plays a serious, drugged-out character that’s always convincing while observing their target at the same time. This gives him the opportunity to masquerade as the happy guy in their next meeting. That conversation is far more treacherous and backs Zhang in a corner where the only escape is taking mind-altering substances. He keeps it together until their mark leaves and then collapses into a total mess. Few scenes do a better job at revealing the tightrope walked by cops deep into the drug trade than watching Zhang fall apart.

Louis Koo in Drug War, directed by Johnnie To

There’s a key moment that foretells where the story is heading for Jimmy Choi. While pursuing two associates driving product around in a run-down truck, he nearly loses it and shoots the guys. The police are everywhere, so there’s no escape plan for Choi. The camera pulls in on his face and reveals a man who’s cracking at the seams. It’s easy to forget that his family was just killed in the factory accident, and he’s hardly operating at full capacity. He keeps it together well enough to fool his former co-workers and help the cops, but it’s only a matter of time before the flimsy construction shatters. His captors are so focused on their pursuit that they miss the danger of working with someone with nothing more to lose.

The final showdown escalates so quickly, and it’s all about Choi initiating chaos. This isn’t a situation where a brilliant manipulator turns the tables on the cops with an intricate plan. The police underestimate him (and some of his associates), but the main reason is even putting such a volatile guy in that situation in the first place. They need Choi to capture the gang of seven, but it’s a risky game with so many enemies within such a small space. The bloodbath says plenty of the futility of pursuing the drug trade. The authorities are enforcing stiff penalties on crimes and doing everything they can, but the end result is a blitzkrieg of violence. Is there any point to the entire pursuit? To doesn’t give a clear answer, but it’s hardly an upbeat portrayal of this war. Drug War shows the admirable persistence of the police while reminding us that expecting the bad guys to go down quietly is a pipe dream.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The World That I See: Reads and Listens #11

My college years arrived just as the Internet was picking up steam in the mid-‘90s. However, the ancient technology of slow dial-up left me with few opportunities to even use it away from campus. During those struggles, I found that a text-only format allowed me to read film reviews from Entertainment Weekly. Checking in with Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum spurred my interest in writing about films. Their reviews were much longer than today’s version of the magazine and delved into more than the basics. That inspiration is what makes it even rougher to watch the demise of that publication’s film writing. Gleiberman’s firing last week followed the announcement of a community of unpaid writers, and that combination is unfortunate. The issues contain less substantial content and often pile up on the shelves at home, and that trend won’t change anytime soon.

Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece for last Thursday on this issue and the larger ramifications for this practice offers a sobering take on the current trends. His final line that “it’s still not right” says it all, and the results are a shame for Gleiberman and so many other skilled writers. Film criticism is an art that takes years of practice, and reducing it to unpaid writers hoping to get “exposure” is just sad. On a related note, there’s an interesting comparison from the Listen Eggroll blog of Entertainment Weekly issues from 1998 and today. It’s hardly a shock to see a lot more text, but the difference is still pretty striking.

Here are some interesting blogs and podcasts that are definitely worth your time:

Friday was the one-year anniversary of Roger Ebert’s passing, and his site included some amazing and heartfelt writing from his team of writers. First of all, his wife Chaz posted the “Leave of Presence” that Roger wrote one day before he died. It shows a dedicated guy who’s involved in so much and passionate about his work despite the health difficulties. It’s easy to get sidetracked by the smallest challenges in life, and he kept the faith after losing his voice and enduring so much over his final years.

I could recommend any of the dedications to Roger on his site. One that struck me came from film student Jamie Tyberg, who never met him. There are so many examples of aspiring writers and filmmakers who learned so much from him. I never met Roger, yet it seems like I know him after watching him on television and reading his reviews for so many years. His legacy continues beyond the individual reviews, and he still inspires many of us today.

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody is not a fan of television. While I disagree with his points about the “five-minute rule” when it comes to serialized TV, he makes an interesting case. Essentially, he believes that a great film should inspire you with any random five minutes of its screen time. While this may be the case for classics, I’m not sure it applies to every movie. It also doesn’t take into account the extended running time when you look at television. It’s a simplified concept but still raises thought-provoking points about what constitutes art and how we view and enjoy each visual medium.

I don’t talk enough about the greatness of Matt Singer and Alison Wilmore on their podcast Filmspotting SVU. They have such a laid-back charm that combines perfectly with intelligent film discussions. I’ve been focusing more on streaming and video on demand lately, and their show is an excellent way to learn about major films and hidden gems available online. Their latest episode includes a review of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and covers the sword-fighting genre. Matt and Alison are also accomplished writers, and they bring those same skills to the audio world. Their discussions move smoothly between high art and lowbrow cinema, and we learn plenty about the movie world.

