Monday, November 11, 2013
Review: Thor: The Dark World
It's a weird feeling to see a huge tentpole blockbuster superhero movie like Thor: The Dark World and feel like it's "just ok." My reactions to these movies are typically much stronger -- I'm either way excited at just how well it captures the essence of the comic books on which it is based or I'm majorly disappointed at just how wrong they get it. With Thor: The Dark World, I'm neither. I'm kind of indifferent. I liked a lot of the movie, but there's probably just as much that either doesn't work or doesn't make an impression.
The typical model for the superhero movie is that the first movie is a mess but sets up the hero's origins and lets us get to know the character, while the second movie really lets it rip. Thor: The Dark World certainly does let it rip, but it's at the expense of the title character. There's a lot here that feels like reading a really fun issue of the comic book, but the fun only lasts until the credits. The movie starts to fade from memory as soon as it ends. The fun is transient, feeling less like a movie than just another episode in a Thor TV series. I hope that's not the future for Marvel sequels.
first Thor movie from 2011. The sequel feels much less Earth-bound, taking place in fantastical realms and opening up the scope a great deal. It's a considerably bigger movie. The action is better staged and much more plentiful. There are no scenes as staggeringly awful as the Jeremy Renner/Hawkeye insert that was wedged into the original to tie it to The Avengers. Director Alan Taylor, best known for his work on every good cable show you've ever watched (most notably Game of Thrones), keeps a lot of balls juggling in the air -- perhaps too many, really, as the film is unfortunately overstuffed. It's a more entertaining movie than the first because it never really slows down, and nearly every character gets at least one individual moment to shine. By the time the climax comes around, in which characters are chasing and fighting one another as they fall through different realms, the movie is finally completely clicking. It's a wonderful sequence and a good way to close out the film on a high.
But the sequel sacrifices the best aspect of the original movie: the character of Thor. Whereas most superhero origin movies are about ordinary humans who must learn to be heroes, Thor had the unique advantage of being about a powerful hero who had to learn how to be human. Thor had an interesting arc in the first movie, and Chris Hemsworth's performance as the brash and arrogant demigod who was humbled turned him into a movie star overnight. Thor: The Dark World doesn't give Thor any such arc. Hardly anyone changes at all as a character in this movie -- there's just a bunch of stuff that happens, loosely tied together by a filmsy plot. Some emotional beats are recycled from the first movie, dulling their impact. The relationship between Thor and his brother Loki undergoes some changes (Loki being the closest the movie has to a dynamic character this time around), but even those developments have a tendency to become undone by comic book magic.
While Hemsworth is as charming as ever in the sequel, Thor practically ends up taking a back seat in his own movie. There are just too many other plots and characters to service. The movie is overstuffed and, as a result, can't see characters and plot threads through to where they need to go. It has no idea what to do with Sif and the Warriors Three, and the film is lesser for their absence. Sif in particular.
Some of the comic relief also proves problematic. Lightness has been an overall strength of the Marvel movie universe -- the movies know how to balance funny moments with genuine thrills, and never get bogged down in heavy self-seriousness. The Dark World is no different, offering a couple of really solid laughs (my favorite is when Thor deadpan responds "Space is fine.") and plenty of goofy fun. But now the comic beats butt up somewhat uncomfortably against the movie's more serious moments, making it feel like there are two movies going on at the same time. It doesn't help that the film is overcrowded with characters who exists just to be comic relief. And like with this summer's Iron Man 3, the movie makes the mistake of undercutting it's strongest dramatic moment by following it immediately up with jokes.
So the movie feels thin on substance, but when evil elves are flying spaceships around the mystical realm of Asgard and firing lasers at a demigods, it's hard not to give yourself over to the goofy energy. As a longtime comic book reader, it's one thing to be rewarded with a movie in which Spider-Man swings around New York. It's quite another to be rewarded with a movie that doubles down on the cosmic fantasy that once seemed only possible in the pages of Marvel's finest. Thor: The Dark World is only possible because Marvel has built towards the moment in which audiences would accept a movie this nerdy. That's worth getting excited over, even when much of the movie isn't.