A few days ago, I watched and then wrote about a film called The Dark Knight Rises. You might have heard of it. After watching the movie, I felt positive about the big budget superhero genre for the first time in ages. If only more people could make (slightly) intelligent superhero films that managed to simultaneously push all the requisite thrill buttons with their action sequences, I thought to myself. If only more people were Christopher Nolan, basically.
While DC only has a couple of truly iconic characters with mass appeal to draw from, Marvel has a much bigger stable from which it has been happily flogging several horses (some of which, while not actually dead, are currently nearing sight of the knacker’s yard, despite the fact many more films are in the pipeline). I must admit I have a certain degree of admiration for their recent attempt at big screen domination in partnership with The Sinister Walt Disney Corporation; I don’t like the idea of it, and I don’t think it’s particularly healthy that Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be dominating screens once Thor: The Dark World eventually buggers off, but it’s an impressive feat to have churned out so many interlinked films during the past five years or so. A lot of planning and co-ordination has been involved, if you like that kind of thing. (I’m joking, Disney lawyers! Joking! I actually love what you’ve done with the whole perfect town and man-size mouse thing, and the way you’ve basically theme-parked the movies forever is just…well, I guess it’s happened now.)
I’m more than a little surprised that I’ve paid to see a great number of these Avengers-related films, but I guess I’m as much a victim of hype and marketing as the next guy. The Iron Man series has been good fun at times, but after three films that particular strand of Avenging has lost its initial freshness, despite the best efforts of Mr Downey Jr. Captain America: The First Avenger seemed dull to me, but the first Thor film – directed by Kenneth Branagh of all people and cleverly entitled Thor – I found to be an enjoyable mix of complete and utter nonsense, tongue-in-cheek humour and even more complete and utter nonsense. I’m still not entirely sure why I liked it; I wasn’t a big fan of the character when I read the comics as a kid, and Marvel-related films have been relying on the same formula now for so long they’re irritatingly predictable, but I thought it was a better-than-average superhero film and I enjoyed the fact it took itself incredibly seriously at times and not seriously at all at others.
Branagh passed on Thor: The Dark World, in part due to his ongoing commitments to the TV series Wallander and also as a result of time required for work with a theatre group in Belfast. Alan Taylor, in charge here, directed the excellent offbeat crime caper Palookaville way back in the mid-90s but has spent the past ten years working in TV, responsible for episodes of Game Of Thrones, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Lost, Deadwood and The West Wing. That’s an impressive CV; his next project is the Ahnold-starring Terminator.
The main cast members of the first film all return. To recap, that includes Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Thor’s hair and muscles (Chris Hemsworth), love interest / barely credible scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor’s devious enemy / adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s father Odin (Anthony Hopkins in the “lend me your gravitas” role), Heimdall (Idris Elba), Frigga (Rene Russo, once a regular leading lady, now presumably wondering why the character she is playing is called “Frigga”), mad professor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and wacky intern Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings).
Christopher Eccleston joins them for this run out, playing the villainous leader of the Dark Elves, Malekith, who kind of looks like a cross between Hellraiser, Legolas and helmet-free Darth Vader. Malekith is still licking his wounds following a resounding defeat suffered in battle at the hands of Asgardian warriors in the past, and after many years in stasis he is back with a fairly small army and the wholly predictable intention of destroying Asgard in an act of revenge. And he probably wants to either take over Earth, destroy Earth entirely or simply do a little sightseeing in Greenwich. It’s not really clear: Thor belts him repeatedly with his hammer before Malekith has even had a chance to set foot outside of Greenwich’s Royal Naval College, which is a shame because there’s a cracking little noodle bar on the high street.
Malekith attempts to do all this dastardly bollocks by increasing his strength via “The Aether”, a mysterious and powerful mist-like substance that floats around in another dimension and, for some reason, enters the body of Jane Foster. Marvel’s scripts have a habit of introducing these far-fetched macguffins, although – as revealed in one of the film’s two post-credits sequences – it appears that there is at least some overall grand design in mind with regard to these powerful magical elements and the future Avengers films.
