Friday, November 8, 2013

Hammer of Justice: THOR: THE DARK WORLD

Thor is an outlier in these interlocking Avengers franchises. He’s not a character who invents, like Iron Man, or is given, like Captain America, or is accidentally imbued, like the Hulk, with his powers. He may be supernaturally strong, wields a mighty hammer, and can fly, but that doesn’t make him just your average superhero. He was born that way. The first Thor movie was a funny little thing, part fish-out-of-water comedy with the title character stuck on Earth, part swooshing pseudo-Shakespearean drama back at his home where Norse Gods are stomping around their extraterrestrial kingdom of Asgard. It’s a film of bleeping sci-fi gewgaws and a glowing intergalactic rainbow bridge, a strange mix to be sure, but it’s precisely what I found so endearing about it. After all, it’s not everyday you see a superhero movie that’s modestly scaled, yet still ends with a robot terrorizing a one-stoplight New Mexico town and two God-like brothers punching each other atop a multicolor interdimensional portal.

Now the sequel, Thor: The Dark World, picking up the characters from the first film after the events of the crossover event that was The Avengers, is an across the board improvement, doubling down on the arch genre-bending of its predecessor and finding a winning groove by amplifying its every disparate aspect. It’s a fast-paced action adventure spectacle bubbling with unexpected wit and finding great pleasure in smashing its shiny toys together into one exciting jumble. Quipping sci-fi scientists like straight out of a Jack Kirby comic get swept up into an outer space conflict that has a visual style of Frank Frazetta fantasy and Ralph McQuarrie space opera. It’s all rippling muscles, flowing capes, gleaming weapons, and shiny mechanical detail. On Earth, love-struck scientist Natalie Portman is investigating, with her comic relief colleagues Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård, and Jonathan Howard, strange gravitational disturbances when her boyfriend Thor (Chris Hemsworth) at long last reappears. With his glowing blonde locks and strapping physique, he spirits her to his homeworld, having sensed that she’s become infected with the film’s MacGuffin. It exists simply to propel all the characters into action either defending or upending the known universes.

The villains want the glop that’s wormed its way into her veins. They’re Dark Elves, who look like they’ve wandered in out of a Guillermo del Toro notebook or a well-financed Lord of the Rings cosplay club. Thought long extinct, they’ve been hibernating in an H.R. Giger-style spaceship for 5,000 years awaiting the convergence of the Nine Realms. That’s when their leader (Christopher Eccleston) knows it is the best time to unleash spindly clouds of evil red dust upon the denizens of the universes. Meanwhile, Anthony Hopkin’s Odin, king of Asgard and father of Thor, glowers ominously as he consults ancient manuscripts. He gravely informs his allies that he knows of no way to stop the Elves. Thor suspects his disgraced brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) might be able to help, despite all warnings that he’s been the villain in two of these movies already and thus locked up in the castle’s dungeon. How can he possibly be trusted? The film manages to add contentious buddy action comedy to its long list of genre influences as Thor and Loki bristle and snipe at each other, reluctantly helping or betraying the other as the film moves along.

Rich visual splendor makes the film stand out, its aesthetic influences synthesized into something that manages to largely skirt camp on its way to gloriously serious silliness. I love the way the fanciful designs make it look like a cast of pseudo-futuristic Ancient Romans with swords, shields, spears, and ray guns is holding court in a space castle. Taking the director’s chair is Alan Taylor, a longtime TV director who has recently done great work on HBO’s fantasy series Game of Thrones. He fills the screen with the best special effects and production design Marvel Studios has to offer. With them and within it he stages spectacular action setpieces, some of the best this whole Avengers behemoth has managed in any of the various films and franchises. Because they’re done up in fantastically gripping and wonderfully silly ways, with characters who sparkle with delightful up-tempo chemistry the whole way through, it manages to avoid collapsing into yet another superhero-whaling-on-a-giant-alien-contraption climax. It’s fun and funny, playing with its fantasy rules and sci-fi conceits in exuberant and at times unexpected ways.

The screenplay credited to Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely (with additional story credit to Don Payne and Robert Rodat) bristles with slam-bang setpieces: epic battles, one-on-one slugfests, shootouts, dogfights, and swooshing disruptions of time and space. Helpfully, the chirpy chemistry between the characters and the gleefully complicated mythology is threaded throughout. We’re not pausing for action and character. It’s intertwined in the best big bustling overstuffed blockbuster way. It’s beyond endearing. It ups the ante. Supporting characters who mostly stood on the sidelines in the first Thor here get to leap into the action, from Idris Elba and Rene Russo to Jaimie Alexander and Ray Stevenson. And the core characters retain their initial novelty while gaining a sense of fine actors settling even more comfortably into their roles. It’s a film full of big action and broad character moments that add up to a satisfying red-blooded adventure every step of the way.

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