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Josh Reviews Thor: The Dark World

The sprawling cinematic epic that Marvel Studios has been crafting, ever since 2008’s Iron Man, rolls on with the very strong installment Thor: The Dark World.  One might have been forgiven for thinking that perhaps, after the unprecedented movie super-hero crossover that was The Avengers, the return to solo superhero stories might be a letdown.  But with the fun Iron Man Three (click here for my review) and now with the confident, bold Thor: The Dark World, Marvel is continuing an impressive streak of successful films, and continuing to expand the canvas of their super-hero universe.

At the start of Thor: The Dark World, Loki has been returned to Asgard in chains (following his defeat in The Avengers) and Thor — accompanied by his stalwart comrades-in-arms the Warriors Three and the lady Sif — has been busy putting down revolts across the nine realms (an apparent result of Loki’s destruction of the bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge that linked Asgard to the other realms, at the end of the first Thor).  All is well, except that Thor longs to return to the side of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) on Earth.  His father disapproves, but when Jane is put in peril by her discovery of an ancient evil, Thor rushes to her rescue.  That doesn’t prove to be as simple as he had hoped, as Jane has become linked to a powerful weapon that the evil Malekith plans to use to destroy the nine realms and return the universe to the state of dark and lifelessness that existed before the universe as we know it was created.  After Malekith launches a devastating attack on Asgard itself, Thor is once again put at odds with his father, Odin, and forced to turn to none other than his disgraced, treacherous brother Loki for help.

After the relatively small-scale first Thor movie, which was mostly set in a tiny Midwestern town, I was delighted by how broadly Thor: The Dark World opened up the canvas of the story.  We get to explore quite a number of the nine realms in this film, and a huge chunk in the middle is set entirely on Asgard, which is a lot of fun.  Veteran TV director Alan Taylor (who, most recently, has helmed some spectacular episodes of Game of Thrones) sure knows how to get the most bang for his buck, because Thor: The Dark World looks HUGE.  I was very impressed by the visual effects that brought all of the realms and creatures and space-ships to life.  (Yes, I said space-ships.  There is a lot of sci-fi cosmic craziness in this film, mixed in with all the fantasy.  This feels very true to Jack Kirby’s original Thor comics from the sixties, and also a smooth stepping-stone into next year’s Guardians of the Galaxy film, which promises to really smash open the cosmic scale of the story Marvel is weaving between these films (and, one hopes, to build on the promise of cosmic bad-guy Thanos, glimpsed in the mid-credits scene at the end of The Avengers).

I was impressed by the depiction of Asgard in the first Thor, but Mr. Talyor and his team have really doubled down in this film, letting us see a lot more of Asgard, and I was dazzled by this crazy, opulent, fantasy world.  There’s a lot of action in this movie (far more than in the first Thor), and a lot of super-heroic derring-do, and it is all brought to life in very convincing fashion.  There are no obvious man-on-wires or green-screen effects that I could see.  I also LOVED the version of Thor’s costume in this film, a subtle but significant improvement on his threads in the first Thor, and way better than his look in The Avengers.  This is a bad-ass super-heo costume.

Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are old hands now at playing Thor and Loki, but they’re not resting on their laurels.  Both actors really dig deep to give tremendous performances in this film, really getting into these characters.  The two brothers have an argument, about two-thirds of the way through the film, in which each of their grief at a terrible loss comes out.  It’s one of the best moments in the film.  These men are so good at playing these roles, it is so easy to forget how easily these larger-than-life characters could have been campy jokes.

One of the best things about Thor: The Dark World is how all of the great supporting characters from the first Thor get some moments in the spotlight.  Both Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo get some meaty scenes as Odin and Frigga.  Rene Russo in particular is a delight, so strong and intelligent in this role.  Idris Elba as Heimdall and Jaimie Alexander as Sif were so great in the first film, and both get some great moments here.  I linked the way Thor’s treasonous plan, late in the film, requires the involvement of all of his friends, each of whom have their part to play.  As with the first Thor, I do wish we got to spend a little more time with The Warriors Three, but I’ll be thankful with what we have.  (Except why did they sideline Hogun?  He’s left in his home village at the start of the movie — what’s up with that??)  Kat Dennings is back as Jane’s intern/buddy Darcy, and she’s fun.  She spends much of the film paired up with a new intern she has hired for herself, and the two have a great comic energy together (and get some big laughs towards the end).  I was also pleased to see Stellan Skarsgard back as the scientist Erik Selvig.  (Though, while he is very funny in the film, a part of me isn’t wild that he’s been relegated to the role of crazy comic-relief mad scientist.)

Really the only member of the Thor ensemble who isn’t really well-served by the sequel’s script is Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, who spends much of the movie as either a damsel in distress or as a bewildered fish-out-of-water in Asgard.  She gets some wonderful moments in Asgard, but Jane doesn’t have much of an opportunity to use her smarts to actually impact the plot until the very end, and even then she’s basically just using the devices that Erik created.  Oh well.  I will say, happily, that Ms. Portman still has great chemistry with Chris Hemswoth’s Thor, and she has impeccable comic timing, selling some really great funny lines.

