Thor: The Dark World opened last night, and my wife and I were in the mood for something fun and silly, and so we went. We had a ball. It was terrific, an entertaining, exciting, immensely ridiculous movie.
This whole Marvel comics/Avengers/extended narrative thing strikes me as real-life high stakes pop culture gamble. We got The Avengers. We got the first Thor movie, the first Captain America movie, three Iron Man movies, a Hulk movie, with many more to follow. They’re all going to be expensive, which means the franchise can’t actually afford any major flops. We saw trailers for the next Captain America movie, and a sneak preview of the next Thor, of course there’ll be another Avengers movie. There’s even a TV series in the same vein: Marvel’s Agents of Shield. They all take place in the same conceptual universe, and they all reference each other. So in this one, when Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) first sees Loki (Tom Hiddleston), she slaps him, hard, and says “that’s for New York.” This would, of course, be totally nonsensical to anyone who hasn’t seen The Avengers. But, of course, we’re all going to see all of them. Well, I am. Heck, they’re fun.
What they really are, of course, are just good old nineteenth century melodramas. Look at the characters: hero, heroine, villain, hero’s sidekick(s), heroine’s sidekick(s), villain’s sidekick(s). Authority figure character, to represent the moral order of the universe. Mixture of comedy and seriousness, cliff-hanger scenes, final physical confrontation between hero and villain, won by the hero. Villain with unseemly designs on the physical person of the heroine. Who gets rescued by the hero, at the last possible second. The one big difference has to do with gender politics; our age won’t tolerate a passive, weak heroine. But audiences still require sexually alluring actresses. So the gender double-bind Hollywood seems unable to escape–we need a heroine who can kick serious ass, but who is also incandescently hot.
Which is a itty-little problem here. Natalie Portman’s a fine actress, but in this film she isn’t given much to do, and we don’t really get what Thor sees in her. Especially since he’s got a female Viking warrior BFF, Sif, clearly in love with him, played by Jaimie Alexander, who is arguably hotter than Natalie Portman, quite a bit more charismatic, and who unquestionably would cost the producers a heckuva lot less to hire. And Natalie Portman is given another love interest! Chris O’Dowd brings his teddy-bear charm to an ordinary bloke who clearly is into her, in a pretty hilarious date scene. Love triangles are messy–love rectangles would seem to have a ready-made solution.
This film repurposes Loki from Villain to Hero’s Sidekick, a much better role for him anyway. And Tom Hiddleston walks off with the movie. Loki is conniving, deceitful, untrustworthy, but also (when it comes to crunch time), heroic. And he enjoys it all–in an early trial scene with Odin (Anthony Hopkins, great as always), Loki seems genuinely hurt that anyone would be troubled by his antics in New York. “Thousands of people died” shouts Odin, and Loki brushes it off–he fully intended to rule benevolently, and the fact that they didn’t want to be ruled at all was sheer perversity on their part. Hiddleston masters that ‘naughty boy’ smirk, but, under it, there’s vulnerability: he wants To Be Loved By Daddy.
Next to Loki, Thor could come across as a humorless Nordic block of granite. But aside from looking amazing, Chris Hemsworth brings a surprisingly agile sense of comic timing to the character. One thing this Marvel series has figured out is this: the movies are going to be expensive to make, and one place you can cut costs is on movie stars. It’s way more cost-effective to create them than to hire them. And so it is with Hemsworth–he’s so good looking, and so likeable as Thor, I’ll see anything he’s in, from terrific movies (Rush), to kaka poo-poo movies (Red Dawn). And so will my wife.
The plot of the movie is, of course, gibberish, but it’s portentous gibberish, lending itself neatly to imposing Middle-Earth-y sets and spectacular effects. Something about a race of once vanquished Dark Elves, now returned, and a super powerful energy source called the Aether, which they intend to use to destroy the 9 Universes, including Asgard, and of course also including Earth. One day every several thousand years, the Realms all line up neatly, and on that day, the Dark Elves intend to extract Aether from poor Jane, who for some reason has been storing it for them. There’s a scene where this reddish fluid-y thing engulfs her, which was pretty cool-looking. But it means that through most of the movie she looks sort of pale and wan and near-death–a thankless role, frankly, for Natalie Portman.
But this whole 9 Realms Aligned thing leads to a terrific climax. As scientist Jane explains, this Convergence thing is going to lead to all kinds of worm holes and gravitational anomalies, which she can anticipate and maneuver with this remote control dealie she’s invented. So the final fight between main Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), and Thor takes place in the midst of all these shifts between realms–once depositing Thor on the London Tube, where he catches the train to Greenwich, where the final battle’s taking place. Meanwhile, remember, Thor has that big ol’ hammer thing, which he both wields and throws. But it gets lost between worlds, and is constantly chasing Thor around as he fights successively on all these strange looking planets. A terrific conceit, very fun, pretty funny at times. I like the imagination of it. It never quite crosses the line to complete silliness, but it keeps the world of the film grounded in pop culture epic grandeur, which is itself plenty silly.
The movie gets lots of comic mileage from Mad Scientist Erik Selvig, splendidly played, sans trousers, by Stellan Skarsgård. And from Jane’s assistant, Darcy, a well nigh prototypical heroine’s sidekick, the delightful (in small doses), Kat Dennings. Best of all, the imposing presence of Idris Elba, so terrific in Pacific Rim, who brings such integrity to the expanded role of the Gatekeeper, Heimdall.
And then, the movie ends, closing credits start. But don’t leave. We suddenly get an extra scene, in which, apparently, Benicio del Toro will play yet another creepy looking bad guy in the next Thor movie. Which is, of course, the fun of this series. They’re not just dessert movies. They’re movies that promise dessert tomorrow as well, and the tomorrow after that.