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November 20, 2013

Thor: The Dark World: Bring the Hammer Down

You know what I think?  The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s greatest strength is just how captivating it is. 

The idea of a shared universe/canon might have been absurd at one point, but by and large it’s worked.  It’s worked for individual movies, and it’s worked for the movies as part of a single unit.  I’m not saying that every movie is a flawless masterpiece, but the strength of each one is that they have the potential to surpass the “turn your brain off popcorn movie” stigma and offer up something meaningful under the guise of a suited hero punching dudes really hard.  The movies force you to move at their pace -- and that’s not entirely a bad thing.  It’s a sign that a viewer (or me, at least) is getting invested.

That said, I can’t help but think back to the first Thor movie.  As you can guess, I saw it back before I started the blog and started thinking more critically than ever before -- so naturally, I ended up calling it a good movie when asked, and went so far as to put it in the third slot of an informal “top 5 Marvel movies: list” once upon a time.  Thinking back, I wonder if I went too easy on the movie, especially in the wake of complaints before, during, and after screenings.  Did I miss something?  Did I get too swept up in the Norse-on-Norse action?  Hard to say, but if I had to guess based on evidence -- based on The Dark World hovering around the 66% mark on Rotten Tomatoes -- people aren’t quite as forgiving as I am.  But I had to see the movie for myself to judge for myself.  To give the movie a fair shake.

What did I think?  Well, let’s just say you know you’re in good hands when you can reference a power metal song in the blog title.

WARNING: SPOILERS IMMINENT.  If you have any interest in seeing the movie raw and without being swayed by others’ opinions beforehand, then you should…hey, you know what I just realized?  Thor did like five Mighty Smashes in this movie.  That’s pretty cool.  I think he got an OTG off of one of them, but he dropped the combo.  Good thing he had X-Factor.


I’ll be blunt, then.  Yes, I think Thor: The Dark World is a good movie.  Pretty good.  Not flawless.  Not demanding of infinite praise, but worthy of some hefty praise.  Is it better than The Avengers?  It has its strong points, but no, I don’t think it is.  Even so, it’s a better movie than Iron Man 3 (and I’ll explain why in a minute).  Is it a deep and thought-provoking movie?  Yes and no; its themes and ideas are in place, but it’s an inherently simple movie.  Is it possible to skip this movie without missing something vital in the canon?  It’s hard to say at this point; there’s some setup for the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie (ROCKET-ROCKET-ROCKET SKATES!), and some concepts worth taking note of, but I don’t think you’ll be locked out if you can’t make it to The Dark World.

If there’s one issue that I want to bring up now, it’s my personal reaction to the movie.  Yes, I like it, and yes, I think it’s good.  And yes, like Captain America, Iron Man 3, and The Avengers, I kept their leitmotifs in my head for hours afterward.  But I’m starting to feel concerned.  Like I said, the Marvel movies are good at captivating you, and forcing you to move at their pace.  That’s their trick -- but in light of this movie, I wonder if that trick will work forever.  We’re entrenched in superhero movies, but that level of popularity might not be sustainable; when superhero movies -- the Marvel movies -- become routine, the magic of seeing Cap do a Shield Slash or Thor go for a Mighty Strike ends up diminished.  The Dark World is still good enough to earn a pass, but how much longer it or any other movies keep delivering those thrills is up in the air.


Maybe it’s a problem with TDW in its own right.  I went in more worried than hyped, and while I walked out of the movie satisfied, I wasn’t exactly electrified by what I’d just seen.  That’s more than a little strange, because everything came together and there weren’t any glaring faults, but I was ready to walk away with a lot more excitement than I would have guessed.  I’ve been thinking about it for a bit, and I think I just might have an answer as to why: in spite of its bombast and in spite of its fantastic styling, TDW is, believe it or not, decidedly low-key.  Whether or not that’s a bad thing, I’ll have it figured out by post’s end.

