DIR: Alan Taylor • WRI: Christopher Yost, , Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely • PRO: Kevin Feige • DOP: Kramer Morgenthau • ED: Dan Lebental, Wyatt Smith • MUS: Brian Tyler • DES: Charles Wood • CAST: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård
The first Thor’s success came as a bit of surprise. It turned out to be better than anticipated and made far more money than anyone expected. It also solidified that Marvel’s grand experiment in bringing comic book-style shared-continuity to the big-screen might just work. With the critical and commercial success of last year’s Avengers Assemble, the next big question was whether these characters could still hold their own in their individual franchises. While Iron Man 3’s billion dollar box-office gross would seem to imply they could, that film had the trump card of starring Robert Downey Jr. In that sense, Thor: The Dark World is the first real test of the viability of these individual character franchises. With the most recent Thor (Chris Hemsworth) outing being the aforementioned juggernaut that was The Avengers, how does it stack up? Shocking (no pun intended, seriously), extremely well.
The hiring of Game of Thrones alumni Alan Taylor initially seemed like a gimmick but proves to have been a very clever move. While the obvious benefit carried over from Thrones is the staging of the large-scale battles and medieval tavern scenes, Taylor’s real talents are in making a stand-alone film that is still continuity-heavy without relying explicitly on what came before. Additionally he seems to have brought his skill of balancing an ensemble cast’s screen-time from Thrones as he does an impressive job here of giving almost every character some form of arc. Practically every secondary character gets a ‘big moment’ at some point and while some of them seem to just vanish from the film after performing their moment, that the film still maintains a fast (but never rushed) pace without feeling bloated or weighed down by all these extra characters deserves praise.
The novelty of the combining Viking aesthetics with Star Wars elements also works consistently well. The visual and sound designs combined have a strong, distinct personality which counterbalances the heavy use of CGI in giving the film an identity which is very much its own without the sense of ‘sci-fi/fantasy setting du-jour’ that many other CGI-heavy films suffer from. Additionally Brian Tyler’s score is hugely enjoyable, if not particularly ground-breaking.
The film is also pleasantly uncomplicated. The current trope of the modern superhero film seemingly being contracted to be about the War on Terror has been getting extremely tired. Between Man of Steel’s 9/11-times-ten or even Iron Man 3’s final act getting visually bogged down in unsubtle drone-warfare allusions, it’s refreshing that the movie about the space-god and his magic hammer is just about the space-god and his magic hammer. That’s not to say other interpretations aren’t available but Thor has the common courtesy not to be unnecessarily blatant. Which makes it all the more surprising that, in comparison to the first film, this one feels significantly less kid-friendly. Possibly as a result of having a Game of Thrones regular helming proceedings, the battles and general violence feel less outright fantastical and have more punch to them. There’s even a moment of rather explicit gore involving a limb being hacked off which just feels slightly out of place amidst the usual ‘comic-book-violence’. Add in some mild but repeated swearing and one really does get the sense they’re trying to aim for a slightly older audience this time.
Yet, of all the movie’s successes perhaps the most impressive is that it has managed to make Kat Dennings’ character tolerable. She’s actually funny this time and they’ve written her so that when she blunders into an action scene in the name of ‘comic relief’, you aren’t praying to your deity of choice that she’s killed by a stray anything just to end her interminable screen-time. She’s still a cardboard cut-out of character to whom the concept of character-depth would be more alien than the actual aliens, but not expressly wanting her dead is a definite improvement on the previous film. On the whole the comedy and slapstick elements have greatly increased in both frequency and quality (including brief appearances by a certain Mr O’Dowd and an hilarious cameo I wouldn’t dare spoil) which act to complement the increased overall darkness in tone and violence.
There are of course a few minor foibles. It is honestly impossible to genuinely gauge how this film would play to a more ‘casual’ audience. The film never loses itself so deeply in its own mythology and universe that it would become impenetrable to someone unfamiliar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or Thor in particular, but nor does it make any effort to truly explain (or rather, re-explain) the rules and the players. This is not necessarily a critique of the film seeing as that was always the point of the shared continuity of these films but while something like Iron Man 3 is grounded enough that anyone could jump right in and be able to follow it, I’m not sure if the same can be said of a film filled with magic hammers, Norse gods speaking ye-olde English and sci-fi elements existing alongside what’s effectively magic.
Villains are another issue. While Marvel films have long struggled to create truly memorable villains, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) seemed to be the exception and they’re clearly aware of this. Eccleston (practically unrecognisable between the make-up and the alternations to his voice) makes for a perfectly foreboding presence and his evil scheme is clearly laid out. The problem is that he only exists to be a villain, there’s no depth or intrigue and his only true purpose is to act as the necessary plot motivation to get Loki out of his cell so that the film can focus on him and Thor. Again this is not a problem for the already converted (go team Hiddleston) but it does indicate the beginnings of an attitude of pandering to fan-boys/girls at the cost of losing the more casual audience; the exact problem the modern comics industry frequently finds itself facing.
For what was ultimately a slightly shaky production (Portman’s presence being in question, numerous changes of director and composer), it’s almost a minor miracle that the film that emerged is coherent. However, it is a genuinely pleasant surprise that the film is as good as it is. It takes what was a reasonably solid first film and the goodwill built up by Avengers and improves on both. This is arguably the new high watermark for Marvel Studios and even sets the bar for the next Star Wars to beat. In many ways the film offers a glimpse of what a good version of the Star Wars prequels may have looked like. And it’s very good indeed.
If you aren’t sold on the superhero genre or the Marvel films in particular, this is unlikely to change your mind but for anyone already a fan of the genre and especially these characters, this is one of the best and most unashamedly fun popcorn movies of recent years. And as if it needs to be said at this point, the film doesn’t end at the credits.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Thor: The Dark World is released on 30th October 2013