Big-screen superhero saturation is finally, after over a decade of warning, a very real concern. An increasing number of moviegoers are starting to mutter darkly about the absence of original ideas in the multiplex, and even DragonDark, dedicated defenders of the four-colour faith, have found our enthusiasm floundering – this year’s tales of capes, claws and kick-assery have all left us feeling varying shades of dissatisfied.
Having said that, surely even the staunchest spandex cynic feels that frisson of excitement when a new Marvel movie is in the offing. The studio have barely put a foot wrong since their merge with Disney, with Avengers Assemble adding the perfect full stop to Phase I of their cinematic universe and Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 getting Phase II off to a thoroughly jolly start.
Kenneth Branagh’s Thor was arguably the highlight of the initial assembly of adaptations, leaving the anticipation for this second bout of Hammertime sky-high. Fortunately The Dark World delivers on these expectations, and then some – bigger, louder, smarter and funnier, Thor’s sophomore escapade is fun with a capital Th.
The Thunder God’s most celebrated strips on the printed page have always successfully blended space-age science fiction elements with the core of Norse mythology, and this is where Thor: The Dark World excels. Opening with a bang (following the obligatory Odin-narrated exposition) and rarely relenting for the next two hours, the set pieces of this sequel owe just as much to Star Wars as Lord of the Rings. Laser beams and flying spaceships appear side by side with battle axes and enchanted hammers, never jarring and effortlessly escorting ourselves to another world, ensuring the battle scenes are truly like nothing we have ever seen before. A triumph of the imagination, The Dark World frequently leaves director Alan Taylor’s work on Game of Thrones resembling a playground scuffle.
It’s these other worlds that make up the core of the movie. Where Branagh was slightly hamstrung by the necessity to introduce the character and set up the ‘fish out of water’ premise, Taylor has no such responsibilities. As a result events unfold throughout the nine realms this time around, with the undoubted highlights taking place on the lusciously designed and period costume-laden Asgard – though British viewers will enjoy the Odinson strutting his stuff throughout London during the Earth-based sequences.
There can be no debate that, over the course of three flicks, Chris Hemsworth has proved himself as worthy of the power of Thor. Hemsworth has nailed the earnest mannerisms of the reluctant ruler, bringing to life a wholly effective new spin to the character that blends impulsive action with goofy reflection. Many could be his equal while gleefully hitting things with a hammer, but it’s the quieter moments where Hemsworth really excels; a generous actor who is happy to let his co-stars share the scenery-chewing, Thor’s interaction with the rest of the cast – almost all of whom return from the original – is never less than warm and engaging.
That returning cast varies are never less than reliable, even when given little to do. Idris Elba continues to ooze dignity as Heimdall, while Anthony Hopkins once again engages his inner pantomime performer as the bellowing Odin, and Rene Russo enjoys some swordplay as well as sage speechmaking while portraying the maternal Frigga. It’s Russo’s scenes with Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki that add the most interesting dimension of emotional warmth to the movie.
Loki’s popularity – thanks in no small part to Hiddlestone’s astonishing charisma, and the effortless chemistry between him and Hemsworth – means that it would be easy to fall into the trap of over-exposure. Thankfully The Dark World’s smart script – inked by comic book scribe Christopher Yost and Captain America team Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – strikes the perfect balance with the character; there is plenty of brotherly banter, and Loki plays a key role in the plot that befits such a beloved Asgardian institution, but the temptation to milk the characters appeal and restore him to key antagonist status is neatly resisted.
That particular honour is, of course, bestowed upon Christopher Ecclestone. Portraying the vengeance-obsessed Dark Elf Malekith the Accursed, Ecclestone is arguably the closest thing The Dark World has to a weak link. That’s through no fault of his own, with the actor his usual trustworthy self and never less than watchable. Alas Malekith as a character is a little monosyllabic and one-note, lacking the charm and magnetism of some of Marvel’s more memorable miscreants and stymied by slightly muddy motivation. That said, in a movie this enjoyable even the least successful elements knock most of the competition into a cocked hat.
Naturally we’ve got this far without mentioning the other, most important returnee – Natalie Portman as Jane Foster. Rest assured, Foster plays a key role in this sequel – so much that divulging much about her would involve an unavoidable trip to Spoilertown, something we’re always keen to avoid. The harmonious electricity between Portman and Hemsworth remains untainted though, and there is plenty of welcome heart amidst the bludgeoning. Our only regret is that time restraints dictate that more isn’t made of a love triangle sub-plot between the Thunder God, Astrophysicist and Lady Sif of the Warriors Three. Despite limited screen time Jaimie Alexander does some fantastic work as the latter, expressing more with her eyes, facial expressions and body language than many actresses could manage with reams of dialogue.
Alan Taylor deserves some credit for these performances, providing a steady hand of direction throughout. Much was made of his background in TV, with fans expressing concerns that a mega-budget blockbuster is quite a step up from the aforementioned Game of Thrones, but Taylor’s CV is littered with pivotal, character-based episodes of such feted fare as The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under and Mad Men. The fourth movie of Taylor’s directorial career is by far the largest, but has evidently proved his worth – he’s now linked with the impending Terminator reboot.
Amidst all this talk of epic battles and emotional posturing, we’re forgetting to neglect a very key element of The Dark World – its use of humor. Marvel’s movies have always demonstrated that these flicks can use comedy to great effect without descending into nudging and winking, and Taylor kicks the LOLs up a notch here. Successfully, we may add – The Dark World is frequently genuinely side-splitting. One-liners, witticisms, cameos, slapstick and visual gags (one of which may well rank as the greatest we’ve ever seen in a film of this nature – so simple, but so, so effective) all serve to punctuate the tension, and make this one of the most enjoyable nights in the cinema that DragonDark have enjoyed in a long time.
It goes without saying by now, but stay rooted to your seat at end for not one, but two post-credits sequences (the first being a particularly appetising teaser for one of next year’s biggest hopes, the other a wholly satisfying sign-off to this adventure well worth waiting for). The last word on those credits is a promise that Thor Will Return, though at this stage that’s not slated to be until Avengers: Age of Ultron. As if we weren’t already counting the days, 2015 now can’t come soon enough.