Sam Fragoso is carving quite a niche for himself through his site Movie Mezzanine and his work at This week, he added another publication to the list with his post for The Week about ignoring the online trolls. It’s a thoughtful piece that makes good points about the damage of focusing on terrible reviews instead of the best writing. I’ll admit that it’s easy to get sucked into looking at the weaker parts of this practice, but it does little good. You can follow all of Sam’s work through his new personal site at Sam Let’s close with a quote from his piece that exemplifies the key points:

As anyone who has ever put pen to paper can attest, producing an intelligent and incisive piece of writing on any subject matter is difficult — but highlighting quality writing shouldn't be. If you care about good film criticism, please, pay attention to good film criticism.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Thor: The Dark World - Fantasy Takes the Reins

If Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the ‘70s conspiracy thriller of the Marvel films, Thor: The Dark World is the syndicated action show. A good comparison is Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, which frequently brought the title character into a fight with a giant monster. The creature would shout “HERCULES! I WILL DEFEAT YOU!” and then laugh maniacally. This would not end well for the baddie, and Hercules (Kevin Sorbo) would add a clever quip after securing another win. There’s an eerily similar moment near the start of the Thor sequel. The powerful hero is battling to secure the Nine Realms and faces a giant stone alien called a Kronan. The monster dwarfs Thor, but all it takes is a fast hammer swing to end the fight. The other enemies quickly disperse, and it’s played for a laugh. I expect that at least one of the film’s three young screen writers grew up watching Sorbo as Hercules.

Later in the story, the evil Dark Elves invade Asgard, and their vessels try to reach the stronghold. Despite higher production values, this has a similar feeling to a siege in Stargate Atlantis. A tenuous shield protects the base, and the heroes can do very little against the overwhelming forces of the nearly faceless enemies. I bring up these examples because there’s an inherent silliness within both Thor films. While the first grounded the story with the “fish out of water” comedy and love story on Earth, its sequel focuses more on the fantasy aspects of Asgard. The 10-year-old in me loves the idea of a Krull-like fantasy trip for Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), but it feels out of place in the same universe as Captain America and Iron Man. That doesn’t mean it isn’t as worthy (all require a suspension of disbelief), but there are larger hurdles to overcome with accepting the silliness.

Thor: The Dark World – Directed by Alan Taylor; Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston, and Jamie Alexander

Another character actor has arrived to control Asgard. Colm Feore was the fierce hill giant king last time, and Chrstopher Eccleston becomes the more dangerous Dark Elf Malekith in this adventure. After playing Destro in the G.I. Joe adaptation, the Ninth Doctor is at risk of getting stuck in the power-hungry villain role in blockbusters. Tread carefully, Mr. Eccleston. Malekith’s plans also threaten Earth and Jane Watson (Natalie Portman), so the stakes are higher for the stoic hero. She’s been invaded by the Aether, a powerful force that risks a lot more than Jane’s life. Embodied by a shiny red parasite, it’s no joke for anyone who contacts it. With few options left, Thor needs his imprisoned brother to access the Dark World and save the universe. Loki’s biting wit masks a continued anger towards his brother and father, and it’s only a matter of time before he makes his move.

With its $170 million budget and visual effects, this sequel doubles down and tells a more ambitious story. The strange part is how simple it really is. Familiar faces like Sif, Heimdall, and Odin get a few scenes, but they’re merely bit players supporting Thor. There are complicated gravitational fields and other scientific phenomena, yet it all comes down to whether the hero can battle through the chaos and take down the villain. There’s nothing wrong with using a classic story; the challenge is making it seem relevant when there are so few surprises. It makes the fireworks feel like a smokescreen once the story comes together. The cast keeps the right attitude and has fun, particularly Tom Hiddleston, Kat Dennings, and Stellan Skarsgård. However, they can only mask so much with their charms. Once the final fight starts rolling, there’s only so much excitement we can muster for it.

The Marvel films are based on comic books that are essentially male-dominated, so it’s easier to give them a pass for limited progress for women. That doesn’t lead to much discussion, however. When you look at Thor: The Dark World, it has determined female characters that are progressive on the surface. Watson is a scientist and extremely intelligent, and Sif is a powerful warrior that can hold her own. So what’s the issue? The concerns arrive because they still fall into the normal character types of so many films. Watson’s role in the story is to be the passive victim of the Aether and hope that Thor can save her. She may punch out a few people, but she’s the classic damsel in distress. Her role at the end of each story is to wait on Earth for Thor to come back and rekindle their romance. In a similar way, Sif’s hardened outside masks a love for her fellow Asgardian warrior. She’s an interesting character, but the least engaging part is her interest in the unobtainable Thor. Can’t she just be an unstoppable fighter without getting dragged into a barely seen love triangle?

The unstoppable train of Marvel success continued with the success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier this past weekend. I’ve enjoyed all of their films in some way, though we’re starting to see more shakiness from a creative standpoint. Thor: The Dark World is not one of their stronger efforts, and a third film is certain a few years down the road. Will there be a tipping point where audiences take a pass on a Marvel release? I don’t see it coming in the near future, however. The general consensus of audiences and many critics was positive, and the box-office numbers are staggering. A charismatic cast and lots of visual effects can overcome generic plots and sell tickets, but it’s still a little disappointing. Take a few more chances, Marvel! The people will show up anyway. I’m hoping this is a glitch and not a trend, but only time will tell with the studio lining up the releases far into the future.