Because it’s still in the theaters and it’s fun and because it’s going to take me a couple of days to work up my review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug...
While Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) recover from another family squabble, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) does that thing she does that makes her the heroine of Thor: The Dark World and the only true leading lady in the Marvel’s Avengers series of movies---think for herself.
The mortals save the day in Thor: The Dark World.
Thor helps out but he’s taking direction from the mortals, a team of scientists led by an astrophysicist named Jane Foster.
The love interest is the movie’s heroine.
This continues to give the Thor movies something the other entries in The Avengers series don’t have. A true leading lady.
In Captain America: The First Avenger, Peggy Carter’s role is to admire Cap and be admired back. She’s there to remind us that Captain America is everything he’s said to be and to represent the purity of Cap’s heart---when he gives his heart to something or someone, his country, an ideal, his best girl, his devotion is total, unswerving, innocent, and self-less. (But not blind or unquestioning.) Peggy is more of a symbol than anything else and the most important moment in her and Cap’s love story happens when she’s not on screen and the sexy blonde WAC plants a kiss on Cap that knocks him for more of a loop than anything Hydra has thrown at him. Peggy walks in on it, but we’ve already seen that Cap is more appalled than she’ll ever be. He can no more respond to another woman’s sexual advances than he could to a bribe from the Nazis.
In the Iron Man movies, Pepper Potts has a similar role. She has to admire Tony for us in order to remind us that although he can be a big jerk, there’s a man inside the armor (emotional armor, that is) worth caring about and she has to be admired back so that we can see that Tony isn’t entirely without a heart. Otherwise, she’s mainly there to be the damsel in distress.
I’m not sure if The Incredible Hulk is still considered part of the series. I think the only part of it definitely in the ongoing storyline is the part where he “broke Harlem.” But Betty Ross was an admirer and object of admiration and a damsel in distress and not either a heroine or a leading lady.
At any rate, Cap’s, Iron Man’s , and the Hulk’s love interests are defined by their relationships to their men.
Thor is defined by his relationship to Jane. Jane is defined by her relationship to her job and fits everything else in around that, including Thor.
And he likes it that way.
The Plot of Thor: The Dark World has Malekith, ruler of the Dark Elves of Schwartlfheim, leading his army of weirdly bug-eyed masked stormtroopers into a war to destroy Asgard and restore the universe to its original darkness. To succeed, Malekith needs to gain control of a simultaneously gaseous and liquid substance called the Aether, an energy source of, naturally, world-shattering power, and take advantage of a “Convergence,” when the nine realms of the Norse mythological cosmology will line up and all kinds of new laws of physics will come into play while old laws will no longer apply.
In short: SCIENCE!
Which is why we’re going to need a scientist to save the day.
Meanwhile, Thor and Jane have some issues to iron out and Thor’s mischievous and conniving brother Loki connives and makes mischief but to what purpose and who’s side is he on?
At the beginning of the first Thor movie---which now needs a subtitle---Thor and Loki have each fallen to the same temptation to think their special talents and abilities and their status as sons of the king exempt them from the rules all the other gods, mortals, and monsters have to live by. And die by.
Thor is punished for this sin and learns from it. But he learns his several lessons mainly through his dealings with Jane. And one of those lessons, the one that comes fully into play in The Dark World, is that god of Thunder or no god of Thunder, prince of Asgard or no prince of Asgard, superhero or no superhero, he doesn’t have to be the one in charge all the time. Not only that, but being in charge isn’t a matter of bossing others around and expecting them to follow your instructions. It’s a matter of listening to others’ ideas and letting them step up and take charge of seeing those ideas through.
This is the virtue that allows Jane to be a heroine. (It’s also a virtue Loki knows how to take advantage of.) Thor is willing to listen to anyone and will even let Jane’s goofball intern Darcy tell him what to do if the situation calls for it.
As The Dark World opens (I almost wrote As the Dark World Turns), Thor and Jane have been separated and kept apart and out of touch by various adventures and misadventures for two years. Both have been heartbroken, but Thor has had more to do to keep his mind occupied. Jane has been pining for Thor, though, and spending her time looking for a way to contact him up in Asgard. But as soon as she’s presented with a significant scientific mystery to solve, she puts the God of Thunder right out of her thoughts and focuses on solving it.
Of course this the moment Thor chooses to show up again. But Jane doesn’t go all swoony. Her attitude is, Oh good, you’re back. I’m glad. I’m mad at you for leaving me in the lurch like that but I still love you and we can work it all out later. Right now I need you to help me with this. Get to work.
Jane is one of the best written of all the characters, male and female, in the Avengers series and the best, after Loki, of the characters in the Thor movies. She’s allowed to think and speak for herself and as herself. She’s independent-minded as a matter of spunky heroine course and she’s intelligent by definition as a multiply-degreed astrophysicist, but it’s more than that.
She’s been given a mind that works independently of her role in the plot.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s played by Natalie Portman, one of the best and most intelligent actors in the whole Marvel franchise.
My favorite Jane moment is actually a moment when Jane’s intelligence fails her. When she learns that her goofy and less than competent intern Darcy has hired herself an intern of her own, we can see all the gears in Portman’s/Jane’s head spinning as she forgets everything going on around her and tries to comprehend the absurdity of that. Her brain just freezes up. It’s over in a moment but it’s a brilliantly delivered mental double-take.
