Friday, November 8, 2013

Thor, The Dark World: Another rich superhero soufflé

Thor: The Dark World (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for rather grim action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.8.13

One must give considerable credit to the master planners behind the current Marvel Comics movie franchise.

After Thor (Chris Hemsworth, right) reluctantly frees Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from his
Asgardian cell, Jane (Natalie Portman, foreground center) angrily warns the "god of
lies" that she'll go postal on him, if he even thinks of betraying the good guys. The
Asgardian warrior Sif (Jaimie Alexander), carrying a long-term torch for Thor, keeps
her own wary eye on Loki.
Starting with 2008’s Iron Man, and with no missteps, they’ve delivered a consistently entertaining blend of action, light humor and engaging character drama: no small feat, given the supplementary requirement of making these films accessible both to longtime comic book geeks and “regular folks.” Some films have slipped a little; others — notably The Avengers — have been excellent. All things considered, we’ve been having a rollicking good time.

(The X-Men and Spider-Man series have been equally well mounted, and kudos to them, as well. But — thus far — they’ve not been integrated into the current tapestry that showcases Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, the Avengers and SHIELD.)

Credit a blend of savvy directors, carefully calibrated scripts and strong casts, with equal attention paid to the all-essential supporting characters. It’s not easy to construct action epics this massive — with an ever-expanding back-story — while also penning droll, slightly mocking one-liners that demonstrate a willingness not to take things too seriously.

I haven’t seen that formula applied so capably since Sean Connery’s early James Bond escapades.

All of which brings us to Thor: The Dark World, which benefits from equally suitable acting talent. Broad-shouldered Chris Hemsworth is every inch the Asgardian warrior, absolutely fit to wield that marvelous magic hammer, and he also manages to look imperial — rather than silly — in that ridiculously ornate outfit. Anthony Hopkins brings regal Shakespearean sincerity to the florid dialogue we expect from Odin, ruler of Asgard; and Natalie Portman is a refreshingly brave, intelligent and resourceful human sidekick ... anything but a stock “girl in trouble.”

And as also was the case with Thor and The Avengers, this film is darn near stolen by Tom Hiddleston, so perfectly cast as the villainous, duplicitous trickster god, Loki. Speaking of the Bard, Shakespearean actors have long known that the bad guys have the best parts and get all the grand lines, and Hiddleston’s Loki has become the modern template against which all future fantasy baddies will be judged. He’s simply marvelous.

Rarely have so many smug remarks and scathing denouncements been delivered with such brio. It becomes necessary to watch these films at least twice — no real punishment, that — in order to better savor the subtleties of Hiddleston’s body language: the frustrated fire he gives Loki’s gaze, the condescending set to his stance, the contemptuous sweep of an arm.

When Loki dismisses Earth’s inhabitants as being no more significant than ants, we can’t help believing that it’s true.

All this said, Thor’s longtime comic book escapades don’t usually engage me as much as those experienced by other heroic denizens in Marvel’s universe. The scales are simply too large, the premise too celestial. Essentially invulnerable gods inevitably call on all sorts of deus ex machina powers whenever the chips are down; this necessitates enemies who are, somehow, stronger still — and sufficiently threatening — in order to deliver a satisfyingly challenging conflict.

Blending Thor’s realm with the Earth-bound moxie of human characters such as Portman’s Jane Foster helps a great deal, of course, and this film plays that card as often as possible. But this story’s universe-threatening menace — or twin menaces, really — is vaguely defined and rather too reminiscent of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga (with spaceships and laser cannons tossed into the mix).

Hiddleston’s Loki is a far more interesting character, throughout, than Christopher Eccleston’s pouty Malekith, who — despite his power and ferocity — has no more dramatic substance than the massive stone creature Thor dispatches during an early skirmish. In a word, Malekith isn’t very interesting, and Eccleston does little to make him so.

In this respect, then, the film’s five credited writers — Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Don Payne and Robert Rodat — have stumbled a bit. Granted, it’s hard to emote beneath all the makeup that Eccleston is forced to wear, but his character certainly could have displayed more of the feral cunning that makes Loki so fascinating. Our writers have no excuse, really, since Malekith is a long-running “Thor villain” dating back to 1984. Surely, that much published material should have yielded some juicy, deliciously malevolent fruit.

Instead, by way of explanation, we get a prologue — narrated by Hopkins’ off-camera Odin, and also reminiscent of Lord of the Rings — that explains how, back in the day, Malekith and his fellow dark elf inhabitants of Svartalfheim, one of the “nine realms” of Norse myth, were defeated while trying to plunge the entire universe into darkness with the help of a roiling black mist dubbed the “aether.” Somehow, this corporeal octopus ink imbues its “host” with even greater dark powers.