So let’s start from the top and see what we come up with.

The plot of the movie is pretty straightforward.  Long ago, reality as we know it was covered in darkness before the rise of things like planets and dimensions and whatnot.  While that ended up being a good thing in the case of, you know, life, the Dark Elves (not to be confused with Night Elves) wanted to return everything to the darkness where they thought it belonged.  Their intent was to use a special energy -- the aether -- to enact their plan.  But the Asgardians collectively shouted “I ain’t havin’ that” and decided to wage war, and succeeded in sealing away the aether and slaughtering the Dark Elves wholesale.  But with the nine realms aligning and Thor’s main squeeze Jane Foster uncovering -- and absorbing -- the aether, the Dark Elves are on the move again in an attempt to finish what they started.  And it’s up to a certain god of thunder to sort it all out before it’s too late…presumably because he has THE best chest in the universe.  Seriously, in the first ten minutes or so there’s a slow pan up Chris Hemsworth’s shirtless torso.  Even I ended up going “Damn.  Maybe it's a good thing he stays fully clothed most of the time.”


Obviously you can’t talk about a Thor movie without talking about Thor.  What I find interesting about this character and this movie is that at points I found myself wondering, “Wait, is it just me, or did Thor gain like thirty IQ points between movies?”  If I’m not mistaken, it’s Thor who makes the movie’s best laid plans.  It’s Thor who acts as the voice of reason.  It’s Thor who’s calm and accommodating -- and even meditative -- even when the world around him is under fire.  Considering what kind of person he was at the start of his first movie, this is a pretty huge departure. 

I guess it’s more appropriate to say that Thor has gotten more mature, not necessarily smarter.  That brashness is still a part of him, but he’s in control of it, and only brings it out when it’s appropriate (like when someone needs smashing).  The circumstances of the past and present demanded that Thor be a more level-headed character; he’s next in line to become the king, and that trading of hands brings with it a series of clashes with his desires (Jane, being a frontline fighter), his place in the world (a call back to the first movie very nearly makes Thor look like an alien among his fellow Asgardians), and of course his opposition to big daddy Odin.  The Allfather is set in his ways, and after an attack on Asgard he’s ready to enact a full-scale war on the Dark Elves with their home as the battleground; Thor wants to use more subtle tactics and drastically minimize casualties, but at the same time greatly increase the risk of failure.  It’s a clash of kings; the concept of responsibility, kingship, and the like end up being circulated throughout the movie -- by Thor, by Loki, by Odin, and even by the big baddie Malekith.  It’s interesting stuff, to be sure.


Thor’s maturation is a credit to the movie in a lot of ways, but it’s also sort of its weakness.  As I’ve said a thousand times before, the main character decides the nature of the story -- and Thor ends up affecting the movie in the same fashion.  The humor (and Thor’s bluster) is still there, but there’s a level of solemnity that I wasn’t expecting.  It’s something that, on the one hand, I approve of; Iron Man 3 was flippant almost to the point of excess, and ended up hurting itself because of that, while TDW manages to mix its humor and gravity FAR more effectively.  The tradeoff is that I kind of miss that swagger to Thor.  Yes, he has the weight of the world on his shoulders -- and justifiably so -- but it feels like there’s a part of him and his presence that’s missing.  He never reaches the dearth of, say, Man of Steel Superman, but it feels like there could have been more to the character.  Not MUCH more, but still more.

Incidentally, I can’t say the same for Loki.  I feel like I got plenty out of him, and as expected, he adds plenty to the movie.  That’s to be expected, since he was one of the best things to come out of the original Thor, and while he might not get as much time on camera (don’t quote me on that one, though), he makes his presence known.  Ignoring the fact that he’s a key piece of Thor’s plan -- he’s the only one that knows a secret passage to the Dark Elves’ world, and pulls a nasty trick on both the Elves and the audience -- he gets some of the best lines, the best interaction with Thor, and some genuinely impactful moments.  He’s a trickster, but he’s not without emotions and a heart.  You DO get to see him broken down at one point, and his words thereafter carry some real weight.

