Kevin Feige is the John Lasseter of superhero movies. I may incur some wrath with this when I say Feige’s output as the head honcho of Marvel Studios hasn’t been overall as spectacular as Pixar’s, but it’s sort of unfair to compare things to the astonishing run Pixar has had over the past decade or so. Toy Story 2, Monsters, Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, all back-to-back, is simply legendary.
But, Feige has a lot in common with Lasseter as he’s run Marvel’s feature film division, and the result is a series of films that is also very impressive. Feige had the unique vision to create a series set in the same universe (but lorded over by different directors) that would culminate in the first-ever superhero team-up movie. Phase One was successful beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. The movies were both good and profitable, and The Avengers went on to become the biggest movie of all time not directed by Jim Cameron. Feige took risks and made interesting choices, both behind and in front of the camera. He is so synonymous with Tony Stark now that people may forget casting Robert Downey, Jr. as a superhero was not a very conventional choice. Downey is Iron Man now. How could they recast it? Who would’ve thought a director known mostly for being a superb Shakespearean actor would make such a logical fit for a Norse god comic book movie? I thought it made perfect sense for Joss Whedon to write The Avengers (He’d essentially been doing it on TV for 15 years.), but I wasn’t so sure he should direct. Boy, was I wrong about that.
Phase Two looks even more promising. Shane Black delivered what I thought was easily the best Iron Man adventure so far. James Gunn and Edgar Wright are great, interesting choices going forward. The new Captain America trailer promises Tom Clancy-style paranoia combined with superheroes, directed by a pair of brothers most noted for their work on the greatest TV comedy of all time. (Arrested Development. Come on!)
Meanwhile, in another part of Burbank, Warner Bros. struggles with their DC properties that aren’t Nolan certified. Green Lantern? Awful. Man of Steel? A well intentioned misfire. Soon, we’re getting their take on the team-up without the proper foundation. We’ll see how that goes in the very crowded summer of 2015.
I get ahead of myself.
The God of Thunder returns this week in Thor: The Dark World. Feige has again made a strong directorial choice, tapping Game of Thrones vet Alan Taylor to take over for Kenneth Branagh. It’s a great fit.
Thor was always going to be the most difficult character to film, seeing as he is a Norse god and all that. The first film did a splendid job of grounding all that in the familiar Marvel world, and, again, Feige did a great job plucking two mostly unknown actors out of relative obscurity. Chris Hemsworth is simply a movie star, and Tom Hiddleston was a revelation as Loki.
The new film picks up after the events of The Avenger but makes no mention of the goings on in Iron Man 3. I guess they wanted to save the Extremis material for the mostly lame Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Loki is in prison on Asgard, and his attempt to take over Earth has caused disruptions in all the Nine Realms. Thor and the Warriors Three are forced to put out fires and restore order to the universe.
Meanwhile, the lovely Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, seeming much more comfortable in the role now) has relocated to London and is trying to move on from her feelings for Thor. Tagging along again is Jane’s intern Darcy (the still not very funny Kat Dennings) who now has an intern of her own. While investigating some cosmic disturbances, Jane is shifted into another dimension and accidentally becomes the host body for the Aether, an ancient weapon buried far away for 5,000 years. Once infected, Jane is no longer visible to Heimdall (the great Idris Elba), so Thor returns to Earth to check up on her.
The Aether has been sought by the Dark Elves for centuries, and they want to use it plunge the Nine Realms into total darkness. If you’ve seen a movie before, you know how this is going to go, and Thor must bust Loki out of Asgardian jail to help save the day.
If you dug the first Thor, you’re likely going to be all in with this one, as well. It may not make sense, but I was kind of amazed how a guy heavily involved with the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones would make a film that is lighter and funnier than Branagh’s first film. There’s a hilarious bit involving Mjolnir that brought the house down, and even Chris O’Dowd shows up briefly to provide some solid comedy relief. Taylor makes the wise choice to create an Asgard that looks more lived-in and less CGI than it did before. He also knows his way around a great big action sequence.
The Dark World is meat and potatoes filmmaking, and there is nothing wrong with that; a steak and baked potato can be very satisfying. I could always go for a little bit more thematic resonance, but the film is a great deal of fun. Hemsworth and Portman seem to have a better romantic chemistry here than they did in the first one. (The romance was the weakest part of the first film for me.) The film ends with a brilliant fight in England in which the brawl spills through interdimensional portals. You want to see cars fall from the sky? You’ll be happy. It’s the best mayhem money can buy. And, unlike Man of Steel, you won’t be astonished and disturbed by how high the death toll would have to be.
If I had trained as hard as Hemworth has, I would want to show off the Thor bod, as well. But, the shirtlessness never gets as ludicrous as the out of control vanity Hugh Jackman seemed to insist on in The Wolverine. That was ridiculous.
I just have a couple of nits to pick. First, the Dark Elves just aren’t very interesting villains. They’re evil and kind of ugly and that’s about it. I like their design, but they don’t have much personality. The first film had a great villain as we watched Loki’s tragic fall. The Dark Elves are pretty much just one-dimensional cannon fodder.
Speaking of Loki, he’s my other slight disappointment. I love Hiddleston in the role as much as anybody, but Loki isn’t nearly as awesome when Joss Whedon isn’t writing for him. Hiddleston is a great actor and clearly relishes the role, but he never gets to cut loose in a scene as well as that instant classic “mewling quim” bit in The Avengers. I don’t want a Loki who’s a flat, almost vaudevillian baddie. I want a Loki who is conniving, self-centered, and oddly sympathetic. Here, he’s frequently reduced to doing wacky, buddy-cop movie one-liners.
Those are small quibbles, and this new Thor is a lot of escapist fun.
As always, stay through the credits. There are two post-credit scenes, one of which will give you some sense of the tone of what’s coming next August.