All filmmakers want to stamp their mark on the film they’re making. Even when it’s a sequel in a mega-franchise, which can limit what they’re allowed to do. The danger is that in trying to make a film their own, filmmakers sometimes end up undoing the good work established by their predecessors.
I don’t think anyone will try to pass off Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” as high art or the benchmark in superhero adaptations. To be fair, those weren’t the kind of expectations placed upon its shoulders back in 2011. It was simply meant to be an expansion of the mostly grounded universe Marvel Studios had established thus far. Yet the film worked far more successfully than anyone gave it credit for, particularly in the major feat of making potentially campy subject matter seem not just credible, but emotionally resonant as well. Rising above and beyond the comicbook parameters, Branagh fleshed out characters whose motivations and feelings we could actually relate to. He made key creative decisions that steered the techno-magical concept of Asgard from ridiculous to wondrous. And without him, we might have ended up with a very different cast. “Thor” is a deceptively good film.
This also means that much of the groundwork has already been laid down, leaving a follow-up with just one real challenge — telling a good story. Branagh declined to return, and Alan Taylor got the directing gig. I’m all for variety, but based on how “Thor: The Dark World” turned out, I really wish Branagh had stayed on.
What went wrong?
Let’s start with the most glaring issue. The tone. It is all over the place, veering back and forth between ponderous, weighty drama and playful comedy. Now there’s no reason why these elements can’t co-exist as long as the filmmakers ultimately know what kind of a film they’re making. I suspect deep down Taylor could not make peace with the source material. Branagh embraced it fully. So even though the original had its fair share of gravitas, there was always a lightness of touch to his approach, a general commitment to have fun and BE fun. Taylor’s direction often feels heavy-handed, as if reminding us “MY take is supposed to be all gritty and grown-up”. He reportedly butted heads with Marvel Studios over their entirely reasonable assertion that a movie about an alien god with a flying hammer shouldn’t take itself too seriously. “Game Of Thrones” this isn’t. While the suits were right (for a change), this creative tension has hurt the finished product.
That’s not even my biggest problem with the film. What really bugs me is the way it treats its characters. Look, I know Thor has matured over the course of his last two cinematic outings. But does he have to be so… dull? Where is that spirited, charming guy we’ve come to know and love? Here, there’s an oddly muted vibe to him, even during what should be an emotionally devastating event. I don’t think this is Chris Hemsworth’s fault, since the guy has been so good before. It’s more likely due to the way he’s directed, so once again I blame Taylor. Poor Odin has it worse. The Allfather is either going senile or he’s been seriously misrepresented. Bland, unfocused and contradictory, he is a fitting metaphor for the script itself. Writers Christopher Marcus, Stephen McFeely and Christopher Yost have a lot to answer for.
The rest are just as poorly served. ”The Dark World” has the dubious honour of featuring Marvel’s weakest movie villain ever. Christopher Ecclestone glowers and grimaces as menacingly as he can. But he’s defeated by murky, illogical motivation (Malekith’s master plan is to release the Aether and destroy the universe because?) and obstructive makeup that the actor likened to “washing your feet with your socks on”. Natalie Portman is stuck playing the damsel in distress and a fawning love interest with forced, borderline cheesy scenes of romance that unfortunately echo “Star Wars Episode II’s” chemistry-free mushiness.
Stellan Skarsgard has somehow been relegated to the nutty professor part, complete with not one but two scenes of him running around in his underpants. Presumably for comic relief. On the other hand, Kat Dennings’ role has been beefed up to the point where she has her own subplot: the intern gets an intern. I’m not sure why the writers felt it necessary to stuff the film with plodding setups (the first act takes forever to get through), clumsy plot devices and throwaway characters but it sure doesn’t do anyone any favours. Least of all the audience. Meanwhile, the Warriors Three continue to get sidelined. Jaimie Alexander’s Lady Sif is given the barest hint at a love triangle only for it to disappear without a trace. Seems to me like the wrong things ended up on the cutting room floor, Mr. Taylor.
Only Tom Hiddleston’s Loki emerges unscathed. He is still the franchise’s MVP, bringing much-needed heart and fun to the proceedings. Ironically for such a duplicitous character, it is his emotions that feel the most honest and earned. Tellingly, the movie — and Thor — only come alive when Loki’s on screen. And he’s not on screen very much. Idris Elba is also awesome as Heimdall, and while he has a bit more to do this time round he’s likewise criminally underused.
Apart from Hiddleston and Elba, there are some redeeming aspects that prevent this from being a total washout. You just have to wade through a lot of tedium to find it. When it’s not trying too hard the humour is actually quite funny. Many of the laughs come via Loki while Thor gets an amusing sight gag or two. On a technical and crafting level, the film is near flawless. Taylor handles the CG-heavy action sequences fairly confidently, and shoots the hand-to-hand combat with crisp clarity. There are a couple of solid thrills to be had in the climactic battle. He also shows an eye for detail, with Asgard and other parts of the Nine Realms benefiting from sumptuous and intricate production values. The filmmakers set out to deliver a much grander sense of scale for this sequel, and on that front at least they’ve succeeded.
If only they’d paid as much attention to the little things like characterisation, or more importantly, staying true to what worked before. Then we wouldn’t have a Thor who feels like he’s had the thunder hammered out of him, and a film that’s bigger yet far less accomplished than the original.