Monday, November 11, 2013

"Thor: The Dark World"

 2 / 5 

I swear I paid attention.

During the opening moments of Thor: The Dark World, I was taking mental notes, listening to Anthony Hopkins intone about a … well, see, that's the problem.  Thinking back on it, I am still unsure what happened during Thor: The Dark World.

More than any other film series in the past several decades, the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" is less a number of standalone films that are all united by a theme as much as they are an old-fashioned movie serial.   Every Marvel film looks the same -- which is far from a criticism.  It's been a long time since a single film studio or "brand" had such a distinctive look.  The Marvel films are obsessed with commenting on each other, and if viewed as a whole, this tendency to self-reflexivity delights the crowd that follows the films regularly.

(As an aside, I grew up reading comics for hours and hours on end, but my tastes always ran toward Archie, Carl Barks' Uncle Scrooge, Mickey Mouse and Dennis the Menace, which I guess aren't really considered reputable comics anymore by most definitions.)

In Thor: The Dark World, for example, such trivial formalities of the cinematic convention like exposition and character introductions are thrown out the window.  If you walk into Thor: The Dark World not having just seen The Avengers, Thor and even Captain America within the past week, good luck to you.

Consider the movie that conventional wisdom holds was the beginning of the blockbuster era: Star Wars.  Yes, audiences are thrust into the action, but through dialogue and careful pacing, they quickly learn who Princess Leia is, what she's doing out in the middle of nowhere, why Darth Vader wants her and, eventually, who Luke Skywalker is and why he wants to get off of his desert planet.  I use Star Wars as a comparison because Disney now owns both Marvel and Lucasfilm, and it's informative to compare the way a "fast-paced" movie unfolded 40 years ago versus the plotting and pacing of today.

In Thor: The Dark World, we're never quite clear exactly why the central villain wants to take over the universe other than because he's a bad guy who can. (For about 90 minutes, I mistook his name as "Malachi," which I thought was an interesting Biblical reference that made me want to look up the connection, only to discover it's Malakeith, making me curious whether it was the poor elocution of actors or the bombastic sound mix that left me mistaken.)  There's some kind of intergalactic convergence that makes Natalie Portman mysteriously vanish into a sinister realm and get infected with some really awful liquid stuff, not because it makes sense to the story to have her go there, but because if she doesn't, there's no movie.

Somehow, and I'm not quite sure how, Thor learns that she's been possessed by this liquid-like stuff, and manages to get to Earth to rescue her.  Their scenes together on Earth are funny and clever and call to mind, for just a moment, the grandaddy of super hero films, Richard Donner's Superman, in their depiction of a heroic figure walking among us.

There are a lot of references to "New York," which I took to mean self-conscious nods directly to the destruction-filled climax of The Avengers, which if the Marvel Cinematic Universe were really being true to itself, would have led to the left hundreds of thousands of people dead, a major world city destroyed in ways that made 9/11 look like kids' stuff, and plunged the world into an economic catastrophe and global depression of unprecedented proportions that would last decades and decades.

Instead, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, physicists still look like super-models and enjoy lunch atop London skyscrapers, and everyone seems pretty happy, even when a newscaster reminds viewers of the "alien attack in New York."  You'd think the world might be a slightly different place knowing the planet is under attack from alien forces descending upon us from throughout the universe, and that a gang of super heroes is fending off the attacks, and a shadowy governmental organization is overseeing this small but elite team.

That could make for an interesting backdrop for a movie about super heroes.  But the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn't want to play with us in ways that are particularly intriguing, it just wants an excuse to throw a Captain America reference into a movie about Thor and have the audience laugh along.

Once it focuses on the plot, the whole thing gets awfully convoluted; I imagine even some Marvel fans would be a little perplexed if asked to describe the plot of Thor: The Dark World in any detail.  There are a lot of CGI effects, a city that looks like a cross between Caprica of Battlestar Galactica and the Star Wars planet of Coruscant, and some cameos by actors like Renee Russo and Anthony Hopkins.

There are battle scenes on all sorts of different planets with names like Vanaheim (not, I've discovered, a veiled reference to Anaheim, home of Disneyland, which now has a Thor: The Dark World exhibit, but a variation on a name from Norse mythology) and Svartalfheim and Asgard, and all these planets pretty much look alike thanks to modern CGI effects.

The whole movie is one long action scene, punctuated by some surprisingly effective moments of down-to-Earth levity, like the scene in which Thor overhears Jane Foster talking to another man and gets more than a little jealous, which doesn't really befit a demi-god.

I still don't know what happened in Thor: The Dark World, as a whole, but I suppose to a certain degree the plot is irrelevant, as long as there is a post-credit scene setting up another franchise, and several references to other Marvel movies.  That's why the thing was made.  The movie serials used to be the same way; they were likely indecipherable to someone who didn't watch every single episode of Tom Mix or Flash Gordon.

In other words, Thor: The Dark World isn't made for the casual moviegoer, or someone who just wants to go to the movies to enjoy a story told well.  It's made for a particular audience, and as such it will likely be just as satisfying to them as it needs to be, no better or worse, and will make a lot of money while fans wait for the next episode to come along.

Viewed Nov. 11, 2013 -- Laemmle North Hollywood


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