Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Thor: The Dark World (Film Review)

If the sequel to 2011’s Thor had to be summed up in a single sentence it would be “A natural progression of what came before.” Despite the change in directors and a very different style of script, Thor: The Dark World proves to be a very focused continuation of the Norse god’s tale and keeps many of the strengths and weaknesses of the original. With a few admitted tweaks.

Set following the events of Avengers and the rebuilding of the Byfrost, Thor and his allies have been fighting to bring the nine realms back under control. Following Asgard’s apparent isolation, marauding bands and forces of destruction have wrecked the worlds leading to a crusade to bring them to peace once more. However, even as they complete this task another arises before them. Jane Foster, Thor’s lover from the original film, has stumbled upon an ancient weapon of the Dark Elves. One which, now awakened, they will stop at nothing to reclaim…

Perhaps the most obvious change here is the near total reversal of the roles of Thor and Foster from the original. Unlike before, where Thor is trapped on Earth trying to reclaim his power with his enemies wanting him to stay there, Foster spends almost the whole film off of Earth trying to lose a power the villains want to reclaim. It’s an obvious switch around, but one which manages to work quite well despite everything.

Unlike say the Matrix sequels which showed so much of Zion audiences were sick of the location, Asgard proves to be a visually fantastic setting. With clear influences of Jack Kirby’s original drawings, it proves to be a bizarre blend of science fiction and Norse which none the less manages to somehow work. Its brilliance not only contrasts with the drab grey normality of the UK on Earth (of all the places to choose naturally it just had to be the UK for that) but also the barren wastes of the Dark Elves’ ruined homelands. The latter two being scenes where the foe is at the height of their power, displaying a visual shift to represent the darkening of their situation and works as a stark contrast to Asgard’s gleaming city.

Both the fight scenes and the landscapes are captured beautifully by Alan Taylor. While best known for his work on Game of Thrones, he proves to be a great successor to Kenneth Branagh and definitely has an edge when it comes to the larger set pieces. The flight sequences and battle scenes especially are far more extensive than what came before and despite their shorter length manage to rival some elements of Avengers’ New York battle. That said, some of his television influence does become visible in the plot elements, especially in how the film handles the initial response to a major attack and death.

The humour here remains a key part of the film, just as they did with the first one. Many returning characters and figures help provide comedic relief to the proceedings and enforce the unpretentious approach to the subject matter. This helps especially to elevate things with Foster’s reactions to sights on Asgard. That said, while it is appreciated some things do go too far. Many moments are definitely handled better when they are played straight faced, such as Thor hanging mjolnir on a coat hanger when entering Foster’s home, than the more overt moments. This is made crystal clear with the return of Dr. Erik Selvig. Despite previous comments by actor Stellan Skarsgard stating the impact of Loki’s influence on him would be made clear, it only amounts to moments such as him streaking around Stone Henge for seemingly no reason. A similar performance which seems to have diminished is that of Antony Hopkins who seems to have lost a degree of the conviction he had previously. This might be put down in part to some awkward writing surrounding the war and Loki, but there’s a definite difference in his performance from last time.

On the upside, much more is attempted to be done with the side characters. The warriors three (at least Volstagg and Fandral, with Hogun unfortunately being pushed out of the picture) and Sif get a little individual more focus than before,  though still obviously minor characters. Unfortunately others such as Foster’s faux boyfriend Richard ultimately add little to the film, and prove to be a major waste of good talent.

The one who benefits the most from the increased scope is definitely Frigga. The film actually gives Rene Russo something to do, allowing her to become more of a core part of the film’s second act. Naturally the ones who prove to be the best here are the villains. While Loki is as strongly written and fantastically acted as ever, sans sequel bait ending, the one who really shines is the Dark Elves. While none are especially complex nor deep, the acting talent behind them elevates a forgettable villain into something truly memorable. Christopher Eccleston in particular deserves every shred of praise he is given for the minor inflections and body language used in his role giving far more life to the character than the script alone would ever permit. Seriously, University classes should be spent with him as an example of how the right actor can infinitely improve a bland character.

Also, the story is predictable. However, as with the original, this predictability is far from a bad thing. Self-aware and well-handled for the most part, any stale or potentially derivative major plot elements are driven off by the strong characterisation and handling of the overall tale. It helps the film provide a subconscious link with older, now very predictable, fables of old without making an obvious clash between new and old culture.

Thor: The Dark World has obvious errors and a few failings, some of which can even be seen as amateurish. However, its strengths far overshadow them and the film proves to be much more tonally consistent with its predecessor than Iron Man and its sequels. It steps up to escalating what came before, enhancing its themes and changing focus, but doesn’t forget where its roots are dug in. With great action, decent drama, fantastic acting, and strong humour it’s a worthy installment into the Marvel cinematic universe. Definitely see this one while it’s still in cinemas, you won’t regret it.

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