I was impressed with how funny the film was.  This isn’t a comedy, don’t get me wrong, but I was pleased by the comic lightness of the script, with a lot of very funny little exchanges peppered throughout the film.  Other than Iron Man and Joss Whedon’s Avengers, I didn’t think the other Phase One Marvel films (including the first Thor) were quite as nimble with this, so it’s a welcome improvement and a big reason why Thor: The Dark World works as well as it does.  (And let me also say, speaking of comedy, that I loved the brief appearance of Bridesmaids’ Chris O’Dowd.  I did not expect to see him in a super-hero movie!)

There are aspects of the story that I could pick apart.  The film relies on coincidence far more than I am comfortable with.  Jane, out of all the inhabitants of the universe,  just HAPPENS to find the ancient all-powerful substance the Aether?  It just happens to be the time for the once-every-five-thousand-years convergence of the Nine Realms?  Thor and Jane get trapped on another world, and they just happen to be right next to the portal back to Earth that Jane and her friends discovered at the beginning of the film?  And how exactly does Thor beat Malekith at the end?  What happens to the supposedly indestructible Aether?  I wish some of these things had been explained a little more clearly by the film, but the movie as a whole works well enough that I am not over-bothered by these plot-holes.

The film’s biggest narrative mis-step, actually, is the opening prologue, that lays on the audience a lot of exposition about the bad guys and their previous conflict with Asgard and the mysterious weapon the Aether.  I have seen this sort of exposition-heavy prologue in a LOT of sci-Fi/fantasy movies lately (Green Lantern comes to mind) and I think it hardly ever works.  (Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring is an exception, a rare case where a dense prologue worked.  His recent film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is a great example of when it does NOT.)  I think it’s a mistake to dump all these weird names and creatures and exposition on the audience right at the start of the film.  Better to let us discover this back-story, along with the characters, as the film progresses.  (Interestingly enough, it seems that director Alan Taylor did not actually have final cut of this film, and that prologue is an example of late-in-the-game re-editing by the Marvel Studios team.  I agree with Mr. Talyor that this was a mistake.).

I was also intrigued by the way that both The Avengers and this film seem to ignore, or at least to bypass, the ending of the first Thor. That ending now seems like a small mis-step in Marvel’s interconnected universe.  The first Thor ended with the bifrost destroyed and Thor cut off from Earth, and from Jane Foster, seemingly forever.  And yet, in The Avengers, Thor seemed to be able to beam to/from Earth/Asgard as he pleased, and at the start of this film the bifrost has been perfectly repaired.  So those obstacles, so large at the end of the first Thor, are quickly swept aside.  I am not complaining about this, it’s just interesting to me to note this small hiccup as I look at the overall amazing interconnectedness of these films.

And while both Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man Three share a similar post-Avengers problem (in that one must wonder, towards the climax of both films, why our heroes don’t call their buddies in the Avengers and/or S.H.I.E.L.D.), I do love how directly both Iron Man Three and this film reference the events of The Avengers.  It would be weird if everyone just ignored an alien invasion, and there are a bunch of other little winks and nods to the wider Marvel universe that I loved.  There’s a great mid-movie cameo that was a delight, and Stan Lee’s appearance is fantastic.  And just in case anyone hasn’t learned by now, stay to the end of the credits, for goodness sake!!!!  (More on that in a minute.)

I also need to praise the movie’s last (pre-credits) scene.  It is so great, absolute perfection.  Not since the first Iron Man has one of these movies ended on such a great, oh my god did that just happen, I need to see what happens next RIGHT NOW zinger.  Brilliant.  Makes me really pumped for Thor 3.

Ok, go see this movie.  Engaging characters, great dialogue, gorgeous visuals, great action, and a fast-moving, propulsive narrative are all reasons this film is so great.  If you haven’t seen it yet, time to click away.  If you have seen it, then lets hang around for a moment to discuss the two post-credits scenes.

SPOILERS here, friends.

 

OK, let me say that I loved them both, though I sort of feel that they should have been reversed.  The scene at the very end of the credits feels very much like the real ending for this movie.  As such, that to me feels like it should have been in the mid-credits spot.  Then at the very end, to me, is when it would have made the most sense for the other scene to come, because that scene is all about a tease of what is to come.

But other than that, while the end-credits scene was nice, it was that mid-credits scene that I really loved.  I did not know that The Collector would be in Guardians of the Galaxy, nor that Benicio del Toro would be playing him. But let me say WOW and YAY to both things!!  I cannot believe I have seen The Collector in a real Marvel movie!!!  That they are bringing this weird, cosmic, sort-of-obscure Marvel character into the movie universe delights me.  And he is questing after the Infinity Gems???  Oh my god yes.  The Infinity Gauntlet –published way back in 1991 — was one of my favorite comic book stories as a kid, and I still think it’s one of the greatest comic book crossover stories ever.  The notion that future Marvel movies (probably The Avengers 3, a long ways off) will be tackling this story makes me giddy.  I love how fearlessly Marvel is diving into these weird, wonderful corners of its big comic book universe.  I cannot wait for what is to come.

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