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This is so unlike you, brother. So... clandestine. Are you sure you wouldn't rather punch your way out?

Thor: The Dark World
(2013)

(SPOILERS) Thor came in for a few brickbats from devout Marvelites, most of whom seem much happier with this grunged-up sequel. I enjoyed both movies, but I have a feeling (not being particularly au fait with the comic book character) that this one might be the best the studio can come up with in making a success of a not-particularly-interesting character with a not-particularly-interesting backstory and a not-particularly-interesting setting. In theory, Thor should be very different; the Norse legends lend themselves to myth and murk and majesty and mystery, but there’s very little of that in this Marvelised incarnation.


Maybe it was just the compromised take on the source material that fans weren’t on board with in the first Thor. Marvel (understandably, although perhaps they should have been less concerned in the wake of the success of Lord of the Rings) thought Thor would be a tough sell to even superhero-prone audiences; A Norse god living on an alien world? That’s a far thing from the Earth bound familiarity of 90% of superhero movies. The solution? Bring Thor to Earth for much of the action. The lack of Asgard, and its plastic depiction, didn’t go down all that well, but the Masters of the Universe fish-out-of-water approach actually worked. The character they were most concerned about became a hit movie (although nothing of the order of Iron Man). The same year saw the release of the inferior, rather dull really, Captain America: The First Avenger; I don’t think Thor made $80m worldwide more than Cap because of anti-American sentiments (we wouldn’t voraciously consume their movies if that were true); it was simply because Thor was more accessible, and had a much-needed sense of humour that was absent from the largely flaccid and earnest First Avenger. The Dark World has already out-grossed its predecessor, although it looks to be another case of international appeal far exceeding homegrown success (something also seen earlier this year with The Wolverine).


So is The Dark World more accomplished than its predecessor? Most certainly, although it’s probably also true that Sir Ken’s movie has a more distinct personality. If The Dark World mostly ditches Earth (and mostly returns to it to the detriment of satisfactory plotting) it carries over the sense of humour that was the original’s best feature. In Thor, I was most surprised how well Branagh rose to the challenge of blockbuster spectacle. This was a guy who reduced me to helpless mirth when I witnessed his diarrhoetic camerawork in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Dead Again is similarly over-directed). He’s calmed down a little since then. His version of Asgard may be strewn with Dutch angles but the action is staged tolerably; it gives me hope for the Jack Ryan reboot (I’m still sceptical that one will stack up in story terms, however).  


The Dark World has Alan Taylor calling the shots, and he might be the most technically assured pair of hands to helm a Marvel movie yet. The studio doesn’t really seem to want directors who draw attention to themselves stylistically; it’s the superhero who is the star, not the helmer. In that sense, Joss Whedon is probably the ideal “showrunner”; he can punch up the dialogue, clarify the plotting, but as a director he is serviceably workmanlike. He has little in the way of flair, and even now his vision comes by way of a TV studio. Shane Black may be gifted writer, and has proven himself to be a more than competent director, but he is still most definitely a director second. And Taylor comes from a long spell in TV (with a couple of inconspicuous big screen credits). He is malleable, and his work for HBO, and Game of Thrones in particular, marked him out as someone who could handle big budgets and action spectacle. His staging here is impeccable, but he’s not a showy director. When he pulls off a tour de force shot, it’s very much calculated to stand out. That’s to distinguish him from, say, Zach Snyder, who treats every scene or composition as if it’s the movie’s climax. Time will tell if Taylor turns out to be another Rob Bowman, whose striking work on The X-Files bought him a ticket to the features. Unfortunately, a couple of duds later and he’s back on a Castle diet (unlike his star Nathan Fillion).


And unlike Shane Black, who steered both the script and directed his Marvel movie this year, Taylor is subject to a screenplay with no less than five credited writers (and that’s excluding the obligatory Whedon polish). Maybe it’s a too many cooks thing, but the movie’s MacGuffin is its least interesting part. Well, the MacGuffin and the villain. The Dark Elf Malekith (Chris Eccleston, who barely fookin’ nuts anyone; certainly not in a tasty manner) rises from his slumber to gain control of the Aether (unfortunately not a pint of the raw stuff favoured by Raoul Duke; on the Hunter S Thompson scale, this is closer to the definition favoured by Nikola Tesla). It’s one of those all-powerful magical devices/substances that can be used to gain dominion over/destruction of the whole universe, and with an appropriated name to give it a bit of heft (this isn’t something they just came up with on the spur of the moment, you know).


