Thursday, November 28, 2013

Hammer Time: Thor - The Dark World

The classic Marvel Thor comics were marvels of chutzpah, a land grab that extended the company’s brand into Norse mythology, and redefined little-g “gods” as just another species of superhero. And maybe because the first wave of creators who worked on the character – Stan Lee, his brother Larry Lieber, and, all-importantly, the artist Jack Kirby – got so high on their heady brew of mythic bombast and fake-Shakespearean diction, Thor had less truck with the self-pitying angst that was part of the defining character of Marvel Comics than any other major character this side of Nick Fury. The original conception in the comics was that Thor had been cast down to Earth by his father Odin, and trapped in the body of a crippled med student, so that he might learn “humility.” Stripped of his memories of his time in Asgard, “Donald Blake” discovered his true identity when he was reunited with his mighty hammer and transformed into Thor, who looked like a blond Hells Angel indulging his opera fetish on Halloween. The longer the comics went on, the less Thor was inclined to put his hammer back in his pocket and revert to his crippled-loser persona; can you blame him? In the movies, Thor (Christopher Hemsworth) has no Earthbound alter ego to avoid turning into, and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has no desire to banish him, let alone teach him humility. He’d probably stage an intervention if Thor started messing around with the stuff.

The 2011 Thor was a movie that had to be made, and had to pass for monumental, because it’s hero had already been threaded into the long-planned Marvel Studios franchise epic The Avengers. So Hemsworth was selected to model the armor, and Hopkins was employed to lend the proceedings some classically trained tone, and Kenneth Branagh was signed to direct, presumably because there were a bunch of old copies of Time gathering mold in the Marvel Studios lobby, and somebody happened to spend his lunch hour reading about how this 25-year-old Englishman who was starring in his own film version of Henry V was the new Olivier and Orson Welles combined. The movie got the job done; it felt like an elephantine event, which, under the circumstances, probably seemed more important to many people than that it be any fun. (Fun could wait until Thor’s reappearance in the Joss Whedon-directed The Avengers, in which Thor’s brother Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, was one of the chief villains. If Thor established its hero as an important cog in the movie extension of the Marvel universe, a star was really born when Thor, invoking family loyalty as he defended his brother against the slurs of other superheroes, was reminded that Loki was a madman and a mass murderer and sheepishly replied: “He was adopted?”)

Christopher Hemsworth as Thor
Thor: The Dark World, the sequel designed to keep Thor’s name in Variety until the next installment of The Avengers, is a much more modest movie than the first one, but it was put together under the watchful eye of an actual good director: Alan Taylor, who has a couple of terrific, under-seen movies to his credit (Palookaville, Kill the Poor), but whom like a lot of other good directors these days, mostly keeps himself busy directing series TV: Homicide, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and, perhaps most to the point here, Game of Thrones. The movie itself is light and friendly and blessedly funny, humor always being one of the best compensations a movie can offer for an incomprehensible plot. At the beginning, Thor is being goaded to take his rightful place on the throne of Asgard, but he is reluctant, because he has itchy feet and a yen to return to Earth. When he does, he resumes making goo-goo eyes at the Earth woman-scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), I guess because he thinks her sidekick, the yummy and hilarious Kat Dennings is out of his league. In the course of her scientific experimenting with an abandoned factory where stuff disappears and reappears and stuff, dumbass Jane goes and gets herself infected with “the Aether,” a mysterious substance that the Dark Elves – bad guys led by Christopher Eccleston and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, not that you can tell under all the makeup and CGI – want to use to bust out of the suspended-animation prison to which they were consigned eons ago by Odin’s dad. The physics aren’t any easier to follow than the story, but if you can just go with it, your reward is a big climactic set piece in which Thor and the villains do battle while switching from one reality to the next. At one point, Hemsworth gets to go from soaring, balletic heroics in mid-air to a terrific look of comic anxiety as he finds himself sliding down the side of a building with his face pressed against the glass.

Natalie Portman & Christopher Hemsworth
If Marvel has started looking to Looney Tunes for inspiration in its live-action movies, well, that’s worked out pretty well in some of the more enjoyable Disney animated features of the last several years (such as Aladdin and Lilo and Stitch) Hemsworth grows on you; he’s likable, he carries his bulked-up frame with the modesty of someone who knows he wasn’t hired for his way with a soliloquy, and he knows that the real fan favorite is Tom Hiddleston’s trickster, Loki. Hiddleston, the only actor on view who gets to suggest a complex emotional life, lies back, savoring his showcase moments and happily allowing his co-stars to do the heavy lifting of moving the plot forward. (As for Portman, she gets the best of the script’s many Whedon-esque laugh lines. After Thor has carried her to Asgard and Odin makes his usual grand entrance, she starts to introduce herself. “I know who you are, Jane Foster!” rumbles Hopkins. She turns to Thor and says, “You told your dad about me!?”)

I know a lot of people are dismayed at the steady influx of superhero movies, and not without good reason; especially for people who didn’t grow up reading comics, or who had the self-control to set them aside as adults, it must be like living in the 1950s and not liking Westerns. (I actually know people – well, guys – who would actually regard it as sacrilegious to suggest that cowboys aren’t an infinitely richer, more serious focus of cultural contemplation that costumed crime fighters.) For some reason, it often seems as if one kind of fantasy hero dominates the cultural marketplace at a given time: once it was cowboys or private eyes, when I was a kid it was TV cops, and now, as a result of whatever coincidence of generational and marketing plans, it’s superheroes. Thor: The Dark World isn’t Rio Bravo or The Wild Bunch, but it’s closer to one of Budd Boetticher’s better efforts than the average release from Republic or Monogram. Especially compared with its predecessor, it’s also closer to Ride Lonesome or Seven Men from Now than Unforgiven or Shane, and that’s a compliment.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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