Monday afternoon we had the opportunity to see the latest Marvel Studios release, Thor: The Dark World, and had a great time at it.
It needs to be said that this is in spite of the story and not because of it, since it is not a plot-driven movie in the least, which is a bit unusual for a comic-book film. Since superhero 'tights 'n' fights' comics are traditionally a means to an end, and that end is two larger than life characters in outrageous regalia beating the living shinola out of each other in Act III, it is not uncommon to give the movies based on them a free pass regarding story quality anyhow.
As our blockbusters have grown just slightly more sophisticated in recent years, modern audiences are demanding more than just epic scale and bombastic set-pieces, and if that itch is not scratched by the McGuffin-ish plot, is The Dark World worth visiting anyways, and why?
Director Alan Taylor moves authoritatively from the small screen (notably several episodes of A Game of Thrones) to the large with a well paced family drama counterset against an implacable foe and huge conflict. The Marvel Cinematic Universe's take on the Asgardian royal family is one of the best things about it, allowing the storytellers to nearly bring a familial intimacy to an operatic and contrived setting. The complex and dynamic relationships between wise but tempestuous Odin, firm but loving mother Frigga, impetuous but noble son Thor and his gifted but jealous adoptive brother Loki make for a compelling enough story that the only thing needed from the villainous Dark Elf ruler Malekith is to kick things off.
The love-story between Thor and mortal Jane Foster, featured so prominently in the posters, doesn't get quite as much play as you might think (or fear), but Thor's long absence is addressed, and the relationship is treated respectfully. One of my few complaints about the movie is that two great actors, Natalie Portman and Christopher Eccleston, aren't given nearly enough to do. Portman comes far too close to being a damsel in distress in the film's second half, despite having the technological solution needed for the movie's climactic battle. Eccleston's malevolent Malekith is so unidimensional and forceful that he is practically a force of nature; it's like watching him play the personification of cancer. He is simply an evil guy doing evil things for an evil reason, and without the internal conflict that made him so effective in 28 Days Later, there just isn't enough opportunity for him to make an impression with the audience, despite how chilling and effective he is.
This leaves Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins and especially Tom Hiddleston to pick up the slack, and they are more than up to the challenge. Despite the scale of the action, some of the best exchanges are quieter moments shared between two of these three, or with Rene Russo's Frigga. The script balances pathos and humour deftly, which could make the movie resonate even more with those unfamiliar with the previous films or source material. Best in show goes to Hiddleston, who moves between Hannibal Lector menace to Tony Soprano uncertainty without missing a beat.
The other real star of The Dark World is the production design work; Asgard looks more lived in and detailed than the previous film, with Taylor bringing the immersiveness of Game of Thrones to an even more fantastical realm. Having said that though, there has been a very conscious decision to bring more sci-fi to the setting, and the Dark Elves don't travel on a rainbow bridge, but in ominous and stony spike-shaped spacecraft. It is a bold choice, and the science-fantasy angle is unlike anything I've read in Thor's comics, with the possible exception of Beta Ray Bill from way back in the day.
There are no real surprises (well, maybe one), but Thor: The Dark World is still worth seeing if you enjoyed the first one or any of the other MCU offerings. As an added bonus, 3D viewers get to see a scene from next April's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which I am already excited about.
And of course, no Marvel movie would be complete without a post-credit sequence, and after Iron Man 3's Seinfeldian denouement failed to amuse the fanboys who patiently waited for it, this one gives us a tiny insight into the cosmic side of the MCU which I expect will not only tie into next fall's Guardians of the Galaxy! but also Avengers 3. That's right, not 2, but 3; Ultron doesn't enter into this one, but a fairly prominent actor does, which is good, since mainstream audiences know nothing at all about GoG.