There’s also an alignment of the Nine Realms going on, the Convergence (another familiar-sounding term), helpfully ensuring that portals between worlds suddenly start popping up all over the place. This would be grist to the mill if there was a compelling villain behind it all, but Malekith is completely uninteresting. And Eccleston is no more commanding than in his previous flirtation with Hollywood villainy (the first G.I. Joe). The formulaic nature of the plot is in sharp contrast to the delightful inventiveness of Iron Man Three. Natalie Portman’s Jane is shoehorned in, discovering and being infected by the Aether, and the writers make heavy weather of the reintroductions and continuity required to integrate her last encounter with loverman Thor and the events of Avengers. Worse are the attempts to explain the scientific gobbledegook (nonsense science? Non-science?) underpinning the plot; you can practically hear the audience zoning out during those scenes. Unlike the first movie, where most of the best stuff happens on Earth, here the cuts back are ham-fisted and unnecessary; they have to be there because the recurring characters need to come back, rather than because it serves the story.


I’d seen comments that Jane is well used in The Dark World, but I wouldn’t go that far. Portman gets a few humourous moments (“I’m… not a goat”) and I briefly thought Jane might not just be dangerously infected by the Aether but also get properly possessed and evil (maybe even start getting a bit sexy with it?) No such luck, and her romance with Thor continues to be somewhat tepid. It isn’t objectionable or anything, but there isn’t any real spark there.


Kat Dennings returns as Jane’s kooky friend Darcy, and she’s as delicious as she was first time out. But her character really has very little business being in the movie, and her relationship with “intern’s intern” Ian (Jonathan Howard) results in some rather laboured comedy. Most of the laughs in the movie are good ones but with Ian and Darcy, theirs is purely a comedy subplot struggling to justify itself (I was a bit miffed at the developing romance too, truth be told). The other intentionally whacky scenarios are more successful; Chris O’Dowd’s would-be suitor of Jane goes for obvious chuckles, but O’Dowd (despite recent over-exposure) makes Richard appealing and personable and if nothing else sets up an amusing “jealous Thor” routine (it might have been even more fun if the writers could have manoeuvred the god to intrude on a date between Richard and Jane, but this picture hasn’t the time to stop still). Then there’s Stellan Skarsgård, now in full-on mad comedy scientist mode as Erik Selvig following Avengers; his scenes are entertaining, be it running naked around Stonehenge or postulating scientific theories to fellow inmates at a loony bin (including Stan Lee). If much of the attention to continuity seems a bit wanky, and will likely become even more acute as the Marvel Universe expands, The Dark World is mercifully SHIELD-lite. A particular relief, since their TV series is so shitty.


Much has happened in the careers of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston in the two years since Thor came out (it seems like much longer) and this is the third movie in as many years where they essay these characters. They’re accordingly accomplished, and their repartee and chemistry is one of The Dark World’s prize assets. Both relish the chance to extract every ounce of humour from Thor and Loki. Loki is a gift in that regard, but it’s still the smooth confidence of Hiddleston that makes the character sing. There’s a point, following his release, where the succession of one-liners he’s adorned with become almost an embarrassment as it’s so clear he’s a better character than Thor in every respect. Such is the fate of great villains and anti-heroes.


And it says something that Hemsworth is able to make appealing a character that Loki rightly regards as a muscle-bound dolt. It can’t be coincidental that the best gags, as with the first film, see Thor interacting with the 21st Century Earth; taking a trip on the tube, or hanging his hammer politely on a coat hook (I know, I said the Earth scenes were redundant, but they do include many of the lbest laughs). Talking of hulking loons, there's a great little Captain America cameo (reportedly written by Whedon) that reminds you Chris Evans is a funny charismatic guy away from the bland clean cut Steve Austin.


Thor also receives some proper character development, even if it’s largely in the form of pronouncements; he has come to terms with his place in the world and he’s much better off not being king. This might not be earth shattering but, stood alongside the Star Trek Into Darkness reset, it comes across as positively deep. Arguably, making Loki a “good guy” is the kind of predictable decision that confirms this as nuts-and-bolts rather than inspirational storytelling. But at least they provide some believable stakes and don’t pussy out with him. The illusion stuff may end up being telegraphed, but it managed to deceive me during the most important moments (Thor losing his hand). Nevertheless, there are so many switcheroos that you begin to expect them after a while; they need to be used judiciously or they lose their power. The climax virtually guarantees a Loki-Thor showdown for Thor 3, whenever that may be (and if Odin’s not there, it won’t really be such a loss).


Lessened impact is also a problem with the picture’s climax in London (I was only surprised the scene-setting subtitle didn’t include “England”). Like the Star Trek Into Darkness finale, this is one climax too many; they really should have sorted out Malekith on Svartalfheim. The fight through portals between Thor and the Elf surely looked good on paper, and it’s a neat visual idea, but it doesn’t translate dramatically. It isn’t narratively sustained or suitably creative, so it loses steam (just get on with it). And because Malekith is such a non-entity we’re only invested because we’re told we should be. By this point Loki has left the picture, and with him its drive. I can’t really blame Eccleston for Malekith; he’s not got much to work with, and being asked to speak in an invented language isn’t going to do much for your screen presence (it’s all very Klingon). Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is similarly afflicted as Algrim.