Portman builds her performance on moments like this as Jane thinks her way through or around whatever problems and dangers the script throws her way. It’s not by any means a purely intellectual piece of work either. Portman’s Jane is full of warmth, spirit, humor, and just a hint of irritability. Having a superhero for a boyfriend and getting to be an action-adventure heroine yourself as a consequence has it charms, but it does get in the way of getting your real work done.
As good as Portman is as Jane, though, it’s still Tom Hiddleston’s Loki who gets off the best lines and steals the show, again, committing his thefts with a glance, a grin, a lifted eyebrow, a completely hypocritical but thoroughly convincing soulful look in the eye. This time out Hiddleston is allowed to play for some pathos. It turns out Loki has a heart capable of more than self-pity and mild, self-interested affection. He does love. And so he can have his heart broken too. In one scene, Loki lets one of his illusions drop and we get to see the effect of that heartbreak and it’s harrowing.
Of course, it’s still Loki and Hiddleston makes sure we’re left wondering what Loki’s scheming despite his bereavement.
Hiddleston’s performance, however, is dependent on his give and take with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. So is Portman’s. And with both, it’s mostly Hemsworth doing the giving.
I don’t know if it’s all Hemsworth’s doing or if he’s just been very well-served by three directors now, but he’s made Thor’s willingness to step back and let others take over a defining quality of not just Thor’s character but his performance.
You’d think a guy that big and that handsome would have trouble blending in. But, while in my review of the first Thor I compared him to several actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, particularly Errol Flynn, in his ability to become part of ensemble without toning down his leading man star power, he reminds me of…Gary Cooper.
If it was appropriate for a Norse god to say Aw shucks, Hemsworth would pull it off.
There are times when his Thor is beaming with affection and respect for his friends (and Loki) that you can see in Hemsworth’s eyes the urge to applaud his co-stars. Nobody gets pushed off screen by his size, looks, muscles, or charm. If anything, he draws them more towards centerscreen.
It’s getting past the point where it’s worth rating the Avengers movies against each other. The producers, directors, and writers are doing a good job of making them feel all of a piece. Still, I’d put Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers at One, Two, and Three, with Iron Man 3 at number Four. But I have a growing soft-spot for Thor and Thor: The Dark World and it seems underappreciative to say they come in at Six and Five.
The Dark World explicitly rejects any idea leftover from the original comics that the Asgardians are actual god or even demi-gods. They’ve been reinvented as a long-lived and muscularly robust species of anthropoids with a technologically super-advanced civilization who have kept the trappings and mores of their ancient Viking-esque culture.
This creates a problem visually, particularly during the perfunctorily directed and digitized battle scenes on Asgard where the design and special effects clash and things on screen begin to look like mashups of outtakes from the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings.
But Thor: The Dark World, like Thor before it, isn’t all that interested in itself as an action-adventure movie.
This is true of all the Avengers movies. Action-adventure is the given, not the be-all and end-all. But if the Iron Man trilogy (so far) is a potential tragedy unfolding and Captain America is a classically romantic hero’s journey and (if it still counts) The Incredible Hulk is a horror story, Thor: The Dark World is a comedy.
Or a tragicomedy, at any rate.
Bad things can still happen. But comedy doesn’t exist without tragedy and vice-versa.
None of the Avengers movies are short on humor. They wouldn’t be Marvel if they were. They’d be DC. (A fact Warner Brothers and DC seem perversely determined to emphasize.) But the Thor movies are different from Captain America and the three Iron Mans in that, battles and catastrophes aside, it is more continuously humorous and the comedy isn’t mainly a matter of wisecracks and mishaps. The comedy and humor arise out of the interplay of the characters just being their all too human and human-like selves.
Which brings me to this…
I would have liked to have seen more of the Warriors Three. They’re back, now reconfigured to include the lovelorn warrior-princess Lady Sif along with the roistering, boisterous bruiser Volstagg and the roguish Errol Flynn avatar Fandral. (For some reason Hogun the Grim gets pushed out of the story very early on.) Each gets a few funny and swashbuckling moments, but really they’re relegated to background to make room for the adventures and misadventures of the Scientists Three.
Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard return as Jane’s intern with an intern Darcy Lewis and her mentor and surrogate father Erik Selvig. Since we saw her last in the first Thor, Darcy has grown in confidence and developed a sense of authority without acquiring any of the competence that ought to be the basis for both. Selvig, meanwhile, is struggling to regain control over his own thoughts after having spent most of The Avengers brainwashed by Loki and the struggle’s not going well. He has enough self-command to head on up to Stonehenge to make some crucial calculations, but not enough to remind himself he doesn’t have to be as naked as an ancient Pict to do it. He can deliver a coherent lecture on the physics of the coming Convergence but seems unaware that delivering it to a hospital ward full of psychiatric patients, while he is one of those patients, probably won’t result in anyone taking necessary action based on his findings. Darcy and Selvig are potentially clownish characters then, but they’re saved from clownishness by Dennings and Skarsgard’s playing them as straight as can be---Darcy and Selvig make perfect sense to themselves---and by director Alan Taylor’s taking them on their own terms and making sure we do too, especially in the final battle against Malekith when almost all Thor can do is hold the line until the scientists get their equipment set up.
The fate of nine worlds depends on a small band of nerds being able to calibrate under pressure.
Which leaves us with this as the moral of our story:
Being a big, strong, handsome blond superhero with near godlike powers is fun and all, but when the universe needs saving, call out the human beings.
Thor: The Dark World, directed by Alan Taylor, screenplay by Christopher Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings (Darcy Lewis), Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo, Chris O’Dowd, and Anthony Hopkins. 1 hour and 52 Minutes. Rated PG-13.