Compared to the first film, much of Thor: The Dark World takes place in the “Nine Realms” – the nine homeworlds which together make up the cosmology of Norse mythology. The action that does take place on Earth is set in London, which comes with the inclusion of yet another terrible, terrible gag at the expense of the tube. Hollywood: please stop this now. Okay? Thanks. And also, while I’m grumbling: three stops from Charing Cross to Greenwich? What are they smoking exactly?
The CGI worlds look very impressive, particularly the grand Asgard, which is a dazzling cross between the Elven city of Rivendell in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy and Theed, the capital city of Naboo in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (presumably as a result Natalie Portman received terrible flashbacks the likes of which were far worse than anything suffered by Jimi Hendrix in the late 60s). But we’re used to impressive renditions of imaginary planets now, right? I feel like every second blockbuster does this now, so it’s time big budget filmmakers moved on and concentrated on making their movies memorable for other reasons.
The setting does allow more screen time for some of the peripheral Asgardian characters from the first Thor film, though none of these are particularly memorable, save perhaps for Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), who gets to flirt with Thor on a couple of occasions. Unfortunately this also means less screen time – at least in the first half of the film – for Hiddleston’s Loki, and the opening fifty minutes suffers from the near-total exclusion of his devious, truculent behaviour, malevolence and spark.
By comparison, Malekith is a tedious bore, filled with the usual grand threats and bile and snarling, but ultimately like a dozen others we have seen before; you never once feel that either Asgard or Earth are truly under any great threat, sadly. I don’t think it’s Christopher Eccleston’s fault at all, as his snarling is perfectly adequate; it is simply a dull, poorly-written villain. Malekith’s battles with Thor are, as you would expect, sufficiently damaging to the environment to satisfy the fans that go along just to see some buildings get smashed up and for characters to punch each other into next week, but it’s unlikely that even hardcore comic fans will be hankering for this bad guy’s return in any future episodes.
Elsewhere, it’s much of the same, increasingly tired formula. Thor: The Dark World repeats the trick of melding the serious Asgardian exposition with the light-hearted quips of mortals, and while it actually shifts between the two contrasting moods very well there is still a sense of deja vu throughout. Hemsworth, who is no great actor, appears at least to have taken note of Downey Jr’s recent performances as Tony Stark; he’s actually quite funny at times, and has an easy deadpan way about him that I enjoy watching. Indeed the very best moments of this film are from the few sparks in the dialogue, as opposed to any of the action sequences. In its defence, Marvel does snarky backchat better than anyone else.
There are more poor decisions here, though, than good ones; perhaps the biggest of all is the sheer number of characters the film tries to include; it could have done with shedding a few unnecessary ones. Not only does wacky American intern Darcy feel superfluous, for some reason she has been given a wacky, stupid English intern of her own to boss around, whose name mercifully escapes me. Presumably this character is only in the film to make everyone else look like Albert Einstein; otherwise I have absolutely no idea why he has made his way into the script.
Anyone who has enjoyed the recent run of Marvel’s films will find the same sorts of things to enjoy in Thor: The Dark World. And that’s fine; it’s certainly not terrible and it does “superhero” adequately. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, the reason is I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get excited by these Avengers-related films any more. They feel disappointingly predictable, formulaic and lacking in any clear invention or independent voice. As Tim Robey of The Daily Telegraph said more succinctly: “It feels entirely made by committee—the definition of house style, without a personal stamp in sight”. In that sense you can see why Taylor, a safe pair of hands following all that TV work where a certain consistency is necessary regardless of who is in the director’s chair, was hired.
Here’s a worrying thought to close with. Going by the recent fad for endlessly rebooting superhero film franchises, isn’t the whole Avengers thing due for a reboot itself in the next year or so?
Directed by: Alan Taylor
Written by: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Don Payne, Robert Rodat
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston, Idris Elba
Running Time: 112 Minutes