Saturday Matinee #149, Thor Week: "Thor: The Dark World" Review (November 8, 2013)
Published November 16, 2013
by Albert Gutierrez
My apologies for not having Saturday Matinee ready last week. I intended on covering the short film "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor's Hammer" to celebrate Thor week. However, given that I watched the film this week, felt it would be more apropos to provide a spoiler-free review of the film. As always, I will provide only a brief plot summary since the film is still in theatres. Since this film actually gives a larger role to Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the summary will focus on her for a change:
Two years have passed since Jane Foster has seen Thor. She's done her best to move on, including a blind date with a nice London fellow named Richard (Chris O'Dowd). However, it's obvious she has her mind on other things. Thus, she partly welcomes her intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) interrupts the date to talk to her about an abandoned factory that has been giving strange readings and exhibiting odd behavior. Jane, Darcy, and new intern Ian (Jonathan Howard) investigate, fascinated at the laws of physics seemingly being thrown out the window (literally and figuratively). As she investigates on her own, Jane steps into a strange anomaly that transports her into another world, where she encounters a mysterious living substance called Aether. Eventually, Jane returns to the factory - over five hours after she left - to find the police combing the place looking for her. Someone else has found her, too. Thor. The Aether takes hold of her, causing a disturbance that convinces Thor to take her to Asgard in the hope of finding a cure.
Of the "Phase One" films in Marvel's Cinematic Universe, 2011's Thor has always been a mixed bag for me. While I loved the story arc for Loki, I found Thor's "hero of a thousand faces" journey to be predictable, even if it was fun to watch. Later viewings often left me slightly bored in the middle of the film (when he's lumbering about in New Mexico in the night rain), as the film doesn't really pick up until the big attack the next day. However, upon watching Thor: The Dark World, I found myself much more involved in the story and all its erratic science-fiction mixed with magic. I was only vaguely aware of the hero's fantastical origins (in both the original comics and traditional mythology), but really enjoyed how the film interpreted the concept of "magic as science." During a scene on Asgard, Jane even comments on what she interprets as extremely-advanced science, though the Asgardians see it as regular old technology, while any primitive man would see it as magic. It fits well within the idea of "sufficiently advanced technology," where such scientific concepts and practices appear almost like magic to those who have never seen it before.
I also was concerned that like Iron Man 3, this film would have trouble crafting a story that "isolates" the main character from the other Avengers, thus justifying why they face off an enemy without their friends. The film addressed this at times, sometimes humorously, others with a serious excuse that shows why they can't be involved. It felt much more natural than several moments in Iron Man 3, especially as Tony Stark was native to Earth while Thor resided in another realm. Granted, the nice nods to the Avengers were welcome, especially one memorable encounter that simply is too good to spoil here. The Dark World also helped expand the Marvel mythos beyond what we know in the Avengers films, and this is coming from someone who's never read the comic books. All I know from the Marvel films come from their films, so it's nice to see that they're still able to use such a wide range of backstory and characters, while still finding a way to present them as material that's new and exciting for any of their film-only fans.
If anything, the film succeeds in adhering to the Marvel formula of mixing heavy action with light comedy, while underlying it all with a recurring and subtle hints at human drama. Behind the explosions and the crazy make-up and the wacky costumes lie well-written characters that go through the same age-old struggles and issues with which we concern ourselves. The rivalry between Thor and Loki still feels lovingly ripped from a Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean play, with director Alan Taylor appropriately following up what Kenneth Branagh (well-known for directing quite a few Shakespeare adaptations for stage and screen) set up and executed greatly in the first film. Tom Hiddleston as Loki continues to provide that added gravitas to the role which could easily be a caricature in another performer's shoes. I don't want it to seem "fangirl" of me, but seriously, that man should play Loki in every MCU film, even if he has no real need to be in it. Chris Hemsworth as Thor still does little beyond DECLARING EVERY SENTENCE WITH AN EXCLAMATION POINT, but he dials it down at key moments. Truthfully, he played Thor as a cartoon in the first film, refined it in The Avengers, and finally found his groove in The Dark World. This new performance helps makes the ending(s) all the more enduring for the character.
Perhaps the only performance that disappointed me in my first viewing was Christopher Eccleston as Malekith. Of course, I shouldn't have expected him to simply play The Doctor (from "Doctor Who") in Malekith make-up. Maybe a second viewing would allow me to see just what he wanted to do with the character, but Malekith simply felt like a one-note baddie who would do anything for world (or universe) domination, no matter the cost to himself and everyone else. Apparently, Eccleston saw Malekith's motivation as revenge, I'll have to look for that when I next view the film.
I think the best performance in the film belonged to Natalie Portman. She's actually given something to do here besides be the audience surrogate as she was in the first film. Her character has a role that allows her to take action within the story. One of the weaknesses within Thor was Jane's absence from the story. She had a fairly respectable amount of screen time, but much of the film still felt propelled by Thor's arc rather than developing Jane at all. This time, Jane is on equal footing with Thor, and even Loki. Truth be told, despite The Dark World falling in the Thor branch of films from the MCU, it feels just as ensemble as The Avengers. Nearly every major character gets a chance to shine, while also advancing their characters beyond what we knew about them before.
Overall, Thor: The Dark World delivers what we've come to expect from Marvel films, and does so without any expectation to do better. I can see why many saw it as a "mid-level" film, but that's not to say it's a bad film. It gives us a worthy adventure with familiar characters, while still showing new layers to them that allow them to grow. If I had to give it a grade in terms of storytelling, filmmaking, and performance, Thor: The Dark World earns a respectable "B+" from me.