Theriously, Whath’s Up With Thor?

(Don’t complain about the title – I came this close to using “I Just Flew in from Asgard and Boy are My Arms Thor!” Consider yourselves lucky.)

thor the dark world posterWhen you stop and think about it, little about Thor the Comic-book Superhero makes sense.

(By that I mean little about Thor the character makes sense—nothing at all in the Thor movies makes sense, but we stopped expecting narrative sense from our superhero movies around about Batman Forever. Or maybe we can trace it back to when Superman reversed the spin of the planet and turned back time instead of causing massive tectonic destruction.)

If sometime around WWII costumed superheroes became our modern gods, Thor is the vestigial tail, the Missing Link. The Marvel character is either (if you go by the comics) a real Norse god who, for reasons known only to his style team, dresses like a pro wrestler, or (if you go by the new movies) he’s a cosmic alien whose people inspired Earthly Norse mythology. Either way, he sticks out like a Thor thumb. (I couldn’t resist—I’m weak.)

The original trademark of Stan Lee’s Marvel Universe was that the heroes were all-too human—flawed and failed; sometimes arrogant, sometimes haunted, sometimes both. And for a long while in the comics, Lee and co-creator and artist Jack Kirby made the notion of a Freakin’ Norse God in a Red Cape fit into their new “fallible heroes” pantheon by (almost as a cruel joke) strapping the deity to the frail body of puny human Dr. Donald Blake.

When, half a decade ago, Marvel Entertainment began what future pop-culture historians will surely see as its Great March Toward Avengers Cinematic Domination, there was no doubt much hand-wringing over What to do with Thor.

thor-dark-world-chris-hemsworth6The new Marvel Avengers movieverse was intended to be grounded in semi-realistic practicality: We’re supposed to believe that a really smart inventor-playboy could build a flying battle suit; that a really smart scientist might accidentally OD on gamma juice; that WWII-era experiments with performance-enhancing drugs could create a pumped-up, flag-waving, All-American super soldier; and that someone could just be really, really good at shooting arrows.

But a flying cosmic god in a crimson cape with a giant, self-propelling hammer that doubled as a lightning rod? How does that not open the whole new Avengers franchise up to exactly the sort of camp mockery it carefully set out to avoid?

Narratively, the Marvel Entertainment creative Powers That Be took a cue from writer-artist Walt Simonson’s terrific ‘80s run on the comic book and made Thor’s “wtf” theological-cum-cosmic weirdness the point: The arrival of the Asgardian in 2011’s Thor forces Earthlings like Tony Stark and Nick Fury’s kinda-NSA-creepy S.H.E.I.L.D. organization to take the existence—and therefore, in our constant state of American paranoia, the threat—of Space Gods and Monsters seriously.

thor-dark-world-chris-hemsworth2(The paranoia was justified when Thor’s asshole adopted brother Loki later tried to use an alien army to conquer Earth in The Avengers because the sneering villain wanted to… I don’t know, show off his fancy gold helmet horns and impress his disapproving father by taking over something… and toppling Saddam Hussein had been done.

(And just as the first Thor film helped pave the way for The Avengers, the new one, Thor: The Dark World is helping lay the groundwork for Marvel’s cosmic film franchise. The now-obligatory post-credit scene introduces elements of a Thanos-centric Infinity Gems narrative prior to next year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and don’t be surprised if some time around 2018, it all circles back around for an even more massive Avengers 3 starring Every Marvel Superhero Ever.)

It also helps that Marvel cast strapping, smiling, blond Australian Chris Hemsworth as the Cosmic Thunder God. His eyes almost supernaturally twinkling, Hemsworth is the result of careful adjustments of the Down-Under Hunk Machine, after the Sam Worthington Experiment sadly showed no signs of either intelligence or life.

With Hemsworth winking and charming away at their center, sometimes shirtless, the Thor flicks, including the most recent entry, Thor: The Dark World, slide along on a pleasing, harmless, and mostly weightless (and therefore infinitely forgettable) mix of Space God Out of Water humor and Sci-fi/Fantasy spectacle. (For all who felt the only thing missing from the Lord of the Rings movies were spaceships and ray guns.)

thor-dark-world-natalie-portman-chris-hemsworthAnd unlike the Iron Man, Captain America, and Avenger movies, the Thor entries arrive not during the super-heated Cineplex summers, but in the off months of April and November, during those weird, damp, chilly, kinda bleak transitional phases between seasons. Even in terms of marketing and scheduling, Thor doesn’t quite fit in the usual slots—for all the character’s immense physical power, Marvel and its studio distributor the Mighty Disney, aren’t quite sure where to stick the Big Blond Thunder Lug.

