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THOR: THE DARK WORLD (review)

Review by Matt Stogdon
Produced by Kevin Feige
Screenplay by Christopher Yost, 
Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Story by Don Payne, Robert Rodat
Based on Thor by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby
Directed by Alan Taylor
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, 
Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, 
Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Zachary Levi,
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson,
Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo

Marvel Studios/Disney / Rated PG-13

Impartiality.

As a critic, it’s not something I struggle with but an image I struggle to maintain. I love comics but as Marvel Studios are releasing exceptional comic adaptations, I feel the need to be overly critical or at least seen to be, to ensure my opinions are unbiased.

Well bugger that.

I have no desire to penalise a film because I enjoyed it. Finding genuine fault with Thor: The Dark World has been incredibly difficult, so I’m going to stop trying.

What I will do, however, is keep this review spoiler free and not prattle on about the monk’s rewards – because by now we can count on at least two or three post-credit sequences with Marvel films and they’re not relevant to this review.. even if they are awesome.

The film opens with the Asgardian legend of the Dark Elf Malekith [Eccleston], who forged a weapon of pure malevolence, called the Aether. With it, he planned to revert the universe back to a state of darkness and kill all life on every known world. His plan was thwarted by Odin’s father Bor and Malekith sacrificed the majority of his own people to make his escape, waiting in darkness and silence for his day of vengeance. Much like The Lord Of The Rings, it was in the Asgardian’s power to destroy the Aether but instead they buried it and removed its existence from the history books.

The morons, what could possibly go wrong with a plan like that?

Cut to the present day and bar his appearance in New York to recover Loki [Hiddleston] in The Avengers, Thor [Hemsworth] has not returned to Earth in nearly two years.

Subsequently, Jane Foster [Portman] has moved to London in an attempt to track down anomalies with similar patterns and signatures to the one seen in New Mexico, during the events of Thor.

Thor, however, has been preoccupied with keeping peace in the nine realms, after the destruction of the bifrost in the first film. But when Jane makes a discovery in London that coincides with a galactic convergence, Malekith’s awakening and the mysterious but powerful Aether, Thor is forced to intervene and set in motion a series of epic events, filled with revelation, disparity and loss.

Continuing the Marvel film formula of equal parts action, drama and humour, Thor: The Dark World feels like a wonderful follow-up to the events of The Avengers; big enough that a global threat is implied but not to the degree that the audience quietly murmurs ‘where are SHIELD and the Avengers?’, as they did in Iron Man 3. Although there are several climactic and expository scenes on Earth, this story doesn’t make the mistake of Green Lantern and favour a localised setting over a fantastical one. Instead, the film revels in its cosmic locations, hinting at all of the nine realms and the various creatures that inhabit them, while demonstrating the sheer vastness of the ever-expanding Marvel cinematic universe.

First thing to note is the production redesign. Not to batter Kenneth Branagh’s Thor film (’cause I still like it) but everything felt far too shiny and clean and new and ..to be honest.. CGI. Finally, Asgard lives and breathes as a sprawling city of columns, wood and rock. Everything feels elemental and real, affording the fantastical touches (specifically the bifrost and floating skiffs) a sense of grounded realism – to a degree. The costumes are equally nice, ditching the clear pristine colours and slightly fake plasticy aesthetic to one of hard-wearing, long-worn, flowing leather and fabric. Then there’s the new addition of the Dark Elves, who have a subtly terrifying visual presence with their tall proud stance, unrelenting drive and eerie expressionless masks.

Of course, no matter how pretty the film is, without a decent story or the right actors to portray it, the film would be lost. From the returning cast, to the new additions, each and every role is played out exceptionally well. As with previous Marvel releases, Hemsworth and Hiddleston more than happily steal the show. While his range may feel arguably a little two-dimensional, Hemsworth plays Thor exactly as the character should be. If anything, his role as space cop and heir apparent is weighing heavily on him and his loyalties between his duties and his heart are constantly torn – which, for an actor, is gold.

Then there’s Hiddleston as the infinitely charismatic and enchanting Loki. The man is beyond wondrous. The fun he has playing the role is so unbelievably evident but rather than simply rinsing-and-repeating the same one liners and actions (a very comic book mindset, I might add), the actor insisted there would no point in returning unless there’s something new to tell. Here we see the internal struggle with being a true villain or simply a mischievous child, for Loki is more than just one-liners and a sea of grins, he is a deeply troubled individual; which is something that really comes across in his various illusions. No longer just a way to duplicate himself tricking people to charging off cliffs or into glass prisons, he uses them to mock, to deceive and to hide his own frailty. Utilising a simple gimmick like this to expand the character’s very core is incredibly clever and unfolds sublimely throughout.

Portman’s return as Jane Foster is both confident and sincere, ensuring that she has something different to do this time, while being treated with contempt by the surrounding Asgardians. Rather than simply running around fawning over Thor, she plays an active role in each of the action/drama/comedy events and proves herself braver than most.

Then we have the new villain (or old villain as the story suggests), the Dark Elf Malekith, played by Christopher Eccleston. I’m not really an Eccleston fan and every time he’s cast in something I roll my eyes and prepare for the worst. Then I see him in said role and he always surprises me. Malekith is driven, malicious and merciless. While I wouldn’t say he’s true evil, he’s a beautifully crafted opponent and an interesting character to explore. I could happily identify each and every supporting role, highlighting their developments and progressions but in all honesty, there’s really no need. Suffice it to say, the supports provide excellent bursts of excitement and laughs without hindering the story or feeling too silly or out of place.

While I have found it very difficult to personally fault the film, I have a few flaws that I believe others could highlight. Do I agree with these points? Not at all. Why bring them up? To show that I understand people’s complaints and dismiss them entirely. The film is helmed by brilliant direction but one thing the film lacks is a signature. Which is a bit contradictory. Great pacing, graceful camera movements, stellar cinematography, neat editing, well choreographed fights and action and yet the whole thing feels like television directing, where the director’s personality doesn’t really come through. In other words, I could say anyone directed this film and you’d have a hard time disproving it.

Equally, Brian Tyler’s score, which was a perfect match for Iron Man 3 was a little drab and uneventful. Sure it fit, sure it didn’t feel as cheesy as Patrick Doyle’s but it lacked presence. There’s also a huge amount of fantasy science fiction at work here and if that’s not your thing, you’re going to hate every minute of this. Also, there’s not a great deal of backstory dialogue, so if you haven’t seen the previous Marvel films (specifically Thor and The Avengers) you may be a bit lost. Personally, I love this. I hate when sequels feel the need to pander to new audiences. Sod new audiences. If they don’t know what’s going on, that’s their own fault. Go buy the first film on DVD for a fiver and catch up. Idiot. But yes, as a standalone film, it’s a bit much and very exclusionary.

To my mind, Thor: The Dark World has done something greater than simply providing us with a continuing story. It has proven that you don’t need Robert Downey, Jr. to make a really entertaining, successful comic movie. I’m not saying that as a dig to Downey, Jr., more to the public/media’s impression of Marvel films. The stories and characters that can be drawn upon are infinite and so unbelievably rich that the potential for great movies, in the right hands, is limitless.

Matthew Stogdon is a film critic at The Red Right Hand Film Reviews as well as a director and partner at Cheesemint Productions.

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