I don’t see superhero movies often, but when I do I like them to be as fun and engaging as Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World. And for those of us who geeked out as children and young adults to European mythology, there is something vaguely intellectually satisfying about it as well, although that may be stretching the truth to over-justify my appreciation.
‘Geek’ is the operative word here: Like most superheroes, Thor as a character represents the pinnacle of what lonely nerds everywhere develop as a messianic avatar, a persona that rules the rich inner world they create as compensation for the dismal world they actually inhabit. It’s been a long time since I was the miserable youngster who exiled himself gladly to that internal fantasy land, where I fought impossible odds and governed wisely as a benign-but-absolute king of kings. I had a particularly unhappy childhood, so that psychogenic world remained alive and operative until some point in my early thirties. I don’t remember when that point was, precisely, all I know is I realized one day I was no longer escaping inwardly and living outwardly in this dimension and no other. The portal into the more fantastical parts of my imagination was as hermetically sealed as a dwarvish door to Tolkien’s Moria. Still, I remember those realms fondly, and if a movie like Thor can take me back there, then I am glad for the opportunity.
While I can identify with geeky comic-book lovers, with those ‘losers’ who would rather attend a cosplay convention in San Diego than the fashion collections in Paris, what do those few at the top of the pecking order who have no need to develop a fantasy world think? Interestingly, I saw this Thor with a friend who is arguably better looking than Chris Hemsworth and at least as well built, a former Marine who is something of a real-life superhero, complete with shining, smiling chivalrous personality. He fell asleep three times, underwhelmed by the film, whereas I was struggling to figure out why I wanted to be Tom Hiddleston’s Loki — and Hiddleston is one of the few franchise actors who is so singular that he can claim brand ownership over his role — rather than Thor himself. And when I wasn’t identifying with the evil-ish, conflicted characters I was ticking off the symbolism and references to Norse mythology like a numismatist running a hoard of old coins through his fingers.
As we were leaving the movie, I commented about Chris Hemsworth’s body — his contract-mandated shirtless scene is a study in Nordic male pulchritude. My companion said simply, “When I look at that, all I think is how much better my body is.” It would appear that for the uncommon, gorgeous alpha-plus males in our society who have been loved and admired their whole lives, who have had such happy childhoods that their mouths are permanently turned upwards (unlike mine, which curves towards hell, whence it was forged), the superhero has little meaning. “And I just don’t get all that magic stuff,” my friend concluded. “Gravity was so much better.” Well, you wouldn’t understand the magic stuff unless you needed to believe in it when you were a child as the only hope to get you through the day.
In this particular messianic tale, Thor and friends are faced with the extinction of not just this world, but all nine worlds over which Thor, his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and their fellow Asgardians have dominion and guardianship. A race of dark elves under the leadership of the rather obviously named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston slathered with so much latex he is no longer himself) is coming back for the rare convergence of the nine worlds after being dormant for two generations Norse gods, or around ten thousand years. This Convergence is a sort of multidimensional Age of Aquarius, but rather than harmony and understanding, existence will go from light to dark if Malekith and his minions get a hold of the Aether, an ethereal, malign super-weapon, which seeks out Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and possesses her, for no good reason other than she happens to be in the right place at the wrong space-time continuum. Mayhem ensues, then mayhem is set right, then end of story.
We’ve seen this all before, of course. It’s all about how the story is told, about the creative use of destruction and subsequent salvation, and in that respect this Thor is superior to its predecessor, which was directed by the unlikely Kenneth Branagh. I have no idea why it is superior, just as I have no idea why this film works but Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim didn’t. I’m sure if I compared scripts and films sequence by sequence I could arrive at the crux of it, but ultimately it’s up to the convergence or divergence of the multiple feral variables that are integral to the filmmaking process, and those variables are almost as indefinable as they are uncontrollable.
Taylor inherited a certain look for Asgard from Branagh, which I found tacky and distracting in the first film. Production designer Bo Welch’s original sets evoked Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical epic as interpreted by an over-the-top Los Angeles interior decorator for wealthy oil people, Arabs, Russians and Texans alike. I have no idea how involved the production designer is in the actual final look of an effects-laden movie like this, shot as it is with such a heavy mix of green screen, so the fault for the design ultimately lies with Branagh. Taylor manages to work a culturally inappropriate visual treatment that has little to do with ancient Scandinavia or Germany and bring it back in line with the aesthetic that Peter Jackson has determined for our modern view of Norse-based fantasy films. This shameless appropriation — but Tolkien himself was appropriating from the original Thor and Family’s sagas and characters — works in Taylor’s favor, as does a pacy script that doesn’t care if you needed more time to digest that last bit, much less to understand it, there are nine worlds on the edge of eternal misery, damnit!
The dark elves are probably the most solid and direct bridge to Tolkien. He called them orcs, but these are no slobbering, misshapen monsters, but genuinely creepy and menacing creatures, slick terrors in molded plastic Halloween masks, an army of Jason Vooheeses from Friday the 13th with pointy ears and awesome grenades that crumple time and space like scrapped paper and kick it into another dimension.
That interplay of dimensions and the action getting sucked from one reality into another reaches a crescendo in the climax battle scene, a device that serves the filmmakers well — you’ve seen this fight many times in the past, but not done quite this way. Those aerialist sequences are punctuated by some James Bond-worthy quips that elicited more than a few laughs from me.
Anthony Hopkins is enjoying his semi-retirement by waddling around overblown sets and intoning his lines with that signature monotone delivery, which allows him to crisply enunciate the most thudding of sententious dialogue, flipping words like they’re pancakes and his tongue’s a spatula.Then he pops the scene with a SINGLE LOUD SENTENCE that makes you think, Gosh, Sir Tony, what a thespian thou art despite the crap amidst which thou wadest!
As for Portman, she’s just a rag doll tossed by the gods literally from pillar to post, or from pillar to flying supersonic Viking longboat. Her dynamic with Hemsworth is too dubious and a bit of a joke, but you overlook it — no geek wants too much romance. In this movie she is less the young perplexed lass than ever, and ever more womanly, one might even say a mini Penélope Cruz. Perhaps it was all of the sudden whooshing from one dimension into the next, from Earth to Asgard in the pneumatic arms of an Australian Norse god with a large hammer, but her hair was always perfectly blown out, or red-carpet ready as we say in Hollywood.
I know: I should have reviewed The Book Thief, but the trailer for that looked so unfortunate and I loved the book too well to see it turned into what looks like a marzipan version of a Grimm’s fairytale set in Nazi Germany. If you dig superhero movies, then Thor: The Dark World is a good one, almost up there with Avengers. Otherwise, I would listen to my real-life superhero friend and see Gravity again.