Monday, November 11, 2013

Nerdview of Thor: The Dark World

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

This past weekend was the US release of Thor: The Dark World. As you could probably guess from my two reviews of Thor (regular and Thor-speak), from my glowing praise of Avengers, or my general love for Marvel, I have been anticipating this film for some time. What's more, the trials of parenting two babies demanded that I see the movie twice this weekend: once in 3D with my Friday gaming group, and once in 2D with my wife on Sunday. (Spoiler alert: I liked it)

Expectations 'Odor': As a Marvel-phile, I had a lot of expectations for seeing Malekith brought into the cinematic universe. In the comics, he's a magically-grounded half-dead dark elf, but based on the primordial narrative of the movie trailers, I imagine the film's origin for the dark elves would be more primordial, which can be a fine and elegant way to bring comic book issues to the theater. The first Thor movie had a bit more deliberate pace, with the most exciting combat front-loaded and the later action much smaller-scale skirmishes. Without the burden of origins and introductions for so many characters, I expected The Dark World to feature more evenly-paced, epic action sequences. Coupled with that, since the first movie already introduced us to so many Asgardians, I wanted to see the supporting cast develop and get their own moments to shine. Except for Jane Foster. I wanted her to get killed off and free up Thor for his true love: Sif.

Appreciation 'Beef': The first observation to make of Thor: The Dark World is that it has a definite sci-fi flavor to the action, as the opening sequence throws you into a fight that is part Battle of the Last Alliance, with fantasy-flavored Asgardians wading into dark elf laser fire while their dagger-like ships loom over head. The myth-as-science-fiction was established in the first movie, but in Thor it was more of a token explanation to make it easier for Thor to relate to Jane Foster. In Thor: The Dark World, however, that motif is brought to the foreground, as the bad guys use energy weapons, point-singularity grenades, have spaceships and agile fighters. Even the Asgardians show off some artillery and their own boat-like fighter craft. That, of course means dogfighting, and they actually do it quite well for a movie where such aerobatics aren't even expected.

Ornate and manufactured, but with a serial-killer sinister feel as well.
The overall aesthetic of the movie is just as well-done as Thor, with Asgard fleshed out a bit more this time around in its golden beauty. There's also glimpses of most of the other Nine Realms, but nothing to really evaluate other than variety. Though I must say that Svartaflheim (the titular dark world) was a really neat realization of that realm: blasted with ash and black sand, sky a sick not-quite-illuminated sickly mellow yellow with clouded veins giving the alien sky a thoroughly distinct look, and at the same time alluding to the twisted base perceptions of the dark elves themselves. Malekith and his people stand out against the fantasy look of the Asgardians with baroque sci-fi designs that reminded me of the Necromongers in The Chronicles of Riddick, which I really enjoyed. The dark elf foot soldiers in particular wear expressionless pale-faced masks with black eyes that I found really eerie and elegant at the same time.

Minor spoilers in the next paragraph.

I was pretty massively disappointed in Jane Foster as a character. And considering I was expecting, hoping, and needing her to die in this movie, that's saying a lot. To start with, she doesn't die. But we get teased as she comes oh so close to dying. What's worse, though, is that Jane Foster is by far the worst, most uninteresting character in the movie. She's snippy and childishly petulant for no reason, she drags down her scenes with cardboard delivery, and she's in general just a plain old plot cow. It's so bad that at one point in the film she's so useless she faints for no good reason other than to let Loki and Thor riff off each other while she kindly stays out of it.

That's right, I saw Battlefield Earth, and I haven't even purged it from my memory.

Foster's big fail notwithstanding, the rest of the cast is terrific. Chris Hemsworth is as at home and mature in the role of Thor as ever, showing genuine growth from the previous two movies. Tom Hiddleston as Loki reminds the audience of his chops, modulating between impishly mischievous comic, brooding schemer, and jealous brother. Plus, you'd have to be blind not to get lost in his smoldering stares in the first act cell-block scenes--just saying. And once again, Jaimie Alexander as Sif dramatically outshines Jane Foster on the screen. Physical, decisive, witty, and intuitive in her relationship with Thor, Sif in thirty minutes completely outshines her mortal competition for Thor's affections, and only the plot spares Foster from being shown up completely. Finally, Christopher Eccleston as antagonist Malekith gives a searing performance even through the hefty face prosthetics and voice distortion. Even when he's speaking in the dark elves' language, I got a kick out of his resonating, careful enunciation and the vile sneer he carries with his voice alone.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': Having seen the movie twice in its opening weekend, I think it's fair to guess that I enjoyed this movie. It's got most of the elements I wanted, and in greater quantities. Odin gets some token raven-time (important for us mythology enthusiasts), Idris Elba gets a bit more screen time to be awesome and thunder great Heimdall lines, and Darcy returns and has a slightly expanded role. (If Jane Foster has to come back, then so should Darcy. Although in order to avoid upstaging Portman's Jane Foster, Darcy is in three layers, a scarf, and a wool cap for about 90% of her on-screen time. And she's still more watchable than Jane.) Thor is mature in both his powers and character, and yet there's still a sense of growth in both areas, which is especially apparent in his interactions with Loki. And Loki....oh Loki, you're so awesome. I can't really think of anyone I'd rather see staring down a Kursed Algrim.

But Jane Foster! Grrr, in a movie that grabs me by the nerdlies so easily, it's very frustrating to have to endure her throughout another film. Expect a more in-depth, spoilerific rant about it in the future. Suffice it to say for now that she is, at best, a non-entity in the movie and probably the only thing I can pick out as an outright flaw.

I want to make a note here: I don't think this movie is worth the 3D up-charge. I rarely noticed it even when I tried, and those times when I did notice the 3D effect was normally in foreshortening shots. There it created a powerful depth of field, but I don't think it enhanced the movie as much as Captain America of Avengers did. I mean, subtlety in 3D is nice, but if you don't consciously notice or get at least thirteen bucks' worth of wow out of the experience, you might as well enjoy the movie in its 2D format.

Seriously, how the heck is this not the leading lady?!

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': Anyone who enjoyed Thor should enjoy Thor: The Dark World. It does almost everything just as well if not better than the first movie. And for those who didn't like the first movie will likely still find stuff to enjoy. The action is much more kinetic and spread out, the emotional content is dialed in even more in this movie as it doesn't have to deal with stranger-on-earth tropes as such, and there's a lot of great performances spread out throughout an excellent cast.

Who definitely won't like this? People who don't like the juxtaposition of mythological figures and science-fiction elements. This seems to be a common cry amongst professional critics--I guess they weren't listening to Thor in the first movie.

After the disappointment of Iron Man 3, it's nice to see Thor: The Dark World getting it right. They change Malekith quite a bit to fit him onto the screen, but he's still riveting and adroitly meets all the thematic demands set by the comic book version of himself--unlike the Mandarin in the last Iron Man flick. Everyone other than Jane Foster shows growth in this movie and is an improvement over their earlier portrayals, while Portman's character is a dull cloud in the middle of an otherwise sterling film. Regardless, though, she can't sully this movie for me, and it's definitely set the bar high for the next Marvel movie. It's doubtful I'll get to see this again in theaters, but if the opportunity came up I'd definitely accept. In the meantime, I'm counting down the days to Winter Soldier.


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