Friday, May 13, 2016

Review: "Thor: The Dark World"

Well, I kept saying “I’ll get to that in the Review.” So it looks like I have a more than usual to discuss…. 

One of the reasons I don’t give movies or TV shows a concrete score is because of the X-factor; that little bit of the unquantifiable than can make a movie better or worse than it should be. Things that gel in unexpected ways that you can’t really account for. Things that turn a good movie into a great one. Or things that turn a terrible movie in to a so-bad-it’s-good movie.

And one of these things is the feel of a film; you can’t really quantify this, but you can just sort of feel when a movie feels right. Whether or not you get that nagging little feeling that something’s missing, but you don’t know what. And that’s part of why this movie doesn’t work for me; it just feels like something’s not quite right.

But in order to narrow down the cause, I’ll need to discuss two of my main problems with this movie.

The LotR-Lookalike Problem
The Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest film trilogies of all time. Not only did it fairly successfully adapt a book series that was long thought to be impossible to adapt, but it had an amazingly detailed visual style that still influences fantasy to this very day.

And that’s both a blessing and a curse for fantasy these days.

While the stunning visual design of The Lord of the Rings showed how to keep things from looking like a Renaissance Fair put to film, fantasy started to run the risk of looking pretty same-y. Suddenly, everybody was wearing ornately-detailed armor and every production was filming in somewhere like Scandinavia or New Zealand to get those beautiful natural landscapes.

Now, this is not inherently a bad thing. After all, it looks stunning. The problem comes when you fail to create a unique visual style. That’s when you take the turn into generic fantasy.

The first film was helped by the number of scenes set on either Earth or Jotunheim, and to be completely fair, this movie does a lot to give itself a distinct visual style when it comes to Asgard. The Asgardian architecture and armor hearkens back to some of the more Kirby-esque designs used in the Thor comics. And I’ll admit that lasers aren’t something you’d expect Tolkien’s elves to use.

But there are more than a few times when the visual design is a bit lacking. Svartalfheim looks like Mordor, the Aether’s prison looks like Moria, the Asgardian tavern looks like someplace where Strider would be hanging out in the corner, Vanaheim looks like it belongs somewhere near the Shire, and the Marauders look like they should be attacking Minas Tirith.

And that’s not to say that the visual design here is bad. Far from it; this movie is stunning to look at. And if you really like this movie’s visual design, I can’t really argue with you, since I think it’s gorgeous. But in my opinion, it lacks that last little oomph that gives it a unique look. And it certainly doesn’t help that there are parts that literally look like they were ripped from The Lord of the Rings.

Seriously, this is a dead ringer for Moria.
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems as though the solution to this problem would have been simple.

Begin the transition to science-fiction.

The first Thor film turned the Norse gods into advanced aliens. This way, it would be significantly easier to believe that they could exist in the same universe as Iron Man. So now that The Avengers has introduced more aliens in the form of Thanos and the Chitauri, why not add more straight-up aliens to the proceedings?

For example, what if the Marauders had included something like a few Space Marine-looking guys with energy blasters and maybe a Chitauri or two? Allegedly, there are a few Korbinites in the mix somewhere, but why not make their inclusion more evident? And sure, there’s a Kronan thrown in, but he wouldn’t look too out of place fighting wizards, would he?

And why are they all wearing armor that leaves them susceptible to an AK-47?
Man, a single guy with a gun would clean up in the Nine Realms.
I strongly feel that the Marauders should have had some members that look like they stepped out of Star Wars. It’s one thing for Asgard and Vanaheim to look like fantasy realms, but you’d think there’d be more variety to the aliens in the universe.

And on that note, you’d think that Vanaheim wouldn’t look so much like a generic European fantasy village. Maybe if it were on the outskirts of Asgard, but Vanaheim is its own different Realm altogether. Why shouldn’t it have its own distinct look? And I’ll go over Svartalfheim’s wasted potential in the next section.

My point is that they had so much opportunity to be creative, but they instead played it way too safe. And there’s a reason for that that I’ll get to after I talk about the Dark Elves.

