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The God and the Darkness

Thor: The Dark World (2013) by Alan Taylor

Story time with Odin (Anthony Hopkins) – Before there was anything, there was darkness and into this darkness the dark elves were born. They ruled until light brought other creatures crawling and at one point, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) thought to bring back darkness using a weapon called the Ether. However, Odin’s father, Bor (Tony Curran), defeated him and the Ether, which couldn’t be destroyed, was buried. Malekith escaped but was never heard from again.

Once again, we’re entering an epic tale. How can you tell? You’re being treated to a prologue narrated by Anthony Hopkins. I never really thought about this before but I actually like this bombastic kind of storytelling, the Thor movies have some pathos to them that the other hero movies lack. Strangely, I remembered Thor: The Dark World as boring. I was wrong, though.

The nine realms are aligning. What Heimdall (Idris Elba) views as something fascinating, on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is riddled with scientific curiosity – and maybe the slight hope that she may see Thor (Chris Hemsworth) again. As she goes to explore, she falls through an anomalie onto the dark elves’s homeworld and rediscovers the Ether. It engulfs her body, forming a symbiosis.

Since Thor has been with Heimdall as this happens, his friend informs him that he can’t see Jane anymore and Thor is quick to get back to Earth to find her. He does as Jane is now back, but she’s changed, she’s sick. Odin informs them that the Ether is feeding on Jane’s lifeforce. That’s not the only problem, though, as Malekith has awakened with the reemergence of the Ether – and he wants his weapon back.

Everything seems so much bigger in the Thor movies, not just the hero but the level of destruction (it’s probably no wonder that Hulk fits into this world so well). I guess when Gods are involved everything is more dramatic. However, as Odin informs us, Asgardians aren’t really Gods, they just live longer than, say, humans. But they’re not immortal as is proven in this movie by the death of Frigga (Rene Russo), Thor and Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) mother, Odin’s wife.

She’s killed and hence serves – as so many female characters before her – as sacrifice to the heroic tale of a male hero. Yeah, it’s a lame trope that’s still being beaten like the proverbial dead horse. Apparently, in male storytelling there is no greater sacrifice a woman can make than to offer herself as raison d’etre for a vengeful saga of male heroism. Luckily for Thor, he’s blessed with more female characters that surround him than most, so…

Am I honestly supposed to care about this anymore? It’s not like men are self-aware enough to change lame tropes like this. Did I like Frigga? Hell, yeah, she was a badass but we’ve only got to see that side of her for five minutes before she died. I love Rene Russo having played her. And I would be seriously mad about this turn of events if I wasn’t so fucking used to it.

But as I said, there are more female characters to care about. I think if I was pressed to name one thing that the first two Thor movies had that Ragnarok didn’t, something that would’ve made it better: more female protagonists. Basically, Ragnarok has two – Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Hella (Cate Blanchett). Jane, Darcy (Kat Dennings), Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), nowhere to be seen. And if I remember correctly, it also makes Ragnarok the only Thor solo movie that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, think about that.

Well, Thor: The Dark World does because Jane and Darcy are still sciencing. Nothing much has changed really from the first movie. It’s a sequel and as such no better and no worse than Thor. Maybe you think that Malekith wasn’t a really good villain (here we go with the villain-problem again), but who do you compare him to at this point? The solo movie villains (except for Loki) have mostly been lame so far. I would say, Malekith ranges somewhere between Obidiah Stane and Ivan Vanko, he’s certainly no worse than Aldrich Killian, but then, who is?

On the whole, I recognize now that I do understand much better what these movies are about. When I watched Thor: The Dark World in the theater there was a lot that I didn’t get. I wasn’t just bored, I was simply drowning in deep water. There’s a lot to this story that justifies a rewatch, after all, the Infinity Stones are first referenced here – in the mid-credit scene. We get to see Loki die once again, only to have him inhabit the Asgardian throne at the end. Yes, Frigga’s death is sad and annoying, but on the whole, Thor: The Dark World is a solid entrance in the MCU. Its biggest fault is that it’s not something we haven’t seen before.

