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.