…He’s still an asshole, though.


The other characters all play their parts well.  When Jane reunites with Thor, she skirts the line between being justifiably angry about why he never showed up, and de-evolving into the “nagging girlfriend” stereotype; fortunately that only lasts for a scene or two, and in exchange she alternates between genuinely making herself useful (with the POWER OF SCIENCE, natch) and exuding her own charms by being an earnest, if awkward, go-getter.  You could say the same for the rest of Team Human; Darcy has no problems speaking her mind to hilarious effect, Erik gets his dues in a minor subplot before linking up with the main adventure, and new guy Ian is pretty much there to get crapped all over (which is to be expected when you’re sharing a universe with the God of Upper Body Appeal). 

The non-humans are a bit more hit-or-miss.  Odin and Heimdall are definite hits, though; Odin’s the wise king, but in the face of the Dark Elf threat -- and his father’s legacy fresh in his mind -- in a lot of ways he ends up becoming as hot-blooded as Thor, and then some.  And as you’d expect, Idris Elba owns this movie.  (I think that’s a clause in his contract somewhere.)  Heimdall may play the role of doorman guardian, but that doesn’t stop him from leaping off a bridge, stabbing an invisible ship with two daggers, and taking it down single-handedly.  It’s a shame that the so-called “Warriors Three” don’t get nearly as much time to shine.  Lady Sif gets some, yes -- on the battlefield and off it -- but not nearly as much as I would have hoped.  But the others?  I couldn’t tell you their names without looking it up on a wiki, which is a shame because by nature they’re pretty interesting.  It’s a problem I had with the original Thor, and it’s sad to see that it’s a problem repeated here.  Better luck next time, guys.


Where the movie really drops the ball is with -- of all things -- its main villain, Malekith.  He has a commanding presence, and he is something of a mover-and-shaker, but there’s just not that much to him.  He wants the world to return to darkness and primordial chaos because… I don’t know.  That’s just the way he wants the world to be.  Tradition, the principle of having his world be a cesspool of green-tinted dust and decay, revenge against Asgard for murdering his people, an earnest effort to remove the need for mood-lighting…it’s hard to say for sure besides an educated guess.  But beyond that, he doesn’t have as much oomph to him as Loki did in the first movie; say what you will about that one, but I believed in Loki as a villain (even a tragic one) in spite of his lack of raw physical power.  With Malekith, they just took a big step backward.  Who do you get to rival Thor when he’s already beaten and is now working with one of his more notable enemies?  I can tell you right now that it isn’t Malekith, but I guess it’s too late for that.

Okay, so what is it that makes this movie good?  What’s memorable?  What’s the takeaway, if not as a would-be writing hero, then as a common movie-goer?  This is going to sound contradictory to pretty much everything I’ve ever said about video games, but simply put?  It’s the visuals.

Well, maybe not the visuals per se.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re good (though I’ve heard that the 3D isn’t all that great -- and even then, 3D movies are a crapshoot), but it’s more about what they do with the visuals rather than how many millions they shot out of a money cannon at the movie.  Even more so than the last movie, Asgard and the non-earthly realms -- but especially Asgard -- are fully realized, and a treat to see.  Admittedly things do feel like they belong in a Star Wars movie at times (the Dark Elves’ fighters are eerily reminiscent of the dopey B-Wings), but even the fantasy/sci-fi fusion is remarkably interesting.  The battle in Asgard between the Dark Elves and the Asgardians lends the fight a major level of scale -- and you could say the same about the mere presence of Asgard.  Generally speaking, if you’re going to this movie to see things explode, you won’t be left wanting...which is to be expected when your lead character is a god.