The Dark Elves
I don’t hate the Dark Elves, as strange as that may sound. They serve their purpose of being a destructive force from the furthest reaches of creation which our heroes manage to overcome with guile and a few clever combat tricks.

One of my regular readers mentioned that perhaps the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 mantra of “It’s just a show, I should really just relax” might be applicable here. And I agree. To an extent.

Though it doesn’t really make sense, I can excuse things like the Dark Elves having eyeballs and different levels of pigmentation in their skin despite hailing from before the advent of light. The reason I’m so critical of the Dark Elves is that they had so much potential.

I mean, think about their core concept: They think light is an unnatural development. They’re not monsters, they’re not conquerors, and they don’t want to actually destroy anything. All they want is to, in their eyes, purify the universe of this electromagnetic poison and refill the universe with dark matter and dark energy.

This is filled with untapped potential.

1: Visuals
Imagine the visuals they could have created with that idea!

What if Svartalfheim were a world of Dark Matter orbiting a black hole, filled with decaying cities that couldn’t withstand the light? What if their weapons shot crackling bolts of Dark Energy instead of generic red lasers? Something like violet highlights could have made the blackness really pop and look visually distinct from anything else in the MCU.

Like how the Bifrost in the first film was inspired by Hubble pictures.
I’m not saying that this is 100% what they should have done instead, but I’m trying to illustrate how creative they could have been.

2: Shades of Grey
Having villains who ultimately thought of themselves as good guys could have done wonders to examine whether or not the Asgardians were always in the right. And it’s not like the seed of this wasn’t already in the movie.

Odin isn’t exactly portrayed as the wisest king out there, and he seems to really want to sit Thor’s butt on the throne. There could have been a very interesting theme of change vs. stagnation in the movie.

Think about it: Asgardian technology has barely changed since the time of Odin’s father, which is what allows the Dark Elves to stand a chance in Asgard. Odin wants to sit Thor’s butt on that throne and have him keep the peace from afar. While the Dark Elves represent change, Asgard represents stagnation. And Odin is a perfect example of this. Odin thinks that the status quo of the Nine Realms is perfectly fine, and only wants to keep things as they are. He sent Thor to “bring peace to the Nine Realms,” but Hogun was the one who stayed behind to rebuild Vanaheim. Odin only decided to help Jane after realizing that she was a threat to the Nine Realms. And after Malekith struck, his reaction was to shut down the Bifrost rather than go after Malekith. And think about Odin’s title of “Protector of Asgard.” He’s not there to help Asgard improve, he’s there to protect it from change.

This movie could have been an examination of two opposing sides, both with flawed ways of thinking. But in the end, the film defaulted to Odin simply being an old man and a fool while the Dark Elves were just a rehash of the Chitauri.

Now, I’m not saying that my ideas are super great and this movie sucks for not using them. I’m simply trying to illustrate how much room there was for creativity. This film could have been the sci-fi/fantasy blend that could have linked Thor into the expanded cosmic universe begun by The Avengers. This film could have been the logical progression of how Thor explained the Norse Gods as advanced aliens. This film could have represented the passing of the torch to Guardians of the Galaxy, instead of simply having a post-credits scene that clashed with the tone of the rest of the movie.

But that’s not what this movie was. It was nothing more than a passable sequel that did little to build on what was already established. And there’s a reason for that.

Lack of Passion
Thor had passionate people behind it. The Avengers had passionate people behind it. Thor: The Dark World most certainly did not. Mostly.

Alan Taylor, the director, was apparently happy with his work on the film (though I personally feel that he didn’t go far enough out of his Game of Thrones comfort zone). But his work seems to lack the creative attention to detail that helped make Thor so enjoyable. And then there’s Taylor’s anger over what happened to his movie in post-production. Apparently, against Taylor’s wishes, more focus was given to Loki at the expense of exploring Malekith’s character and Dark Elf culture in more depth. Which means that after Ivan Vanko, this is at least the second time that an interesting villain was turned into a generic baddie in post-production.

Remember that scene from the beginning of the film? As I mentioned earlier, it originated in a tie-in comic, but the production team liked it so much that they adapted it into the film. While it really is a good scene, this means that they added a scene that reiterates Loki’s character motivations at the expense of any scenes that give Malekith some much-needed depth.