All of which is to say there’s really not much to say about the actual cinematic or entertainment worth of these Thor movies. This far into what feels like the Never-ending Superhero Movie Age, do terms like “good” and “bad” even apply to Marvel’s ongoing Avengers onslaught?

With the Iron Man and Avengers films as foolproof templates and Avengers director Joss Whedon now replacing Iron Man director Jon Favreau as the tone-setter for the franchises, Marvel has this stuff down pat—short of casting Miley Cyrus as Dazzler or Kevin Hart as Luke Cage, it’s hard to imagine them truly screwing up one of these Avenger-verse entries. (Wait, I take that back—I would totally watch a Dazzler movie staring Ms. Cyrus.)

Thor: The Dark World isn’t bad—in fact, in terms of sheer rattling, mindless entertainment, it may provide an even steadier stream of empty enjoyments than Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 Thor.

(It’s funny how the more convoluted these plots get, the less you have to think or care about them—and this one is plenty spastic, with spinning layers of nonsensical jibber-jabber about Dark Space Elves, Accursed living WMD, the Convergence of the Nine Worlds, and the dark dangers of the Aether, a something, something blue energy thingee that is in fact blood red.)

thor-dark-world-tom-hiddleston2Competently helmed by sometime Sopranos and Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor and penned by comic-book and animated-TV writer Christopher Yost and Captain America scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, what The Dark World lacks in narrative logic, it mostly makes up for with snappy, quip-y, Whedonesque dialog (doctored directly by Joss?) and nice brotherly-hate bickering between Hemsworth and series MVP Tom Hiddleston as Loki.

Hiddleston alone is worth the price of admission. In this, it’s third film appearance, his mincing, condescending, Euro-trash routine isn’t just seductively entertaining, but has just enough layers to make Loki, with all his cosmic Oedipal issues, almost moving–the lonely melancholy of homicidal superiority. So much so, that extra Loki scenes were added in post-production at the expense of cutting some from the film’s ostensible Big Bad, a heavily made up, dull Dark Elf manqué named Malekith (a comic-book second stringer whose name suggests a bodily emission).

Tthor-dark-world-dark-elf-malekithhe wise-cracking Hemsworth and Hiddleston are clearly having fun with all the cosmic claptrap—as are deadpan Idris Elba and Falstaffian Ray Stevenson—and the wonderful Chris O’Dowd even shows up for a couple scenes to spread his ever-self-deprecating Irish humor.

But not everyone else is so enthusiastically on board—Natalie Portman (as Thor’s human love interest) and Anthony Hopkins (as his grumbly dad Odin) appear to resent having to tarnish their Oscars with such contractual obligations. And as much as I adore Kat Dennings (back again as a chattering scientific assistant), here she’s always at an 11, when we really need her at a 7.

Meanwhile, Malekith is played with exactly the sort of sneeringly bored detachment we’ve come to expect from Christopher Eccleston—disappointingly his once-promising career has devolved into a pattern of taking paychecks for shallow bad-guy roles he can’t hide his contempt for.

Tonally and thematically all over the place (literally, during its dimension-hopping climax), with its running time split between Earth-bound humor and faux-gravitas on Asgard, Thor: The Dark World remains steadfastly plugged into the super-hero movie formula and overloaded with increasingly empty visual splendor. (Eyes glazing over during yet another attack by a lumbering giant or pan over Asgard’s gilded vistas, we’re reminded that one thing great about HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation is its relatively limited budget means the sword and sorcery show can’t overindulge on lazy CGI spectacle.)

thor-dark-world-chris-hemsworth5But for all Thor’s amusing distractions, we never really forget we’re watching product, manufactured by Marvel, marketed by Disney, and sent bouncing down the conveyor belt to the Cineplex. In the end, even as we’re entertained, we can’t escape the feeling that whether this Thor is a god or just a super-powered alien, he and his mighty hammer are ultimately just cogs in that Truly All-Powerful Machine.

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf
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