But it goes beyond that.  Maybe this is just the Norse mythology fan in me speaking (I had a moment when one of Odin’s ravens showed up), but I feel like even with the glimpses of these fantasy worlds, I’m getting my fill of the story, the context of the other realm, and most of all the culture of beings that have lived and fought for thousands of years.  You can’t blame pre-character development Thor for being a beer-guzzling blowhard when he’s surrounded by people who spend their nights partying and getting drunk off their asses.  The art of fighting means a lot to these people, but so do tradition, filial piety, and loyalty.  The Asgardians may be people that live and breathe on the battlefield, but they do so for more than just glory or power; under Odin’s (and to a lesser extent Thor’s) example they fight to protect the peace -- to ensure that the worlds thrive and coexist by any means necessary.  They just have a hell of a good time doing it.

What’s most striking about this movie, however, has nothing to do with the fighting.  Well, tangentially it does; the major effect of the Dark Elf invasion is that Frigga, Odin’s wife -- Thor and Loki’s mother, even if it’s purely by adoption for the latter -- dies while keeping Jane safe.  (It’s worth noting, though, that she doesn’t go down without a fight…and man oh man, what a fight.)  It’s this event that makes Odin want to resort to extremes for the sake of revenge, makes Thor seethe with quiet fury while he concocts a plan, and Loki go from resentful prisoner to mutual supporter of the cause.  More importantly, Frigga’s death leads to what I consider the best scene in the movie: the funeral scene.


It’s safe to say that it’s supposed to be the “darkest hour” of the movie, but for me it had the opposite effect; it was just such an interesting concept that I got excited more than dismayed.  Frigga gets sent off on a ship onto Asgardian waters, and her ship gets set ablaze by arrows.  But she doesn’t go alone; every Asgardian that died in the attack heads out with her, and together they travel over the edge of a waterfall.  And amidst it all, the souls of the dead and the living converge, released into the starry sky.  It’s a sad, but hauntingly beautiful scene.  Moreover, it tells us even more about the culture; they’re a people that value life and WILL live it to its fullest.  But they only do so because they understand death.  They know death, and the weight it carries.  It’s something to feel remorseful about, but in a way, it’s something to celebrate.  Frigga died in the noblest way possible, as did her fellow warriors.  That’s something to be proud of, and something to honor in those final moments.  That’s something communicated in a way TDW understands, and can offer up to the audience with only a few words spoken.  There’s a level of intelligence here that’s really appreciable.

I guess it goes to show how important or useful a setting can be for a story.  Iron Man 3 is still a good movie; that much I’ll stand by for a while yet.  But TDW has an advantage that goes just beyond keeping control of its tone (it’s not constantly reaching for a joke, and those that do are more along the lines of quick and dare I say it “cute” little moments).  With TDW, the setting itself becomes a character, in the same sense that Captain America: The First Avenger was enhanced by showing us a world in the midst of WWII with the fleshing-out that a hungry viewer would look for.  It really makes for a stronger movie, being able to see a new and exciting world before your eyes. 




Or Heimdall's eyes.  Man, Idris Elba just OWNS every movie he's in.

But even with Asgard, even with Heimdall, even with more Mighty Sparks than you can shake a DP at, is it enough to take TDW to the next level? 

In some ways, yes.  In other ways, no.  There are still some missteps with the movie; nobody ever has the idea of gagging Loki -- even though his mouth got sewn shut in the mythology -- and one of the trickster god’s schemes can be called hours beforehand (which makes you wonder why a suddenly-smarter Thor wouldn’t pick up on it).  Team Human ends up helping in the long run, but before they fully mesh with the plot one can’t help but wonder if they and their scenes really belong in the movie, even if there are some good laughs.  Merely the fact that the Dark Elves’ technology works after thousands of years of inactivity makes me raise an eyebrow.  But in the end, those are all nitpicks.  And bad ones at that; a good nitpick will point out fundamental flaws in a work, not just scrape at the edges for something to talk about.