But that’s not to say Malekith’s actor gave a hoot. Christopher Eccleston has admitted that his role was just a paycheck to him. And he wasn’t the only actor involved who couldn’t care less. Natalie Portman didn’t want to even do the movie after Patty Jenkins was fired as director, Idris Elba was depressed to be doing reshoots of an action scene after giving his all to play Nelson Mandela, and Anthony Hopkins has clearly grown tired of playing Odin. That’s a good number of main characters whose actors would rather not be there. And I can’t help but feel as though this comes across in the movie.

Heimdall and Odin are basically sleepwalking through this thing, Thor’s love interest barely has any chemistry with him and seems legitimately upset over being in the movie, and Christopher Eccleston emotes only slightly more than the Dark Elves’ masks.

Pictured: Malekith's only expression.
The lack of enthusiasm is practically tangible. Is it any wonder this film seems passionless?

I could talk about how convenient it is that Jane finds the Aether and wakes up Malekith during another Convergence. I could mention how much of a shame it is that the depths of Malekith’s motivation were cut. I could discuss that the movie ended up devolving into a basic Keep-the-MacGuffin-from-the-Villain-but-Then-He-Gets-it-Anyway plot. But this movie has two purposes in the long run.
  • Prepare Loki for the next film.
  • Build up the Aether as an Infinity Stone.
Jobs done, I guess.

Unlike other entries in the MCU, this film focused on the love story as part of the narrative, rather than just having it be there in the background, making it the odd one out in the MCU. Much like how Attack of the Clones is the odd one out in the Star Wars saga for the same reason. Unfortunately, the love story festers like a tumor from all the focus it gets.

The big question regarding their love story is whether or not they still love each other through all the time and distance spent apart. The answer is yes. The answer is obviously yes. And yet, the film tries to act as though Odin, Richard the Goober, Lady Sif, or Jane’s Aether-related demise might come between them. The answer is no. The answer is obviously no. And yet, that’s what drives the love story between these two characters with little chemistry, thanks to Natalie Portman’s reluctance to… well, act. It’s pretty telling when the most romantic kiss in the movie is done with Chris Hemsworth’s wife standing in as Jane.

I hate to say it, but this movie really shines when there isn’t any plot to speak of. The exciting action scenes and beautiful landscapes are more enjoyable than anything having to do with the Thor/Jane relationship or Malekith’s evil scheme.

As for the ongoing MCU narrative, the post-credits scene drops the bombshell that not only the Aether, but the Tesseract are both Infinity Stones, which has huge implications for the rest of the MCU’s ongoing plot. But since I’ve already gone on and on about this movie, I’ll save specifics for my Guardians of the Galaxy Recap, when the Infinity Stone plot actually becomes important.

But naming the Dark Elves’ Infinity Stone “the Aether” was a stroke of genius. In classical mythology, Aether was the invisible substance that filled the universe. Like dark matter, in a way. A perfect fit for the Dark Elves.

Jane Foster (Natalie Portman)

Jane seems very angry in this movie, even before she gets possessed by the Aether. I can’t help but think that this might have been some legitimate frustration over the whole ordeal showing itself.

But the character’s love of science shows up only in short bursts as the rest of her time is taken up by her romance plot with Thor, who she only really knew for a couple of days. Which I must say is not as interesting as actually giving Jane some character.

And it’s not like you can’t have a love interest be an interesting character in their own right. Look at Pepper Potts in the second or third Iron Man movies. She’s proactive; she’s doing stuff other than going on dates and waiting for something inside her to be fixed. Sure, Pepper has to have her Extremis problem taken care of, but she manages to defeat the main bad guy in the meantime.

Jane Foster, on the other hand, has to be led through this movie. Darcy drags her to some portals. Thor takes her to Asgard. Frigga takes her to safety. Thor takes her to Svartalfheim. Then Thor takes her to Earth. At no point is Jane ever making her own decisions, which is a far cry from the scientifically-obsessed woman who drove Thor to a S.H.I.E.L.D. base on an infiltration mission in the first film. Heck, Jane can’t even figure out what to eat until Richard mentions the sea bass.

