Vacant in Valhalla
Let us cut directly to the central burning issue of the week. It is with something of a heavy heart that I have to report that Marvel Studios have perpetrated a bit of a cheat at the end of Thor: The Dark World, their latest box-office guzzling extravaganza. One of the incidental pleasures of the various Marvel films is sitting through the interminable credits for the teaser scene at the end which either sets up the next film in the series or (in the case of Iron Man 3) just provides some fan-pleasing comic relief. In a welcome move for those of us who sometimes have to leave the premises sharply in order to catch the bus home, the credits scene from The Avengers was moved to a mid-credits position; Iron Man 3 reverted to the post-credits position. One of the issues with Thor: The Dark World (and, all right, it's a comparatively minor one) is that it apparently has both a mid-credits and post-credits sequence.
So what, you may say – well, what happened at the screening I attended was that virtually everyone stayed put as the credits rolled, until the mid-credits bit appeared (this scene, featuring a rather camp Benicio del Toro, will probably baffle anyone not heavily steeped in Marvel arcana and is more confusing than appetising). At this point we relaxed, all got up and went home, missing the post-credits sequence. I wouldn't complain so much except that my understanding is that this scene resolves a key plot point the film itself leaves hanging.
I'm making a big deal out of this, I suppose, but I think it is symptomatic of my experience of this movie. It has an enormous amount going for it, and simply by virtue of its connection to the other Marvel films can expect a very comfortable level of audience goodwill. And yet I still somehow found it to be a mildly unsatisfactory film on many levels.
Ken Branagh apparently having shied away due to his lack of experience when it comes to heavy special effects sequences, this new installment is overseen by Alan Taylor, who apparently has an impressive record in that TV show about musical chairs. Thor (Hemsworth again) is leading the forces of Asgard as they restore order to the Nine Realms (apparently) plunged into chaos at the end of the first Thor. Meanwhile Odin (Hopkins again) has been prevailed upon to spare the life of his rascally adopted son Loki (Hiddleston again), following his role in the invasion of New York at the end of The Avengers.
Meanwhile, Thor's love interest Jane Foster (Portman again) is in London, where she initially appears to be living in a bad romantic comedy film. Luckily her research into Plot Device Mechanics leads her to a hole in the fabric of the script, through which she plummets and discovers an ancient doomsday weapon called the Aether. This was built by the Dark Elves, whom we have already met in one of those exposition-heavy introductory flashbacks of which big genre movies are so very fond. For reasons best known to themselves, the Dark Elves want to blow up the universe, and the Asgardians confiscated the Aether to stop them doing this. Even though they believe the Dark Elves are all dead, the Asgardians don't seem to have hidden the Aether in a very sensible place, but such are the demands of the plot.
Of course, they are not all dead, and now that Jane has found the Aether, their leader Malekith (the great Christopher Eccleston under a ton of make-up) is quite keen to get hold of her for obvious reasons. Obviously Thor feels strongly motivated to help his girlfriend out, even to the point where he is obliged to ask Loki for help...
Thor: The Dark World clearly wants to be an epic, wide-ranging fantasy adventure, but the problem is that for its opening section at least, 'wide-ranging' actually reaches the screen as 'all over the place'. Once we're past that slightly eggy flashback with the Elves, the plot rattles around between various different realms, the actual nature and relationship of which the film doesn't really bother to explain in any detail. Asgard, Vanaheim, Svartalfheim – it just feels like being bombarded with names and chunks of plot, the significance of which are taken for granted.
You have to bear in mind that the look of the film is a slightly baroque mixture of SF and pure fantasy – there's more than one fight between people waving swords and other people carrying laser rifles and black hole grenades – not to mentio that there are great swathes of CGI on display, and fairly central to proceedings is Natalie Portman. Now, given a good script, Portman can be a searingly effective performer, but without one she often reverts to shop-window mannequin mode, and that's quite often the case here.
All-in-all, then, the initial sequences set off on Asgard and the other places are frequently horribly reminiscent of The Phantom Menace, as very fine actors in extraordinary hats and hairpieces flounder around inside a script which doesn't quite hang together, the pain of this being somewhat mitigated by the astoundingly good special effects and production design.
Comparing any film to The Phantom Menace is, I realise, the critical equivalent of hitting the nuclear button, and I have to say that overall Thor: The Dark World is not nearly that bad. Once the plot finally achieves some cohesion in the second half, and Tom Hiddleston (consistently one of the Marvel films' biggest assets) actually gets to contribute to the story, it picks up very considerably. The problem, of course, is that Loki inevitably overshadows the ostensible villain this time around – Christopher Eccleston just doesn't get the material to compete – most of his dialogue is in Dark Elvish, which can't have helped – and Malekith comes across as a dull, cipherish stock villain.
Not necessarily a problem, but certainly slightly peculiar, are the sequences of the film set in the realm of Midgard, or Earth (but, if the films' captions are to be trusted, known to the Asgardians as 'London'). Most of the movie takes place elsewhere and these scenes do feel a little bit crowbarred in, not least because they're tonally completely at odds with the rest of it. Most of the movie is fairly straight-faced fantasy-SF, but the stuff in London is, as I said, like some kind of wacky romantic comedy. Chris O'Dowd gets a cameo, Stellan Skarsgard wanders about in his underpants, Kat Dennings is also trying to do comic relief. Even scenes with Hemsworth in them, including some of the climax, are camp and fluffy in a way the rest of the film just isn't.
So this is a very inconsistent and choppy movie, but it would be remiss of me to suggest that it's not at all worth seeing. Pretty much every single scene looks beautiful (possibly excepting the ones with Skarsgard's pants), and it does effectively conjure up a sense of a vast and diverse cosmos (just not one which actually makes sense). If Chris Hemsworth doesn't have quite the same charisma as some of the other Marvel leads, well, the film has Tom Hiddleston, which more than makes up for this.
While leaving the cinema and missing the post-credits sequence, I happened to overhear other members of the audience talking – 'Wow, that was so much better than the first Thor!' was the initial response of one of them. Now, the weird thing is that I could see exactly what she meant – The Dark World is bigger, brighter, more confident and more fun – but I'm not sure I would necessarily agree with her, because I like a film with a stronger plot and better storytelling than is really on display here. Thor felt like a film from a studio ambitious to try something new and excitingly different; The Dark World shows signs of being a project collapsing under the weight of its own grandiosity. It's a fun, crowd-pleasing adventure, but overall for me it's the weakest Marvel Studios movie since Iron Man 2. Still, that's not a bad track record, and it'll be interesting to see how the next couple of films pan out.