The original Thor was a timid movie made by a timid studio, still uncertain how fantastical they could make their superhero spectacles lest audiences revolt. That's why the title character -- a godlike being who hails from the otherworldly realm of Asgard -- spent so much time on boring old Earth, where he engaged in lots of lame fish-out-of-water comedy, middling action set-pieces that all seemed to occur in the same three-block radius of a fake, set-bound town and a chemistry-free romance with a visibly bored female lead. So whatever its flaws, Thor: The Dark World leaps and bounds over its predecessor simply due to the fact that it embraces, rather than runs from, its fantasy origins. Much like Thor himself, Marvel has matured since their early days (banking more than $600 million on an unprecedented superhero team-up movie helps with the growing-up process) and is now more willing to take chances, trusting that audiences are with them for the long haul.
To make their first full-fledged fantasy movie, the studio wisely went out and hired a director with some experience in fantasy… albeit of the small-screen variety. Game of Thrones veteran Alan Taylor takes over the director's chair vacated by Kenneth Branagh and the change is immediately felt in the texture that the newcomer packs into the frame, a welcome change from the sterility of the previous movie. Working on a television budget (although, to be fair, Game of Thrones has more money to play with per-episode than your average network series -- that's one of the benefits of doing business with HBO) has trained Taylor to focus on the little details rather than dwelling so much on sweeping backdrops and lavish sets, as it's those details that will ultimately make your fantasy universe feel richer. And this time around, Asgard really does resemble a living, breathing world, as opposed to a depopulated soundstage that the movie occasionally cuts away to from its equally inauthentic New Mexico sets.
It's nice to see that the characters have more texture as well. (Well, the leads do anyway; the supporting cast still largely consists of wooden pieces of scenery that are occasionally referred to by name and get to say a line or two.) Although Thor (Chris Hemsworth) isn't suffering from PTSD like his superhero buddy Tony Stark, the events of The Avengers have affected him: since the Battle of New York, he's got a stronger sense of what he wants out of his long, long existence and it isn't necessarily what All-Father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) wants for him. Over the course of his two outings in the suit, Hemsworth has cultivated an onscreen authority that commands attention, while also deploying a formidable deadpan that keeps Thor from coming across as too much of a stoic grump. Much of that humor is deployed in service of his clumsy attempts at romance with Natalie Portman's good-at-her-job, bad-at-relationships scientist Jane, a relationship that felt strained and forced in the first movie, but finds a modicum of charm here. While I still wish that Jane was the type of character whose actions actually affected the narrative as opposed to waiting around until the narrative affects her, at least both actors fully embrace the idea that these characters are, at heart, just a pair of young dorks in love. (In that way, it's the most geek-friendly romance currently going in the Marvel cinematic universe, with Thor coming across like the kind of nerd who would propose to his girlfriend in the San Diego Comic-Con's Hall H.)
Speaking of geek love, it shouldn't be a huge surprise that fan favorite Loki (Tom Hiddleston) walks away with The Dark World, completing his three-movie evolution from minor villain to beloved bad boy. In fact, the movie really could have been subtitled The Redemption of Loki, as Hiddleston's arc allows him to still be the wily mischief-maker, but in service of a more noble cause than his own thirst for power. (He also suffers a moment of personal tragedy here that will doubtless increase his Internet woobie-factor tenfold.) What's so amusing about Hiddleston's performance -- particularly since his onscreen dad is played by Anthony Hopkins -- is his giddy recognition that Loki has become the Thor-verse equivalent of Hannibal Lecter… minus the cannibalism, of course. He's the intensely charismatic outlaw who will work with you until such time as it behooves him to work against you. Even then though, he retains a nobility and general good humor that more brutality-minded bad guys -- be they Buffalo Bill or Thanos -- lack. Much like the Lecter, don't be surprised if Loki eventually seizes control of the franchise and becomes its dark-hearted hero, while Thor (like Clarice Starling before him) serves as mere back-up.
It's a good thing that Taylor and the cast have such a firm grasp on the micro details, because on a macro-level, The Dark World just barely hangs together. The patchwork narrative finds the universe's existence threatened by destruction-happy Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who is intent on taking advantage of a once-in-5000-years opportunity to destroy not only Thor's homeworld, but the eight other realms as well… including Earth. Accomplishing that, however, requires that he obtain a weaponized substance that has conveniently taken up residence in Jane's body, which demands her immediate removal to Asgard for further investigation. Malekith subsequently launches a devastating sneak attack on the city and Thor retaliates by devising a risky plan (the first step of which involves springing Loki from his Lecter-like jail cell) that temporarily brands him as a traitor and, worse still, fails miserably, putting victory within the villain's grasp. The assorted forces of good and evil then reconvene on Earth -- in London, this time -- for one of Marvel's patented, explosion-happy finales where much public property is destroyed as the heroes eke out a win.
You've heard of the Marvel Method as it relates to the company's comic book line? (They do still publish those things, right?) Well, the film division has established its own Method in the run-up to The Avengers, and they're secure enough in its effectiveness to allow for minor deviations, like Shane Black's playful subversion of Tony Stark's iron-clad alter ego (to say nothing of his nemesis, the Mandarin) in the first half of Iron Man 3 or Taylor's engaging flair for fantasy here. In the end, though the house style always wins out over these more personal visions, with the films settling into an agreeable, if increasingly predictable groove of three big set-pieces (one in the first fifteen minutes, one mid-way through and one at the end) interspersed with bits of fan service, humorous asides and the occasional setback and/or death to spur the hero forward.
And the Marvel Movie Method, as it exists now, generally does result in diverting blockbusters that derive much of their charm from an upbeat tone, smart casting choices and immensely likable characters. But I'm still waiting for it to produce a comic book movie that has a real story to tell -- a plot with some dramatic and thematic meat on its bones like Spider-Man 2 (which, while starring a Marvel character, was made by a different studio and set of creative types), the Hellboy pictures or The Dark Knight. Certainly, Loki aside (and even he's more effective as the smirking, tricksy rogue he plays in The Dark World rather than the world-conquering invader persona he adopted in the The Avengers or the jealous, backstabbbing brother he portrayed in the original Thor), one of the key elements that those movies possess that Marvel's output has lacked so far is a compelling, memorable villain, a problem that persists here as Eccleston's Malekith is little more than a punching bag for Thor to hit -- and hit back -- over and over again. I'm hopeful that the studio's next effort, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, becomes the studio's transformative movie, since the early trailers have teased a film in the vein of '70s paranoid thrillers like Three Days of the Condor (complete with a Robert Redford cameo!) or The Parallax View that thrived on intricately-crafted and surprisingly resonant narratives. For now though, the idea of a truly great -- as opposed to mostly good -- Marvel movie remains a fantasy.
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