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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Thor: The Dark World



Thor walks into an apartment... actually, the London flat of his human lady love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman)... and greets some old friends he hasn't seen in a while, Portman's effervescent assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and newly batty physicist-cum-nudist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). Immediately noticing a coat rack, Thor considerately hangs his hammer Mjolnir on a hook. It's hilarious. And we see in that instant, Thor has come a long way from the lout who used to smash coffee cups on the floor in diners.

Humorous, clever moments like this pepper the splendidly muscular Thor: The Dark World, director Alan Taylor's (Game of Thrones) smashing follow up to Kenneth Branagh's 2011 original which introduced the gods of Asgard into the Marvel cinematic universe. "We are not gods!" bellows stern Odin All-Father (Anthony Hopkins). "We have a beginning and an end." It's true, while incredibly long-lived, the -- er, aliens doesn't sound right, let's stick with gods -- of Asgard are not immune to death. Thor: The Dark World is a marvelous escalation of what came before, raising the stakes not just of Thor's cosmic corner of the Marvel Universe, but ultimately, for all of the Marvel movies to follow.

Hopkins' Odin fills us in on long-lost Asgardian lore: millenia ago, Odin's father defeated creatures called the Dark Elves, who sought to use a power source called the Aether to plunge the universe into eternal darkness. Now, on the occasion of the Convergence, an event that occurs every 5,000 years where the Nine Realms line up perfectly, weakening the barriers between the realities, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), the leader of the Dark Elves, has awakened and seeks to use the Aether to finish what he started. Because space-time is topsy turvy and worm holes are opening up between the worlds, astro-physicist Jane Foster stumbles through a wormhole and is infected by the Aether. (For a simple human female, she handles being the host of a catastrophically powerful energy source like a champ. Just blackened eyes and the need for an occasional nap.) 

After a separation of over two years, during which both pined for the other from across the stars, Thor returns to Jane, and The Dark World returns to the brainy human girl meets studly thunder god romantic comedy that was the winning heart of the first Thor movie. "Where have you been? I saw you in New York," Jane scolds, being one of billions who saw Thor assemble with The Avengers and save the world from aliens. But Thor has been busy indeed, fighting wars and forging peace in the Nine Realms while preparing to assume the throne as King of Asgard. It's as good an excuse as any in the universe for not coming back for your human girlfriend. Because she's the host of the Aether, which will eventually kill her, Thor whisks Jane off to Asgard to meet the family. ("We have to do that again!" she beams after riding the Rainbow Bridge.)

Asgard, the golden city, looks better than ever, grander and more populated (it seemed oddly barren of life in the first movie.) There is even an Asgardian version of Lake Como where Thor takes Jane on a date, which is both a sly reference to and a huge improvement over a similar movie date Portman had with another blond son of destiny named Anakin Skywalker over a decade ago. Thor didn't utter any creepy declarations of love while complaining about the coarseness of sand. Odin disapproves of Thor's affection for this mortal female (Jane: "You told your dad about me?"), though Thor's mother Frigga (Rene Russo) takes a shine to her. Odin is not entirely incorrect that the comely warrior woman Sif (Jaimie Alexander) is a better match for Thor. What Sif thinks, she keeps to herself. After all, she does have all the time in the universe to find Thor's hammer between her loins.

When Asgard is attacked by the Dark Elves, the golden city unveils defensive weaponry that wouldn't be out of place on a Death Star. In the contest of superhero sci-fi home worlds, sorry, Superman, but Asgard trumps Krypton in Man of Steel, just for the glorious Viking funerals alone. Malekith invades the castle of Odin searching for the Aether, and we see in her final act of courage that Frigga is no helpless maiden but a formidable warrior herself. Thor's retaliation for the murder of his mother is to use Mjolner's lightning to scar Malekith, turning him into the evil space elf version of Harvey Two-Face from The Dark Knight. But Thor is now an Avenger and he must Avenge, as well as save Jane from the Aether. To do this, he has to defy Odin's wishes to engage Malekith and destroy the Aether. Which means he must commit treason. And if you need to commit treason, you need Loki (Tom Hiddleston), imprisoned and seething in resentment in Asgard's dungeons.

The relationship between the princely brothers of Asgard, Thor and Loki, takes center stage in The Dark World and we find they are even more entertaining as odd couple partners than they are as adversaries. No one trusts Loki, nor should they. ("I wouldn't," Loki concurs.) There's an amusing runner of each of Thor's friends threatening to kill Loki if he betrays Thor. "It seems there'll be a line," Loki quips. Loki's running banter cheerfully provides comic relief for the stoic Thor, but Thor finds moments to one up his scheming brother, like pushing him out of their airship while he's in mid-snark. When Loki does what everyone expects and betrays Thor -- cutting his hand off! (the second Star Wars reference in the movie) -- I must admit, they totally fooled me with their ruse. Loki making the ultimate sacrifice, or so it seemed, to save his brother made for a genuine emotional moment between the two. At least for Thor it was genuine, though some deeply hidden part of Loki probably does appreciate his brother's love for him. In his third go around as thorn in Thor's side, Hiddleston's Loki shines brightest of all, tricking his way into his ultimate goal unbeknownst to his brother and his Asgardian brethren.

For such supremely powerful beings, the final battle between Thor and Malekith was remarkably scaled down in terms of wonton destruction. The novelty of the two gods falling through wormholes between Earth and the Dark World created some terrific comedy asides, the best of which was Thor landing in the Underground and experiencing riding the tube back to the battle (with a lovely lady grasping him for balance.) All of the action in The Dark World was worlds improved from the original, using the template The Avengers laid down for balancing the mayhem with bits of levity. Speaking of The Avengers, Loki's shape shifting allowed for a mocking star spangled cameo of sorts that brought the house down. Thor's celebrity status as an Avenger also means that no way can he be in the midst of battle on Earth without people whipping out their cell phones to record him in action. "That's Thor! And he's swinging his hammer around!" The requisite post-credits sequence also provocatively established the Infinity Gems and throws down the gauntlet - i.e., Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet!

Finally, there is the Mighty Thor himself, embodied by Chris Hemsworth with a new kind of confident swagger. This isn't the vain, greedy, arrogant Thor of yore. Love of a bright, beautiful human woman and fighting alongside the Avengers as matured Thor, tempered his hale heartiness. Thor today is more noble and self-sacrificing than ever; he'd rather be a protector than a monarch. After all, one cannot be an Avenger while sitting worlds away on a throne. In all, Thor: The Dark World is a grand triumph of Marvel Studio's planned Phase Two, leading up to the return of The Avengers in Age of Ultron. If you ask me, The Dark World truly brings the thunder. It's the finest Marvel movie that doesn't feature all of the Avengers assembled. It is Thor-oughly entertaining.