"Geez, Jane. If that's what happens to female leads, I think I'll see if I can avoid showing up anymore."
Originally, she would have gone on a rampage in the final act when high on Aether, but this was cut out to streamline things. Meaning that her one big scene was completely cut.

Darcy (Kat Dennings)
Darcy is pretty much the same sarcastic source of comic relief that she was in the first film. Unfortunately, her lines aren’t as funny this time around, probably because she spends most of her time bullying her intern instead of interacting with Thor.

Good times.
Her interactions with Thor were one of the highlights of the first film, and I’m sad to see that this film has lost that spark, save for one line.

Darcy: “Look at you. Still all muscley and stuff. How’s space?”
Thor: “Space is fine.”

Ian (Jonathan Howard)
I don’t understand why this character even exists. Well, that’s not entirely true. With Erik having gone “banana balls” and Jane spirited away to Asgard, Darcy had to fill Jane’s role. And so, Ian was whipped up to fill Darcy’s role. And to give her a last-second love interest out of left field.

I can’t say I hate Ian, if only because he’s too bland to have any sort of effect on me. You could cut him out of the movie and lose nothing but a straight man for Darcy’s one-liners.

Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård)
Erik Selvig isn’t doing too well after having Loki whispering into his brain for a while. This is to be expected. Unfortunately, the character is nearly unrecognizable.

Sure, the guy was a bit antagonistic in the first film, but only because… well, there was a crazy bodybuilder claiming to be Thor. Here, Erik has had his brain lightly fried by knowledge too advanced for mortal men. Which makes him useful, thanks to that knowledge. Unfortunately, the way the film treats him like a laughingstock is kind of jarring after Tony Stark’s dramatic bout with PTSD in Iron Man 3.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth)

Enough time has passed for Chris Hemsworth to actually grow out his hair for the role. And in that time, Thor has clearly matured since the first film, and his quest reflects his journey from there.

In the first film, Thor disobeyed orders and snuck off to another realm to start a fight. Here, he does the same thing, but to finish a fight. Thor has become a mighty warrior and a good man, who has finally learned when to disobey orders.

And … that’s it, really. Thor’s character growth has already happened for the most part. Which is why much of his journey has to do with his relationship with Loki. But even then, any scene in this film with Loki is primarily there in order to further Loki’s story.

Heimdall (Idris Elba)
Heimdall is the same stoic badass we’ve come to know and love, but he doesn’t do much. In fact, part of his story is how he doesn't technically take part in the big mutiny. Perhaps Idris Elba would have been happier with his role if he had had more to do? Or it could be that Elba’s lack of interest would have been more pronounced with more screen time. After all, he did use the word “torture” to describe his experience.

Odin (Anthony Hopkins)
There could have been an interesting examination of Odin as a king, husband, and father. But there isn’t. Is he not thinking clearly after the death of his wife? Never explored. Has he truly disowned Loki? Never explored. Is he misguided and hot-headed, or and old man and a fool? Never explored. This might be for the better, since Anthony Hopkins didn’t seem to be interested in answering these questions.

The man’s obviously bored with his role. His first and final scenes with Thor are flat and lifeless, and he rarely attempts to branch out from quiet dignity. Mainly because quiet dignity doesn’t take effort to portray when compared to, say, emoting. Anthony Hopkins has gone on record saying that Odin is probably dead, and it will be interesting to see how the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok deals with this development.

…Man, it’s weird saying that. I’m not used to being relatively caught up with a film series.

Frigga (Rene Russo)
She gets more screen time to develop her relationship with Loki. That way, her death can further Loki’s character arc. A waste of a fine actress and a potentially interesting character.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston)
Originally, Loki wasn’t even going to appear at all. Then Lokimania happened. So Loki got the best subplots out of anyone.

With the loss of his beloved mother, Loki finally has nothing to lose and is free to go all-out on his evil plans for Asgard in whatever future films bring us. Still, it’s interesting to see how much her death weighs on him, since it’s his fault. He told Algrim where to go to disable the forcefield generator. If Loki had tried to misdirect Algrim, Frigga might have survived.

