Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thur: The Durk Wurld

Thor: The Dark World may not have been a very good movie. As far as act structures, assemblage, pacing, and general flow, it may well be the least technically proficient film of the year, at least story-wise. As something quite else though, The Dark World stands up as possibly the most faithfully "comic"-esque comic book film ever made.

What the first Thor film had in passing, The Dark World has in spades. The magical realm of Asgard, seen as mere bookends for an Avengers-preparing second act, has been expanded into a gigantic, sprawling medieval-meets-sci-fi-meets-Wonderland kingdom. The technology is utterly bizarre, with stone spaceships and space guns and space bazookas (guh?) and all kinds of bizarre quasi-mythological imagery setting the stage for more hammy, classical over-acting from the likes of Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and Anthony Hopkins (who I frequently forget isn't Jeff Bridges when not talking. Oh, Jeff Bridges is in this fi- oh right it's Anthony Hopkins. I don't know why I think that. I also don't know why I thought Tom Hiddleston's name was Tom Middleton).

Scenes set on Earth in the first Thor film took place in New Mexico, a groundless expand of desert, housing silly, small streets on which an entire town is situated. In the new Thor, London (and later Greenwich) are the major locations back on Midgard (that's Thor speak for "teh earthz" just btdubs). The scope is expanded to more than a single block of land and it just feels... bigger, and more alive. The whole film feels far more like it takes place in a universe, instead of a series of sound stages. There are huge battles with hundreds of soldiers with swords and shields, and there are singular fights with big bad villain types, and they all absolutely feel genuinely "epic," and I say that in the literal sense, not in the "omg so epic i luv thur" sense. Well. Maybe a little in that sense.

But I think what really strikes me as just great about Thor: The Dark World is that it absolutely lets nothing hold it back. Every design; every costume, every weapon, every spaceship and every creature, is absolutely well-realized, and yet... less cohesive than ever. It's a random melting pot of all kinds of bright, daft, loud things, from doll-faced synthetic soldiers to Star Wars-esque fighter ships to big old rock beasties to flying gondolas and pseudo (read: not) science. It is all more coherent than Man of Steel, surprisingly - every shot is held still, for the most part, and you can see what is happening, and you understand what is happening on the screen, which is somehow a lot to ask of modern cinema.

Thor is there, and Loki is there, and Natalie Portman is there, and Odin is there. Also, Thor's merry band of rogues is there (trying their level best to not be the Followship of the Ring), and some scientist man in his underpants is there, and Idris Elba is there (he punches a spaceship and it's actually really cool) and Natalie Portman's friend is there. It is all broadstrokes character portrayals, though. There's nothing deep, there's nothing to uncover, or explore. There aren't even any shocking twists, save for one big reveal in particular that is completely ancillary to the actual plot. They're cartoon characters - comic book characters, one might aptly generalize - painted with a wide brush and given a lot of room to be goofy. Is it refreshing? Sure. Does it preclude the film from being in any way meaningful? Absolutely. The film is throwaway popcorn entertainment, and even though it is undoubtedly well-made, with a tight production and stellar visuals and great performances, it does not come close to being a character study. It is an opera, not a play.

The villain (played by Christopher Eccleston) is a ancient Dark Elf with glowing red evil eyes, who wants a mystical dark power to destroy the universe, which is stuck inside Natalie Portman because she wandered off and touched a stone pillar and unleashed it into her bloodstream. That old chestnut, right? And... that's the plot, I suppose. He has an army of doll-faced weirdos, and a henchman who is a big helmeted alien bastard that sucks the souls out of people or something. There's a lot of lore, and it is laid on far thicker than any Marvel film to date. It's kind of presumed, I suppose, that people know what World War II is, and they know what reclusive billionaires are, and superscience gone mad is just kind of a given. The Asgardian realms, though - the nine realms, bound by the universe or something - are at the core of the plot, and it's not only painstakingly explained, it is desperately lost on the audience. Charmingly, the film shrugs off most responsibilities by the climax with a "whatever, it looks cool" attitude. But if I had to make a strike against the film is that there is a lot more babble that is told than needs to be. Just show it, guys! Maybe make an offhand remark. No need to get not-Jeff Bridges to expose so much.

The Dark World is a pretty face, make no doubt about that. Saturated with colour and contrast, The Dark World is more vibrant than its namesake would have you believe. Deep blues, greens, reds and blacks are abound, free from any kind of obnoxious brown-grey filter or attempts at "grit". And it is varied, too! Besides the titular Dark World, there are all kinds of places, planets, realms, and other such locations which Thor and his companions travel to. It feels more and more like a space opera - thus making Star Wars comparisons completely apt - and there's a richness to the preceding that makes them inherently entertaining. It is light-hearted, it is big and bright, and it has fun with itself, even in its more somber moments.

It might not be a great film, or even a good film. It is well shot, very well acted, and the action scenes really let themselves breathe. The climax in particular finds a dumb excuse in which to throw people around between realms and planets, and it had me smiling from ear to ear just due to the creativity and the insistence on not letting things like normality and physics get in the way. It is silly, and yet, not stupid - the film knows its strengths, and the strengths of the characters it has to play with, and it plays with them very well indeed. The film is never grating, or boring, and I think many people will be absolutely won over by its unbridled, unabashed freedom to just be Thor. At some points it even starts to feel like some kind of old-school Doctor Who episode; not just cos of the "aliens attack London" stuff, but just in terms of sheer cheese. I may be in love with it for it.

The vibe of classic 80s fantasies like Masters of the Universe are very much alive in this Thor series, amplified by tenfold for being set in an ever-expanding comic book universe that I honestly can't say is suffering from diminishing returns in the slightest. A lot of the phase one Avengers films felt very, very similar - conversely, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World play nothing like each other. They keep similar tones, perhaps - cheeky, funny, and larger-than-life - but the genres are completely separate (Iron Man 3 being a technopunk spy thriller for a good chunk of its middle half). And yet, they are not dissonant, and they all fit together rather well. Pleasingly, there are really entertaining, and surprising, cameos to be had in The Dark World, and despite the disparage of the genre and the scope, there's no mistaking that this is absolutely a sequel to both Thor, and to The Avengers.

At the end of the day, Thor: The Dark World is as entertaining as Marvel films have ever been, possibly moreso. It is pretty, it is big, it is loud, but it is also extremely relaxed and... "loose," perhaps, is a good word. Loose, and relaxed - not just about its world and its characters, but about its storytelling and its cohesion. Critics are quite right to criticize such things. The Dark World has not a singular purpose or vision, opting instead to present, free from restrictions, a giant, nonsensical wonderland of silly, weird, alien gods. Don't go for quality storytelling - go for decent filmmaking, a bunch of actors visibly having a ton of fun being allowed to be as hammy as they damn well can (even Natalie Portman!), and go for an excelling example of a modern popcorn action-adventure movie. And go, perhaps most importantly, to remind yourself that, for all the familiarity, there's a reason Marvel is leading the charge against DC in the movie department - they let themselves be entertaining. 

In closing, then, I guess all I have to say is this:

i liek thur