Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (2013) – Review

Review: Thor: The Dark World is a joyously entertaining sci-fi adventure film, proving that with Phase II Marvel has its stride, making great superhero films. The film is about a nefarious plot by the Dark Elves to cloud the Nine Worlds in total darkness. It is up to Thor, Dr. Jane Foster, and the Warriors Three (plus Sif) to stop them and thereby save the worlds.

Continuing the trend of The Avengers and Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World comes off extremely entertaining due to the great mixing of action, comedy, and drama. Director Alan Taylor brings grittiness to the film, but still keeps the overall tone on the lighter side (fitting with Marvel’s cinematic style). This would seem like a difficult task, the grittiness of the film clashing with the lighter tone. However, Taylor is able to find a good balance by keeping the spirit of the characters light (and jovial) and then plunging them into more serious dramatic situations. Thus, there is gravity to what is happening; there are real consequences for the characters, and yet there is still a place for levity.

Taylor also does a great job with his characters. The levity does a lot in this respect too. The audience is enchanted by the lighter, funnier character moments leading them to really like these characters (building off their feelings coming into this film based on the previous Marvel films). The audience is more-or-less invested in these characters coming in, but the great fun character moments only amplifies that positive feeling towards them, which then leads to drama that resonates to a higher extent. And this is really where Thor: The Dark World excels over its predecessor. The audience actually cares about these characters, and not just about the big action set pieces.

Staying with the humor in the film, it is not explicitly clear which scenes Joss Whedon came in to punch-up, but one can assume he likely brought some of the wonderful funny character moments. This might be the funniest of the Marvel films to date (though, The Avengers has its moments, as does Robert Downey Jr. across the Iron Man movies). Even though the mandate for Phase II has seemed to be taking the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a darker place after the events of The Avengers – the stakes have certainly been raised – Taylor and Whedon have remembered that humor is essential in this type of film (even if the overall tone is heavier). It allows the audience to catch their breath amongst all the drama and action (which, I have said over and over, is vital) and only heightens the overall enjoyment of the experience. After all, the main goal of these films is to entertain.

The visual style is also brilliant. Kenneth Branagh (the director of Thor) set up the style of Asgard, but Taylor takes it to another level. Thor: The Dark World feels more epic, like a combination of The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones (which is exactly what Marvel wanted when they hired Taylor) with sci-fi overtones, which seems to fit the character perfectly. While Iron Man 3 took on the persona of a 1990s action movie, Thor: The Dark World visually and tonally became much more an adventure epic (and Captain America: The Winter Soldier looks like a good spy thriller). It is nice to see each character find his place and appropriate tone/style, while still feeling apart of the same bigger universe.

The only downside of the film is that the main villain is a bit under developed. Malekith is basically just a generic revenge-driven enemy from the past (which we have never seen before in a Marvel film…oh wait…forgot about almost every villain so far). The villain here, though, is secondary (as is the general plot, which is also rather generic). The main point of this film seems to be the further development of the principal characters (prominently focusing on Thor’s relationships with those around him – Jane, Loki, Odin, and Sif). Malekith is just an enemy that brings all of them together, escalating the fiction in their relationships. So while he is utterly forgettable, the characters the audience do care about grow and change. Malekith is just the catalyst. However, a weak villain has been a complaint in many of the Marvel films, with really only Loki rising to the heights of the great bad guys seen in other superhero films (Magneto, Dr. Octopus, the Joker, and Bane). Loki’s presence in the film also takes away from Malekith. Loki is a fan-favorite, so well played, and very charismatic. It is impossible for another villain to seem as engaging or substantial when Loki is also in the film.

Throughout Phase I, Marvel Studios proved that they could make entertaining, fun superhero films, but until The Avengers (and really, that film only becomes amazing in the third act with the battle of New York) they had struggled to replicate the overall quality of the top tier films in the genre. Iron Man 3 and now Thor: The Dark World see them one step closer: entertainment that is also dramatically engaging and aesthetically compelling. Thor: The Dark World if nothing else is a highly entertaining sci-fi adventure fantasy romp, but for those delighted by the genre (as I am) it offers a rich visual style, great characters, exciting action, and maybe best of all infectious laughs.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Alan Taylor is best known for directing episodes of many of the best series on television (notably: Deadwood, Rome, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones – being one of that show’s principal technicians during the first two seasons). With Thor: The Dark World, he shows his ability to bring a strong sense of visual style to a film and franchise that is already impressive. These are the same characters we have seen before, but in this film they just feel bigger and their world grander. Should there be a Thor 3, I hope Taylor returns to helm it.

Scoring this film must have been a very enjoyable gig, composing pieces of music for what is basically a heroic poem (or at least the modern pop-culture version of a heroic poem). Brian Tyler delivers a great score that booms and thunders (sure, maybe I could have been more creative, but those puns were just sitting there), entirely fitting the tone and visuals. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (who came onto the project with Taylor from Game of Thrones) also does great work. The lighting in the film is excellent, giving it a look that while feeling somewhat gritty and realistic on Earth (though still with a certain fantasy glean) absolutely pops when the narrative finds itself in the other worlds. Working hand-in-hand with Charles Wood’s brilliant production design, the photography gives each world its own style and feel. The design in grandiose and beautiful (and on par with the best fantasy films), but the lighting just adds this great grittiness that seems to emphasis everything as being much more vital. All in all, it is a very strong film aesthetically (probably more so than was to be expected – but that said, there is more to play with in Thor than other Marvel films stuck on Earth).

In addition to the wonderful visuals, the performances in Thor: The Dark World are fantastic. The film has a ton of characters, most appearing in smaller supporting roles. The best among them belong to Chris Evans, Chris O’Dowd, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings (these four all provide hilarious moments), Idris Elba (who seems to bring weight to everything he does), Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, and Jaimie Alexander (these three play Asgards other notably warriors and are a lot of fun). Christopher Eccleston plays Malekith, the leader of the Dark Elves. While he does not really have much to do, he does bring a great seriousness and calm to his villain. He is not theatrical or big in his performance (which is often the way villains are played). Malekith is not even so much evil, just determined (his villainy arising from his ideas opposing those of our hero). Anthony Hopkins plays Odin (Thor’s father) with the weathered, battle hardened edge of an aging leader, and it works well (and is right in his wheelhouse). Natalie Portman has maybe the most difficult role in the film. As Dr. Jane Foster, she must play the typical love interest needing rescuing at some point, but she also sort of escapes that stereotype by really being a big part of the solution as well, rather than just one of the many things for the hero to save. Portman does a good job playing the wonder of Asgard and the strength/charm/goofiness that won her Thor to begin with. Tom Hiddleston steals the film as Loki. He just has such a gleeful love of himself and his own villainy. Every scene he is in is better for it (and it is easy to see why he is a fan favorite). It is a shame his great work will never get any critical recognition come awards season. Chris Hemsworth embodies Thor completely; when you see him, you see the character. What else can one ask from a performance?

Summary & score: With its eighth, Thor: The Dark World, Marvel’s films seem to only be getting better. 8/10

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