There’s a moment in one of the early ‘Treehouse Of Horror’ episodes of The Simpsons that sprang to mind while I was watching Thor: The Dark World. The Simpson family inherit an old spooky house with a host of haunted goings-on occurring within. In one room is a vortex into which Homer chucks an orange. Immediately after, a screwed up ball of paper zips back out. Lisa opens it and reads the message; “Quit throwing your garbage into our dimension”. It’s a gag that The Dark World recycles, in a fashion. Thankfully it works brilliantly. And that’s what you get a lot with the latest Thor movie; old ideas, redressed and presented with effortless aplomb.
Confession; I’m still catching up on my Marvel movies. For the longest time I had a self-imposed embargo on these frivolous comic book stories. In part I objected or perhaps more accurately resented their massiveness and popularity when, from my perspective, so many more intelligent, thoughtful or ingenious ‘smaller’ films slipped by unnoticed. Surely, these films were just bright lights and pretty colours, wooshing noise vehicles to distract the popcorn munchers whilst serious filmmaking was going on elsewhere? What would I want with such shameless cash cows?
Thankfully, I dropped such petty, pretentious flouncing and decided, hey, you can’t complain if you haven’t given them a chance. True, my affection for Joss Whedon brought me to Avengers Assemble which helped, ahem, thaw my position somewhat. But in the last few weeks I’ve played catch-up on the big hitters, identifying the lesser movies (Captain America, Iron Man 2) and being pleasantly surprised by the more successful vehicles (Iron Man and, yes, Thor). In the process I realised that I had been missing the point. And the point was, simply, proudly, the fun of it all.
Kenneth Branagh’s Thor was a genuine oddity, taking the kind of high-camp space opera tomfoolery usually inhabited by the likes or Barbarella and Flash Gordon and repackaging it as something sleek and attractive without losing any of that appealing silliness. It somehow balanced itself on a knife-edge; threatening to falter at any moment. On one side was the possibility of po-faced pomposity, on the other a trough of outright ridicule. I’d say it succeeded by playing it all straight-faced, but that fails to convey the clownish joy of the whole thing. I was definitely on board for more of that.
And so here’s The Dark World. Branagh is gone, replaced by TV veteran Alan Taylor (Mad Men, Game Of Thrones). Anyone fearing that Taylor might not make the transition from small screen to large with the required gusto can rest easy; he has made use of every inch of his broader canvas. In fact, it’s hard not to call this film 2013’s most outright enjoyable blockbuster. The eye-candy of the first installment remains, be that the beautiful leads (Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman) or the gloriously designed fantasy world of Asgard. On purely aesthetic terms, it feels quite decadent. Your eyes feast on this film. They’ll thank you for such indulgence.
As previously intimated, indulgence is one of Thor‘s great draws. It’s knowingly built from excess. Just take a look at Idris Elba’s costume. Taylor has thankfully stepped up and decided to run with it, crafting a film of ambition and flare which skips along at such a pleasing rate that it distracts you from any nagging flaws or familiarity that the story holds.
Opening, as before, with some lofty exposition from the mighty Odin (Anthony Hopkins), The Dark World gives just enough to newcomers, but cockily expects its audience to be up to speed and ready for more. We’re reintroduced to Thor in tried and tested fashion, finishing up some other-worldly escapades as though there’s a lost Thor 1.5 out there somewhere, like all those missing Bond movies we only ever saw the end of. Back on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is in London, still ruminating over her lost hero and hiding from her own blind dates.
A lot of sequels take a long breather at this point, servicing the need to play catch up and acknowledge times passed, irrevocably setting themselves in the shadows of their forbearers. It’s an unfortunate necessity, and so it goes here, yet The Dark World stifles this temptation more than most, dispatching the likes of Loki etc relatively quickly, more keen to let its own story take centre stage.
So what is it? Well, a nefarious inter-dimensional being named Malekith is searching for a viral McGuffin known as the Aether; a sort of liquid dark matter which he intends to use to plunge the universe into an endless night during an astrological convergence referred to as, umm, the convergence. Thor gets his goliath pectorals involved when Jane is inadvertently infected by the Aether quicker than you can say “Princess Mononoke”. Thus he takes her back to Asgard, reversing the fish-out-of-water scenario of the first film.
Not that things slow down so that Portman can enjoy similar comedic moments. Taylor’s film forges forward, bringing Tom Hiddleston’s popular villain Loki back into the mix, tearing up Asgard in some terrific effects sequences and generally allowing everyone their fair share of game time. In fact The Dark World feels far more like an ensemble effort than it’s predecessor. Most thankful, surely, is Rene Russo, who was so sidelined first time around as to appear merely to be making a cameo. Similarly, Elba’s Heimdall is given a little more screen time and a superb spot of action work, whilst the Earthbound characters aren’t neglected either.
Central to The Dark World, as it was in Thor, is the current Marvel series’ most overt romance, that between mighty Thor and scientist Jane Foster. And whilst the turning screws of the plot set her up largely as the damsel in distress, Portman is thankfully given a little more to do come the final showdown back in Blighty. With similar judiciousness, Hiddleston’s Loki is let out of the box sparingly; the creative team here cannily aware that this still has to function as a Thor movie, despite his black sheep brother’s ardent fan base. True enough, Hiddleston effortlessly owns the sections of the film that are his. Nevertheless, The Dark World feels like a deftly measured juggling act, with everyone getting their time to shine, though Christopher Eccleston’s villainous Malekith admittedly struggles to intimidate (despite a piece of design work that beats Prometheus at its own game).
What you’ve got here is probably this year’s biggest, brightest, barmiest slice of fun. Sure, there’s enough bad science to keep busy the thousands of online nitpickers just waiting to descend like marauding seagulls, and the main nuts and bolts of the plot may groan from lack of originality… but they don’t get a chance to. This is a rollicking good ride, which may even stand as the best Marvel film since John Favreau’s first Iron Man venture. Here’s to the next shameless cash cow then, only this time I’ll be first in line.