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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thor of the Same

Kenneth Branagh's Thor remains my favourite Marvel Studios movie, but despite its forbidding title Thor: The Dark World maintains the first film's winning blend of cheeky humour, inspiring heroics, believable family drama and spectacular production design. While not quite as good as the first film, director Alan Taylor's sequel is very nearly as fun and engaging as the original, hampered only, perhaps, by the implausibility of its storyline.

And yet as my friend Stephen implied in his review, the plot hardly matters in Thor: The Dark World. Dark elves from before the Big Bang view the Marvel cosmology as a horrifying aberration, and hope to return the Nine Realms to the great black nothingness of billions of years ago. (How elves evolved in a void is a question best left unasked.) The crisis is really just an excuse to reunite Thor (Chris Hemsworth) with his mortal girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and to give the villainous Loki (Tom Hiddleston) a chance to wreak more havoc.

As the film opens we learn that Thor, who matured considerably during the course of the first film, has taken his responsibilities as Prince of Asgard seriously and has spent the last couple of years bringing peace to the Nine Realms. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is proud of his son and relieved that he's finally grown into the man he always hoped he would become - ready for the throne.

Of course it's right around this point that the Dark Elves return and Jane Foster fills her role as brilliant scientist/damsel in distress. Some really gorgeous and well-choreographed action sequences follow; there's an aerial battle over Asgard with flying boats, steampunk cannons and blade-like vertically-aligned alien spaceships that made me feel like an 8 year old watching Star Wars for the first time.

As I've often noted, though, visual effects are just meaningless spectacle without human stakes; you have to care about the people involved in the action. In this film, you do. It's really rather heartbreaking to see Loki's mother, brother and father struggling to balance their love for Loki with their repugnance over his actions, and to see Thor pine over his mortal love Jane, who other Asgardians rightly note is a mayfly compared to them; the romance is doomed from the start, since Thor will live thousands of years and Jane might live a century. And Asgard is beautiful beyond compare, as it was in the first film; it hurts to see the Dark Elves ruin so much of it.

Interestingly, most of the action takes place across Realms other than Midgard (where Earth is located), and even when we do see Earth, it's exclusively London, a refreshing change of pace; not a single scene is set in the United States. The climax takes the form of a very cleverly staged battle that pits Thor against the Dark Elves across all of the Nine Realms, shifting from Greenwich to Jotenheim to Asgard to Svartalfheim as a once-in-five-thousand-years Convergence brings the Realms into close alignment. It's ridiculous, but you can't help but be impressed by the scale of the battle and its brilliant twists and turns.

As with the first film, though, I appreciate Thor: The Dark World because its characters evoke the best in us. Thor and his friends have their flaws; they feel jealousy, pettiness, anger. But they're also loyal, courageous, kind and responsible. At their best, superhero stories should inspire us to be better people no matter the odds or our worst impulses. Thor: The Dark World is exactly that kind of story, and I found it great fun.

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