Maybe the problem with TDW is that while it’s still a good product, it’s also a simple product.  It’s straightforward.  The days when merely having a high-quality superhero movie was a statistical impossibility are over; now you can count on one per season.  Is TDW a signal that the genre is about to become stagnant?  Is the movie itself coasting on goodwill from other movies, and choosing to build up future titles instead of making itself the best it can be?

Let me answer that for you.


TDW may not be the greatest movie ever, but it does have plenty of juice in it.  More than enough to earn a pass, and even a recommendation from me.  It’s true that the genre is going to get oversaturated one day (if it isn’t already), and there’s going to be one movie that either signals or embodies the downturn.  But that day isn’t today, and it’s not this movie.  There may not be too much to say about TDW, but there’s not much to complain about, either.  I’m glad I saw it, and I hope if you see or have seen it, you feel the same way.

And that’s precisely why I’m putting it HERE on my SmartChart™:


And that’ll do it for now.  See you guys around.  You should know by now that I’m always on the lookout for the next electrifying story, and while there’s no telling where my search will lead me next, I know that one day soon I’ll be --


YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

8 comments:

  1. Hammer glittering
    Rainbow bridge-

    Screw it. Maybe next time.

    Gah! You're motivating me to think about Marvel movies more than I ever thought I should. I've been to many of them, but aside from Avengers (curse this lack of italics and my distaste for quotes!), I've never tried to sit down and analyze them. I dissect movies continuously, yet ones of the Marvel variety tend to slip through my cranium like a whisper. I think I'm in denial. In my viewings as a humble tourist, I sensed more beneath the surface of these majestic beasts of the cinematic savannah.

    To foreshadow a comparison that's already incipient: we need to go deeper.

    I'm going to engage in some needless soul searching and deliver my conclusions a little later in a needlessly protracted reply to this comment. Until then, I'm going to ask whether or not you've seen Gravity and what your conclusions were therein. I'm personally underwhelmed -- and I hope that valuation won't tip your hand -- but I'd appreciate your insight.

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  2. As a side note:

    We liked Bioshock : Infinite. Apparently we're brain dead now, according to critic Leigh Alexander.

    Never mind that the same metric she's using to damn us forms her supposed salvation in the Last of Us.

    Disagreement's well and good, but she doesn't seem to afford any room to her opponents.

    Just like sharing the pain.

    https://twitter.com/leighalexander/status/346602389698142208

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  3. I was going to see Gravity with my brother at one point, but our plans fell through for one reason or another. (Probably because he got really into Assassin's Creed 4, and couldn't be bothered with anything else.) I suspect that it's a good movie, but I doubt it's the revelation people might think it is. No such movie exists. Ideas like that are what lead people to the conclusion that high-rated works are flawless and impossible to criticize -- and I don't think I need to tell you how and why that's been proven wrong in the past and present.


    Anyway, to be frank the only reason I get in so deep with the Marvel movies is because those are the only movies I consistently watch. I don't think I've missed any of them since Iron Man 2, so it's safe to say I'm fairly invested in this so-called cinematic universe. Still, if they're going to make a cinematic universe, that's all the more reason TO analyze them, yes?


    Then again, that would mean I'd have to go back and watch some of the older movies. And I'm worried if I watch the original Thor again, I might not be so kind to it as I was before. Guess we'll have to wait and see.

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  4. She's a witch! Burn her at the stake!


    No, just kidding. I've never really understood why Infinite suddenly became a worse (even terrible) game just because TLoU came out, but that seems to be the general consensus...for whatever reason. Infinite wasn't a perfect game, but it was an incredibly solid game that did a lot of things right -- more things than most games these days. More things than TLoU, if you ask me.


