By Brian Lafferty
November 8, 2013 (San Diego) – For all the gripes I hear about Hollywood’s glut of sequels – particularly about its apparent unwilling to try something new – there exists an upside that frequently gets lost in all the grousing: whereas the first film acts the set-up, the second can just get right down to business. Such is the case with Thor: The Dark World.
Thor (2011) was a good film, not a great one compared to Iron Man, and especially The Avengers (2012). It was primarily concerned with world building, and what a great world it built! With all of that out of the way, it must have felt liberating to the makers of Thor: The Dark World (hereafter referred to as Thor 2 for brevity’s sake) to dive deep into the world their predecessors created.
I refer to Asgard, the celestial home of the Norse gods, ruled by Odin (Anthony Hopkins). While Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is imprisoned for his nefarious role in The Avengers, a band of beings called the Dark Elves invades Asgard. To save his kingdom, Earth, and the rest of the nine realms, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has no choice but to enlist his brother. But can he be trusted?
The screenplay is the product of five screenwriters, but they all have an eye for fluid, breezy, and epic storytelling. The second of those qualities threatens to undermine it at the start, when the narrator explains over a montage of a bloodless battle – it is a PG-13 movie, after all – the war between the Norse gods and the Dark Elves. Blink too many times, and you might miss some crucial facts. (I almost did, but it was because the teenagers behind me were yakking, although a few fellow critics shut them down. The two guys two seats away from me checking their phones every once in a while didn’t help either. Reasons #102 and #103 why San Diego needs an Alamo Drafthouse theater.)
There’s never a dull moment, even during the long stretches between action sequences. These stretches delve deep into the characters, their customs, and their world in general. It’s not didactic by any means, but by developing these characters further, it’s all the more tragic when they die, and the numerous plot twists have more potency than all of M. Night Shyamalan’s post-Signs filmography combined.
Even the action sequences, which number 3-4, but last for what feels like upwards of ten minutes, have a refreshingly three-dimensional ring to them. Students of good screenwriting, and I like to think that I’m one of them, know that most, though not all, movies have three acts, which are broken down into sequences, which are in turn composed of scenes. All of these elements have a beginning, middle, and end, and they must both move the plot forward and develop characters.
The action sequences are packed with some outstanding special effects – some of the best I’ve seen – and backed with perfectly timed editing and impeccable compositions with always the right camera distance. The benefits are twofold. The visual rhythm and compositions bring life to Asgard and it’s ethereal beauty. The palaces are massive and breathtaking in scope, the islands lush, and the dark blue sky speckled with bright stars, like something out of a beautiful dream.
The other benefit is the way it allows the action to flow. The assault on Asgard starts innocuously, before the writers ramp it up, culminating in destruction. The consistent editing and camera placement never breaks rhythm, so it’s easy to stay engaged. This is heavily tested during the last battle, which courses through a number of converging universes (a good friend of mine told me it reminded him on the video game Portal). It’s amazing how the filmmakers were able to keep it coherent, but in retrospect it’s not surprising, once the editing and compositions are taken into account.
At the risk of digressing, I must confess I’ve grown cynical of action films over the last few years. One reason is because most filmmakers outside of James Cameron, Ridley Scott, and the late Tony Scott apparently cobble together gunshots, car chases, explosions, and other such genre tropes without any regard for cohesiveness, coherency, or even respect for film artistry. It can get tiresome seeing movies like Takers, Taken 2, and A Good Day to Die Hard after while.
I wonder if Marvel Studios knows this on some level. The only movie in the Avengers film universe that comes close to disappointment is The Incredible Hulk (2009). But every other Marvel film I’ve seen – excepting Iron Man 3, which I missed last spring – isn’t a masterpiece, but the people they’ve hired have the right stuff. I felt the same excitement watching Thor 2’s action sequences as I did when I read Beowulf for English class over ten years ago. The storming of Asgard and the climactic inter-universe battle at the climax made me feel as giddy as reading Beowulf’s battle with Grendel and his fight against the dragon.
Thor: The Dark World is now playing in wide release.
A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release. Director: Alan Taylor. Screenplay: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Don Payne, and Robert Rodat, based on the comic book by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. Original Music: Brian Tyler. Cinematography: Kramer Morgenthau. Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Jaimie Alexander, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, and Stellan Skarsgard. Running time: 112 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Brian Lafferty is an award-winning film critic and assistant editor currently living in San Diego and graduated with a B.A. in Radio-TV-Film from California State University, Fullerton. In 2013, he won a San Diego Press Club Award for his film criticism, taking third place for his review of Before Midnight. He welcomes letters at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @BrianLaff.