“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
– JRR Tolkien in a lecture at the University of St. Andrews, 8 March 1939
If there’s one thing I loved about being a kid in the ‘80s, it was the embarrassment of riches to be found in the fantasy genre. I don’t just mean what was to be found in libraries and bookstores – though, as a book geek, I’d be remiss not to mention it – but also what was to be found in film, television, and theatre. Although cinematic scholars continue to argue its benefits, the fact remains that the gritty realism that defined the New Hollywood of the ‘70s was almost fully replaced by the eye-popping fantasy of the ‘80s. Some of it was brilliant (Blade Runner, Excalibur), some of it terrible (Dragonslayer, Ewoks: Battle for Endor, Superman 2 & 3), and some were just bug-nuts insane (Dune).
But through it all, what stands out to me now is how much – to use a now-cliched term – “darkness” abounded in these. I didn’t notice it then because they were all like that. But in hindsight, I now see that the interpretation of fantasy stories has become so watered down that it’s no wonder no one’s surprised to see them in stories with Barbie and the Care Bears. (Seriously, have these people ever read Grimms’ Fairy Tales?) For my part I’ll just say that if a Legend of Zelda film is ever made, it should resemble The Dark Crystal – in tone, if not technique.
In the ‘80s the most prominent interpretation of fantasy was usually straight sci-fi or high fantasy, rarely meeting in between (Krull). In the 21st century the most prominent form is the superhero genre. As the latter is taking more and more inspiration from the myths of old, it was only a matter of time before it began to cross over into fellow fantasy siblings. Though not always successful (the Clash of the Titans remake and its sequel), this is one time where they got it right.
In the years since Asgardian prince Thor saved Earth, he has led his army on a ceaseless campaign to bring peace to the Nine Realms. Although each new victory brings him greater glory, they give him little satisfaction. He has no wish to fight forever and take his father’s place on the Asgardian throne, but rather to return to Earth so that he may once again see his would-be love, Jane Foster.
On Earth, Jane’s research has led to the discovery of a portal that leads to a dimension known only as The Dark World. Its inhabitants, ancient enemies of Asgard, will not stop until both it and Earth are destroyed. With the help of Jane, his fellow Asgardians warriors, and his deceitful “brother” Loki, Thor has to stop the inhabitants of The Dark World before they destroy all that he holds dear.
For me the problem with the first Thor movie was that it had some pretty enjoyable characters stuck in a lackluster movie that wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. It knew that its important characters were mythological beings in the flesh, but rather than exploring that further, it seemed determined to stick them with humans. Boring humans at that. When the now-mortal Thor walks the streets of New Mexico and runs into his still-powerful Asgardian friends, it reminded me of scenes from that terrible Masters of the Universe movie from the ‘80s. I wasn’t a Thor fan growing up, but he – like He-Man – could have done so much better in the right hands.
And those hands have greatly improved with Thor: The Dark World. Rather than trying to force high-fantasy pegs into mundane Earthly holes like last time, this film has three modes: high fantasy sci-fi film, Earth-bound sci-fi film, and superhero final battle. And let me tell you, this recipe works.
The film-makers seem to have realised that most of what happens on Earth is uninteresting (which is still a bit of a problem with this film), but here they get around it by making the events on Earth a means to an end rather than the central focus. This is best shown in a very Joss Whedon-esque subplot (he did uncredited rewrites on the script) involving Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) trying to date after Thor. It is at first uninteresting, but later winds up cleverly affecting the plot at a crucial point before the climax. And again, it only does so as a means to an end. By keeping the main focus of the story supernatural beings fighting in a distant land, the film is on steady footing.
The performances and characterisations are adequate. Even in the first film, this wasn’t really a problem. Chris Hemsworth just is Thor. Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo (the latter of whom is given a bit more to do this time) thankfully don’t just phone in their performances as the king and queen, respectively. Thor’s and Jane’s circles of friends do their jobs as assigned (though Kat Dennings’ schtick gets tiresome after a while). Natalie Portman is… Natalie Portman. We could argue about her “skills” all day and just run in circles. I’ll just say that the character of Jane Foster is still little more than a plot device, particularly in this film. If abandoned, the story would remain on Asgard and I think that would be for the better. Given that the only other significant female role suffers what could be considered “woman in refrigerator” syndrome, the problem with this series is still how the ladies fit in.
And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Tom Hiddleston as Loki. In the Marvel canon, Loki was a pretty forgettable villain – if for no other reason than the Thor comics were never all that much to begin with. And yet, Hiddleston and the Marvel film-makers have made the character into the scene-stealing poster boy for lovable bad boys with posh accents. It’s no secret that the film added new scenes with Loki in post and it’s clear that his popularity has upgraded his role from that of Thor/Avengers villain to Thor: The Dark World antihero. Hopefully they keep him more on the villain side, as I don’t really buy him as the truly selfless, heroic type (the ending of this film shows that well). Still, Hiddleston is clearly having a lot of well-earned fun with the role and is still a pleasure to watch.
After a somewhat rocky start, the Thor films seem to be finding their groove and crafting an appealing world around its title character. It’s a shame that its biggest flaw is its necessary connection to the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, namely bringing Thor to Earth. Still, if the films can maintain a tonal balance similar to the one they’ve shown here, then there are still good times to be had yet. (Especially given the teaser seen mid-credits. The Marvel sci-fi geek in me got giddy, even when the movie-watcher in me laughed at the performance of a certain Oscar-winning actor.)
*I saw Thor: The Dark World at the Century 20 multiplex in Daly City on Tuesday – 26 November 2013.