    But I guess that's just how it is with unpopular opinions. I took a lot of crap from my friends for not liking TLoU, and while I disagree strongly -- STRONGLY -- with them about the quality of the game, I'll gladly recognize their enjoyment of it. Say what you will about TLoU, but people can and have gotten a lot out of it, and that has to stand for something. Same goes for Infinite. We don't have to harass one another over brass tacks.


    Oh wait, of course we do. It's the internet.

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  5. I shall absolutely put value in the enjoyment they've gotten from it. At the same time, these sorts of comments from Alexander seem to be given divine right by the current zeitgeist when no one's comments deserve it.

    (I wasn't kidding about that "brain damage" comment. If you follow the conversation she has under the tweet, she names it as such.)

    You have to admit that it's a little silly that she's saying critical acclaim amounts to something in TLoU's case, but not Bioshock Infinite's. Enthusiastic cherry picking, I'd wager. Cherry picking that's encouraged because it feels so *right* to those who share it.

    In any case, I think the big problem with games journalism is that it's mixing up journalism and criticism into one big blender, turning it into prescriptive critique when, well, that form of critique never meaningfully existed in the first place. Criticism is performative, meaning it's the reader side of the reader-text relationship expressing itself (something I think you do very well). Gaming journalism just has a lot of people pointing fingers and accusing each other of "holding the medium back." This sort of motivating force pushes those people to insult a work's appreciators or to bootstrap themselves into a position of authority over creators. The first is intellectual dishonesty (such as Leigh's exhibiting in her tweets) and the second is despotic.

    Frankly, no one in film or literature had this obsession with pushing [their version of] the medium forward to the same extent the self-proclaimed gaming intelligentsia have taken it. I'm worried that discourse about games is sliding into prescriptivism as a go-to stance.

    Now I'd like to share a pertinent quote about criticism from John Leonard that I liked a lot:

    First, as in Hippocrates, do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite. Fourth, look with an open heart and mind at every different kind of book with every change of emotional weather because we are reading for our lives and that could be love gone out the window or a horseman on the roof. Fifth, use theory only as a periscope or a trampoline, never a panopticon, a crib sheet or a license to kill.

    Now I'd never like to talk about gaming criticism again.

    Probably won't happen, though.

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  6. Edit: Now I'd like to never talk about gaming criticism again.

    The inadvertent sentiments of the original sentence are too horrifying to contemplate.

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  7. Edit: Now I'd like to share a pertinent quotation of John Leonard's about criticism.

    Usually I do better with phrasing. This comment isn't my best work.

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  8. Hmmm, that's a pretty good quote. Shame the most I'll remember of it a week on is "do not harm". But that still works fairly well on its own, if you ask me.


    You bring up a good point with the whole "gaming journalism has a lot of finger-pointing" bit. I hate to admit it, but that's probably a pretty true scenario, and truer than I care to look into for the sake of my sanity. (Assuming that the "finger-pointing" even happens to begin with; sometimes I can't shake the feeling the average game critic doesn't go NEARLY as deep as they should when it comes to deciding if a game is good or bad -- see damn near every review of FF13 for proof.) Finger-pointing is a real problem...buuuuuuuuuuuuut I think I can understand why it's done so much.


    If not for the finger-pointing, or the slamming of others, or any sniping done across the internet, what could anyone really do to enact a change?


    People have been calling out CoD for years now, but the games have only been getting more sales, more attention, and more influence as the years go by. People complain, but what comes of it when all's said and done? Not much. That feeling of powerlessness isn't something anyone enjoys, so while game journalists -- gamers in general, arguably -- may recognize their "place" in the industry, that doesn't mean they have to like it. They have to do what they can to make things better. And if you ask me, that's not a bad desire to have.


    But it's as you said. How they go about it is a problem. It's one thing to sit people down and explain calmly and clearly why he/she thinks something is/isn't good. It's something else entirely to outright tell people that they're wrong or stupid for thinking the way they do.


    But that's all I feel like saying about that. Much like huge portions of the industry, garme jurnalizm makes me sad and tired.

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