"I know that feel, bro."
But more than that, he grows as a character. Instead of petty manipulations, Loki has finally learned to play the long game. Even when he was on Thor’s side to fight Malekith, he was playing the angles, faking his death to enact his real plan. Either Loki has become a master planner, or he’s learned to make it up as he goes better than even Indiana Jones himself.

Either way, he’s moved beyond being a minor schemer/pawn of Thanos into being a major player in his own right. From parlor tricks and pretending to save Odin to faking his own death and usurping the throne without anybody noticing. Of course, this means that he has to “reluctantly” allow Thor to stay on Earth, and let Thor keep the hammer that Loki wouldn’t be able to hold, spilling the secret.

As for the actor, Tom Hiddleston gives as nuanced a performance as ever, performing a blend of the Thor Loki with all his faculties, and the maniacal The Avengers Loki. And he even dressed up as Captain America to show Chris Evans how Loki would talk as Captain America.

Everyone's a fanboy, it seems.
Also, thank you to Joss Whedon for this scene.
Chris’s reaction? "I spent over two years trying to not play Steve Rogers that over-the-top!"

And we all thank you for breaking your streak.

Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander)
She’s not going to end up with Thor. It’s quite obvious, but the film feels the need to push her out there as a possible love interest to get between Thor and Jane. Apart from that, she fights a bit, but doesn’t get as much focus as in the last movie. That last point is forgivable, though, since Jaimie Alexander was injured during filming, and her role was rewritten to compensate.

But sadly, despite her marginalization, she’s still given deeper characterization than any of the Warriors Three in this film.

King Bor (Tony Curran)
Curran’s acting talents are wasted with only one battle scene and a couple lines. They took the guy who gave one of the most heartbreaking performances in Doctor Who history, who won a British Independent Film Award for Best Actor… and made him a generic warrior king. His talents might have been wasted more than Rene Russo’s.

And then they brought him back for a single episode of Daredevil before the Punisher offed him.
What does Marvel have against giving him a larger role?
Fandral (Zachary Levi)
Odin bless Zachary Levi, but the poor guy is just trying too hard.

Don’t get me wrong; I loved Chuck as much as the next guy. But Levi doesn’t have the natural swagger to play this sort of role. In live-action, at least. Flynn Rider is another story. It always seemed to me as though Levi’s Fandral was always making a show of how merry and charming he was, instead of just being merry and charming. Of course, the ideal choice for the role was not only unavailable, but a little too old.

And he directed the last one.
Volstagg (Ray Stevenson)
Sure, Stevenson does a good job, but Volstagg is barely a character. He shows up, fills his assigned role in a scene, provides some comic relief when necessary, and leaves.

Hogun (Tadanobu Asano)
And Hogun gets out of the movie while the getting’s good, pausing momentarily to act confused as the film makes a sudden, momentary return to Vanaheim.

Tyr (Clive Russell)
And Tyr got it worst of all, having had his scenes cut out since, as I said, Clive Russell started giving away spoilers.

It's his big scene! Don't blink!
Perhaps it’s for the best, though. Better to quietly ignore the existence of Odin’s other sons, rather than wonder why they aren’t taking the throne in Thor’s stead.

Dark Elves
Malekith (Christopher Eccleston)

Oh, Malekith. You could have been the most well-developed MCU villain since… well, Loki. But everything interesting about Malekith, and by extension the Dark Elves, was only included in supplementary material and deleted scenes instead of the movie proper.

Imagine this: The Dark Elves’ world figuratively poisoned by the light. And the one place that isn’t toxic to them, their own planet, was poisoned by the Asgardians who feared them. So they wore masks as part of a life-support system, so that they might barely survive in this strange new reality. Except for Malekith and Algrim, two Elves who lost everything and everyone they care about. Because in their quest to restore the universe to its rightful state, they don’t intend to survive.

Pretty cool, right? Shame it wasn’t actually in the movie. Because then Malekith would actually be an interesting villain instead of an angry, monotone warrior who wants to end the universe.