Although believed dead, Malekith actually put himself and his surviving dark elves into hibernation, against a future time when celestial events would grant them an advantage. The Asgardians, meanwhile, were unable to destroy the aether ... just because. So they concealed it where it never, ever, ever would be found. (Yeah, right.)

(In passing, I must confess that I’ve never understood the motivations assigned to villains such as Malekith. OK, say he’s successful; he plunges all of Norse mythology’s “nine realms” into darkness, destroying everything and killing everybody. What’s left to do after lunch? Aren’t things, moving forward, apt to be a bit ... boring? Kinda dull? I can only conclude that such baddies aren’t very good at big-picture planning.

(But I digress.)

Two years have passed since poor Jane last saw her blond, buff boyfriend; we catch her as she tries, reluctantly, to move on by agreeing to a first date with a nice-guy type (Chris O’Dowd, in a cute cameo). That goes awry when Jane’s assistant, Darcy (tart-tongued Kat Dennings, in a welcome return), pops up and jabbers excitedly about some weird readings on one of their quantum physics gizmos.

Jane, Darcy and a new intern named Ian (Jonathan Howard) track this disturbance; elsewhere, Jane’s astrophysicist mentor, Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), has noticed equally odd phenomena ... but nobody is paying attention to him, because the poor guy’s still off his nut after being possessed by Loki in a previous adventure.

Jane’s investigations lead to serious trouble when she “warps” into the precise cavern where the aether has been buried. (See? I told you they didn’t hide it well enough!) Worse yet, this ectoplasmic glop swirls into her body and, well, all sorts of bad things follow. Even from his galaxy far, far away, Thor can’t help but notice, and so — with some assistance from the Asgardian sentinel Heimdall (Idris Elba, also a familiar face) — he brings Jane to Asgard. Much to the displeasure of his father, Odin.

Cue Malekith’s revival and invasion of Asgard, in order to obtain the aether, and so forth, and so forth. Subsequent skirmishes play out on Svartalfheim and Midgard (Earth), as Malekith anticipates a once-every-five-thousand-year convergence of the nine realms. None of this cosmic nonsense really matters much, except that Thor is forced to accept help from his detested adopted brother, Loki.

Which is when the fun really begins.

The broad action canvas allows some crucial participation by Thor’s longtime comrades, the “Warriors Three”: Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Zachary Levi) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano). Jaimie Alexander also returns as the Asgardian warrior Sif, who in Odin’s view is Thor’s perfect match; the scripters missed a bet by not playing up this awkward romantic triangle, and amping up the tension between Sif and Jane.

Rene Russo’s Frigga, Odin’s wife, plays a much larger role this time, the actress deftly delivering the proper blend of regal bearing and motherly angst (Loki having become such a disappointment).

Director Alan Taylor displays just the right touch with this bombastic material, and no surprise; he’s a veteran of tough-edged TV shows such as The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones. He and editors Dan Lebental and Wyatt Smith choreograph all the requisite battles with landscape-altering ferocity, but Taylor doesn’t overlook the all-important quieter, character-building moments.

We also can’t help being impressed by the world-building involved, not to mention the intricate opulence of Asgard’s majestic structures: Take a bow, production designer Charles Wood and special effects supervisor Paul Corbould.

Indeed, all the production elements are first-rate, as is typical of these recent Marvel Comics adaptations. Kramer Morgenthau’s cinematography is suitably lavish when on Asgard, and we can feel the grit between our teeth when the scene shifts to rubble-strewn Svartalfheim. Composer Brian Tyler keeps our pulses racing with a suitably heroic score.

Everything builds to a grand climax that involves clever and quite amusing use of realm-spanning portals. I’m not quite sure how (or even if) the aether is actually defeated, but then that’s the script’s weak link anyway. At one point, much is made of Jane’s mortal body being unable to contain this gloppy invader’s energy, but somehow that little problem just sorta vanishes. Script-by-committee does tend to leave such plot holes.

Comic book geeks will delight in the usual cameo by Marvel guru Stan Lee, and I got a kick out of an unexpected cameo by Chris Evans’ Captain America. And, as usual, you’ll want to remain in your seats for some closing-credits hints of Things To Come.

In the final analysis, Thor’s sophomore outing is a bit, ah, casual with some core plot details ... but you’re unlikely to mind, since Taylor builds up plenty of good will while bringing in his film at a fast-paced 112 minutes.

Looks like it’s another job well done, and full speed ahead for next spring’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

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