How THOR: THE DARK WORLD Got Its Groove Back

Hollywood has a VERY clear idea of how they want to suck audiences in to big movies peddling a fantastical realm: cold-open exposition from an old white dude with gravitas. X-Men tries to pull normal people into it’s brand of reality right off the bat with Patrick Stewart talking about evolution while DNA strands float around on screen. Transformers, in a particularly unsuccessful version of this formula, tried to have the voice of Optimus Prime explain to us that there was some kind of all-powerful cube that I should care about. In my brain, I thought to myself… “No there isn’t” and all was lost for me before the opening credits even rolled. True story. Sorry, All Spark. The most successful iteration of this formula that comes to mind is The Fellowship Of The Ring, in which (this time) we get an old white female with gravitas as Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel (Galadriel being old, not Blanchett) walks us through an ancient war and establishes an engrossing villain and a small ring with the power to destroy worlds. Alan Taylor chooses to go full Lord Of The Rings Lite in his Thor: The Dark World cold open. Anthony Hopkins’ Odin harkens us back to the beginning of time, when Dark Elves ruled all of existence. Before the time of men. He explains to us that there is a MacGuffin of computer-generated, swirling malevolence called Aether which… is super evil and we should TOTALLY care about. The Dark Elf lord Malekith (Christopher Eccelston) had planned to wield the Aether and secure the reign of the Dark Elves forever, but Asgardian warriors hid the Aether and wiped out the Dark Elves… or so they thought.

The Thor franchise has always seemed like the hardest of the big screen Marvel properties to pull off. The first Thor film was my least favorite of the Marvel Studios films to date. It felt too low stakes, and simply didn’t linger long in my mind afterwards. Yet that didn’t stop me from loving The Avengers. Coming in to Thor: The Dark World, I was a little nervous because I remembered fairly little about the first film at all. But it turns out Thor 2 feels more like a follow up to The Avengers than anything else, and it also turns out that it is a significant improvement over the first film. Again, although I didn’t love Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, I feel like this film, over other Marvel properties, had the largest handicap to overcome. How do you get mainstream audiences to buy into the existence of Norse gods who can travel between realms and then stick these gods in modern day American without such a huge disconnect in audiences minds that they tune out? The first Thor film, while underwhelming, wasn’t a total failure. Great casting and meticulous world-building saved the film from being a disaster and a franchise was born. Credit where credit is due and all.

I stand by my snarky frustration with the cold open of Thor: The Dark World. This is a film that took a very long time to suck me in, but finally did win me over after a messy first act and steadily succeeded in engrossing me further and further until, by the end, I was in full nerd heaven. I’ll move on from the opening in a moment, I promise, but this pre-title sequence is a huge problem. It wears it’s Peter Jackson homage on it’s sleeve and introduces us to ancient characters we don’t yet care about, and a floating, GCI-substance that is lifeless and without threat or character. Even in the end, the film’s villain Malekith, and the film’s MacGuffin, Aether, are the weakest elements of the whole, and that is where we begin the story.

I am not one to take issue with the fantastical. I loved the grand, sweeping introduction to Man Of Steel. Within moments I was sucked into the world of Krypton, with it’s flying dragon-things, and weird future tech, and that film’s device-I-should-care-about, the codex. Russell Crowe felt like a Superman secret agent and I was emotionally engaged with a quickness. Maybe the secret here is the acting combined with script work that packs an emotional punch. Either way, I needed to be emotionally engaged in Thor: The Dark World, and it took a full half an hour to do that. Thank Odin it was still able to draw me in after at least 30 minutes of mild amusement bordering on disengagement.

How did it suck me in? Character work (and great casting, again) saves the day for Thor 2. IMDb lists a full 8 writers credited for this film if you include the writers of the original comics (which I do), so I simply refuse to list all those names out here. But the screenplay which starts out so sloppily begins to connect the dots and let the characters emerge from the confused plotting. There is a massive battle in which the Elves invade Asgard, which is enormous in scope, and by which time I had finally embraced the weirdness and run with it. I won’t spoil anything, but not all of our heroic Asgardians will live through this skirmish. As the screenplay takes a moment to breath and we attend an Asgardian funeral, the movie hit it’s stride. A classical Viking funeral pyre, lit with a flaming arrow, merges with the science fiction and a beautiful, emotionally palpable, and totally visually unique funeral service riveted me to the screen, and after this I never looked back.

I’ve mentioned the casting more than once. Chris Hemsworth is just brilliant as Thor. He strikes an almost impossible balance of god-like physique, a knowing sense of humor, and even the occasional gravitas. Natalie Portman as Jane Foster is clever and winning. Anthony Hopkins and the (why isn’t she still in every movie?) beautiful and beloved Rene Russo feel perfect as Thor’s royal parents. Tom Hiddleston as Loki is one of Marvel’s breakout stars for all the best reasons. And even a number of smaller roles like Idris Elba as Asgardian gatekeeper Heimdall or each of the Warriors Three make impressions and earn my love as an audience member.

Between Thor 2’s full bear hug of an embrace with the patently ridiculous, the sheer scale of the proceedings, all of which look wonderfully rendered, and the character beats, you end up with a way better film than round one. Alan Taylor also manages to insert a few of those “Legolas” moments where a small beat or shot is so wonderful and iconic, you have to cheer. At one point Thor simply leaps off a balcony with reckless abandon only to reach his hand out and have Mjolnir, the Hammer of the Gods, fly into his hand and sail him away. It is glorious. And there are several of those moments of interplay and action that might make you cheer.

Oh, and once you start to have Loki and Stellan Skaarsgard and Kat Dennings running around, the movie becomes fairly hilarious as well. There probably aren’t any laughs as grand as what is found in Joss Whedon’s Avengers script, but anyone in the know on the Marvel film universe so far is going to have some belly laugh opportunities here.

Which brings me to my final conclusion: Thor: The Dark World, get’s it’s groove back by having a lot of fun. No, I never quite bought into the significance of the Aether, and the Dark Elf Malekith never EVER felt like he was going to win. But when you’ve got well-cast characters you care about doing heroic or tricksy things, amidst well-shot action, and you find yourself laughing and smiling at the absurdity of a fist fight careening through 9 realms, you just have a winning film on your hands and you have to accept it.

After Thor, I had a “take it or leave it” mentality towards this corner of the Marvel universe. They got Chris Hemsworth right, and Hiddleston, too. So if all I had ever seen of the Thor stories from that point on was couched in Avengers films, I could’ve been happy. But after Thor: The Dark World, I finally feel invested in this particular franchise. Bring on Thor 3, and this time, let’s try to get the audience emotionally invested right from frame one.

And I’m Out.

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