As for the designs of elves and Kursed, and the planets and Asgard in general, the visuals are accomplished effects-wise but also unmemorable. This is software house world building as a routine, and no number of actual settings (Iceland) to suggest substance can banish (indeed it just encourages) the feeling that we’ve seen this all before. The unfortunate truth of employing someone to give that Game of Thrones sensibility to Thor is that it ends up mimicking Game of Thrones, just in more extravagant and spectacular fashion (and with less gore and tits). None of it is bad, and conceptually the science fiction element married to mythology is appealing. But it invites déjà vu, right down to the spaceships raiding George Lucas’ sound effects department. Taylor has dirtied Asgard up as instructed, but the palette is generally unimpressive – this could be any post-LOTR fantasy domain.


Perhaps the director would have been more experimental if he weren’t working to instruction. I doubt it, though. As noted, Taylor’s approach is precise and methodical. The slow motion sequence where Thor takes a chunk out of Malekith dazzles, and shows that Taylor knows just how to achieve that kind of thing if he wants to, but I suspect he just wants to be a good storyteller. Which makes it a shame The Dark World’s is merely so-so. Taylor received a bit of attention a while back for voicing his disappointment that Carter Burwell was pushed off the picture, to be replaced by a more generic Brian Tyler score. I really liked Tyler’s score on Iron Man Three, so I can understand why Marvel thought he was a safe bet, but I’m hard-pressed to recall anything about this one and couldn’t 10 minutes after leaving the cinema. Marvel need to watch themselves with this fixation on seeing something that works and then shamelessly repeating it. The natty end titles showing stylised images from the film was a nice touch in IM3, so why risk too much of a good thing by repeating it here?


There’s been a fair amount of talk regarding a potential Director’s Cut in the weeks since the picture’s release, not least from Taylor itself. I suspect pigs might fly (we never saw the much-discussed Ed Norton-approved version of The Incredible Hulk, nor the longer Whedon cut of Avengers). It’s very obvious why this is getting attention, though. Tonally the picture is almost abrasive in its ethos of charging ahead regardless of whether it is narratively or emotionally coherent. My concern was first piqued by the suddenness with which Algrim arrives in Asgard, as if a whole exchange or sequence had been lopped out. But this is as nothing to the undercut moments of pathos. I think we can safely assume Marvel, rather than Taylor, don’t want to allow the picture time to breathe duriing all-important moments. The result is that it occasionally comes across as slightly obnoxious.


Something is off in the speed with which the funeral of Frigga (Rene Russo, and a most unfortunate name) is accomplished (the very next scene after she dies). The same thing happens later, when Loki “snuffs it” and suddenly it’s gag city as Thor arrives back on Earth. This is why the hammer-on-a-hook moment isn’t quite effective as it should be; it’s jarring. One might also argue the tonal shift telegraphs that Loki isn’t dead by brushing over it so lightly (but Thor doesn’t know that, so what’s his excuse). There are other aspects that may or may not have been clarified in a less truncated version, such as the powers of these dudes. Why does Frigga die but Loki survive (he was faking it? If so it needs clarification)? Aside from these areas, I’m not wholly persuaded by Taylor’s argument for extension. I’m very doubtful that more screen time for Malekith would suddenly make him a “fantastic” character. Or that the kids exploring the portal properties would be compelling (what, were the producers seduced by Attack the Block?)


Most of the supporting players get short shrift. Unfortunately there’s more than enough of (Sir) Anthony Hopkins, who can be even less arsed than he was first time out. Idris Elba’s increased profile sees him rewarded with a neat action scene where he leaps on a spaceship. But Jaimie Alexander and Ray Stevenson barely register. I’d completely forgotten Russo was in the first movie, so at least she’s memorably written out of this one.


I dutifully stayed for the double bill of credits scenes. During the final one, with Thor visiting Jane on Earth, I was willing a reveal of Loki masquerading as the hammer-wielder, but no such luck. The Guardians of the Galaxy “teaser” left zero impression narratively (something about blah blah stones) but I love Benicio Del Toro’s preening, fright-wigged performance. Whatever the hell it is he’s doing; he comes across like a fantasy movie version of Tommy Lee Jones’ Clay Shaw in JFK.


I really wasn't too fussed about The Dark World from the trailers (I wasn’t sold by those for Iron Man Three either), but the picture dares you not to have a good time. On one level my response was accurate, as this is one of those movies that satisfies without truly wowing. Taylor was definitely the right man for the job, but he is servicing a script so pre-packaged that even its many great moments fail to leave you elated or enervated in the manner Iron Man Three does.


***

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