Even though Eccleston admits to doing the role for a paycheck, he did a lot to examine the self-destructive psychology of the character, and he talked about it in length in interviews. Shame it wasn’t actually in the movie.

Remember, this is what Christopher Eccleston was busy with during the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Episode.

"Even I showed up for that. And I wasn't even the Doctor yet!"
But even after all that, the movie still retains two nice nods to the comics. First, Malekith gains his signature half-black face after Thor hits it with lightning.

His purple suit, however, was not so lucky.
Second, Malekith and Algrim first appeared in the Surtur Saga (Surtur himself almost appeared out of a portal, as a nod to this). In the Surtur Saga, Loki pretended to be in league with Malekith, only to betray him. Sound familiar?

Algrim/Kurse (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje)
I wish we could see why Algrim has such undying loyalty for the cause, even sacrificing his basic humanity Dark Elfity to become a monster. What about Malekith inspires such loyalty? Where did their bond originate? Algrim could have been one of the coolest second-in-commands of the MCU.

Though I have to give props to Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje for doing his own stunts at Alan Taylor’s insistence. The stuntmen apparently couldn’t replicate the specific way he moved in the Kurse outfit.

Other Marauders
They serve their purpose as… well, marauders. Though, as I said, a bit more variation would have gone a long way to make them look like they came from Realms other than Asgard.

The Collector (Benicio Del Toro)
Though he clashes with the rest of the movie, he really sets the tone for Guardians of the Galaxy. And his newfound ownership is a neat nod to the comics, where he unknowingly was in possession of the Reality Gem.

Exactly what you’d expect. Brian Tyler gives us weeping orchestral pieces, grand, epic music, a really cool piece for Frigga’s funeral… and a theme called “Lokasenna,” named after the poem where Loki shows up and insults everyone for a bit. Fittingly, it scores the scene where Loki and Odin confront each other. 

The CGI and landscapes truly are amazing to look at, which is par for the course for an MCU movie, and a Thor movie in particular. I mean, the CGI is phenomenal. There are only three real human actors in the opening scene (Algrim, Malekith, and Bor), but you wouldn’t know it by looking. Apparently, the costumes weren’t conducive to fighting. But all the geographical locations are as beautiful as the CGI. Iceland’s volcanic landscape as Svartalfheim, Norway for Asgard, appropriately enough, and the actual Stonehenge, which required special permits and rules.

And when the two are combined, you get gorgeous buildings adorning gorgeous landscapes. With lasers!

And I must admit, the attention to detail on Erik Selvig’s chalkboard with all the shout-outs to Marvel comics, like the number 616, and mentions of multiple alternate-reality intersections from the comics. So at least there was some passion for the source material in this movie.

Best Actor: Tom Hiddleston
By default, basically. Out of all the actors who actually seemed to give a crap, he brought the most nuance to his performance.

Best Character: The Collector
His bizarre, vaguely threatening demeanor in the post-credits scene left more of an impression on me than even the main villain. But if you want to limit me to characters who were in the actual plot of the movie, then Loki. Again, simply because his character arc seemed be the most well-developed and subtle one in this film.

Best LineLoki's little speech as Captain America.

Final Thoughts
It's fine. It's not terrible, but MCU movies have a pretty high standard to live up to. More than anything, I'm just disappointed in what the editors did to a film made with a disinterested cast using an underdeveloped script because Marvel wanted to crank out a sequel.

It’s definitely one of the worst films in Phase 2, if not actually the worst, but only because Phase 2 has some serious competition for it. And a movie that’s just “okay” can’t compete with them, for the most part.

Next time, Captain America adjusts to modern life after having missed every major change in America since 1945. But he’s probably mostly curious about where his flying car is.

Howard Stark was promising those seventy years ago. What’s the holdup?
See you then!


  1. Seriously, you should be a writer at Marvel. I'd love to see that idea for the Dark Elves brought to life.

    - That One Anon

    1. Hindsight is 20/20. The seed of the idea was there; the frustrating part is that they didn't take the idea farther than "Dark Elves who hate light."