Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013)
I have a problem with Thor. Not the Norse god, whom I never have reason to think about, but the Marvel Comics character, at least as he is presented in the new movie opening today and its predecessor. As someone who takes science fiction seriously – with all of its potential to tell us grand truths about the world we live in through artistic ostranenie (остранение, for my Russian friends) – I take great offense at the mishmash of the fantastical and pseudo-scientific ideas that make up the Thorian universe. As my friend Dan Gottheimer put it after the screening, this latest film was like Lord of the Rings meets Star Wars (to which I replied that it’s Lord of the Rings meets The Phantom Menace!). That is not a good thing.
With other superheroes, such as the Hulk, Captain America, Spider-Man, and Iron Man (from the Marvel universe), or Superman and Batman (from the DC universe), there is at least an attempt to ground the awesome powers of the characters in some semblance of science. Since nobody in our world can actually fly, or climb walls, or punch holes in the sides of the mountains, etc., the truth is greatly stretched, but the writers build a logical cause and effect to the rules of that particular story: Superman can fly because he comes form a planet with a red sun and a greater gravitational pull than ours; Spider-Man can climb walls because he was bitten by a radioactive (in the original comics) or genetically modified (in the later films) spider; Batman (the least fiction-y of them all) can fight crime because his great wealth allows him to buy state-of-the-art equipment and grants him the time to train incessantly (same with Iron Man – I guess money really is power . . .). It’s ridiculous, but we can suspend our disbelief because someone has taken the time to construct a world where these stories seem possible.
With Thor, we begin to enter the territory of what I like to call “bad fantasy” (which, I will admit, is not a generally recognized genre category), in which there are no rules, there is no logic, and stuff just happens because hey – it’s fun! As I wrote about in my review of the god-awful After Earth, the danger of this “genre” is that we feel as if we have entered the mind of a (perhaps very creative) undisciplined pre-teen child who feels no need to make sense. So, in Thor and its sequel, we find ourselves on a planet – part of the “9 worlds” – which floats in space as a flat disc, connected to other worlds through a mystical portal. The beings on this “planet” have powers . . . because they have powers. They are all clearly inspired by Norse mythology, but there is no attempt to explain the origins of their existence or of their strength. They’re just magic (the realm of fantasy). Blah. Nowhere was this genre formlessness more problematic than in The Avengers, where Thor fought side by side with superheroes from more classic science-fiction stories.
Still, given all of that – which may or may not bother other people – the film is not an entire disaster. Chris Hemsworth – so good in Rush – is an amiable presence as Thor – and many of the supporting characters are given funny one-liners. The scenes on earth – which mostly seem as if they belong in a different movie – have a zip to them (thanks mostly to Kat Dennings and Chris O’Dowd) that the extraterrestrial scenes lack. Natalie Portman gives a lackluster performance as an unbelievable astrophysicist, but her underlying likability nevertheless comes through. The real star of the film, however, is Tom Hiddleston, as Thor’s scheming adopted brother Loki. Like Johnny Depp in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, Hiddleston brings a twinkle in his eye and mocking self-awareness to his performance that leaves us wishing that the film had more of him and less of the useless CGI (and by the way, this is a film, unlike Gravity, to which the 3D effects add absolutely nothing). As he did in both Thor and The Avengers, Hiddleston (who also made a wonderful F. Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris) takes underwritten material and makes it come alive with wit and gusto. Thank you, Tom!
So what is the movie about? Really? O.K. – some mythical elven creatures, older than the Norse god knockoffs, come back and wreak havoc, thanks to a red floating blood-like substance called “the Aether.” All seems lost, until it isn’t. If you’re worried about having trouble following a convoluted plot, fear not, for Anthony Hopkins (Thor’s father, Odin) opens the movie with an exposition-laden voiceover, making all clear (not really). <sigh> There’s still no film with opening voiceover exposition like Night Watch, however.
If you liked the first Thor, you’ll probably like this one, more or less. If you didn’t, you’ll get nothing out of it, so stay away.