Next: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (arguably the best solo movie within the MCU)

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Are We a Team Yet?

The Avengers (2012) by Joss Whedon

In Captain America: The First Avenger, the main villain Johann Schmidt/Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) retrieves an ancient artifact from a guarded crypt in Norway. The powers of this artifact, from now on known as the Tesseract, are not revealed but it seems to be an unlimited power source. Schmidt uses it to power his weapons, he also dies at the end of the movie from touching it. We see it fall into the ocean and being later retrieved by a search party looking for Captain America.

Present day: the Tesseract resides in a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility that is in the process of being evacuated because this ancient power source has somehow been turned on.

This is the beginning of Marvel’s The Avengers.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is back from the dead and collaborates with others to take over Earth. He’s given a mythical scepter together with instructions to take the Tesseract. So he does, he also takes Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) as his mind-controlled slaves. Despite the fact that the Avengers Initiative has been scrapped, Fury (Samuel L.Jackson) still brings Banner (now Mark Ruffalo), Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), and Rogers (Chris Evans) together to get the Tesseract back.

However, when they capture Loki, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) appears and wants to bring his brother home. A fight between the heroes ensues but is solved when Thor agrees to join the group and have Loki imprisoned on a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. Only, it seems that that was Loki’s plan all along…

This is the movie in which Marvel first assembles its first Avengers team and it is a truly magnificent movie. Of course, younger me undermines me once again in this post. Nothing of what I formerly said about The Avengers holds true (except that I still very much respect and love Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man), especially not what I said about Whedon. Eight years is a long time and I’ve come to love the franchise, or maybe I just came to understand it.

The Avengers is also the end of Phase I in the MCU, it combines all the solo movies, all the singular heroes, puts them together in a group that is bigger than its components (yes, bigger even than Tony Stark’s ego). And I think the size of it is what you take away from it. The plot, the fights, everything gets a wider scope. We’re introduced to the big bad guy (Thanos) without being told who he is (comic book fans know, of course, the rest of us is like: is that guy pink?).

This is the first time, Loki is resurrected. He hasn’t been the most remarkable bad guy in Thor, I would even suggest that Thor doesn’t have what you’d call a bad guy. Loki is family, and at the level he operates in Thor it seems more like a family squabble than having an opponent to defeat. Thor’s origin is a lot more about himself than about setting up Loki as a bad guy. Maybe that’s why he operates on a far more familiar level than anyone else could in The Avengers. He’s become a worthy opponent, even if we already know that there are bigger villains behind him. In my other review, I wrote that he’s bad at being bad and I stand with that. He always tries to be the tough guy but then he’s beaten senseless by the Hulk. He lacks the authority of a truly evil villain, he’s mischievous (God of Mischief, after all) and his story from here on out confirms that.

The Avengers, on the other hand, are true good guys but at this point, they’re still individuals, not a team. They struggle with each other, with not being the biggest hero in the room anymore. With having a God in their midst, a guy that was on trading cards in the 1940s, one that could obliterate them all if he lost his temper, and one that just wants to be the one calling the shots. And then there’s Black Widow, the wild card, one that we don’t know much about (and after this outing it seem ridiculous that we don’t have a Black Widow movie but the makers at Marvel are still resisting at this point). I’m reluctant to calling Hawkeye a team member here, probably because he’s Loki’s puppet for most of the movie which makes him kind of the weakest link. But he holds his own in the final battle and that makes him part of the Avengers.

It doesn’t help that Loki’s scepter is throwing a wedge into any kind of amiable conversation at this point, but the team comes together slowly and only when they’re challenged to. The group forms for the big fight in New York, Banner takes a big step by not running away again after he loses his temper on the helicarrier. But the Avengers isn’t a fully formed group, nothing too tight. And maybe they never really will be. The fact that they fight well together, that they’re friendly in the future never really seems to signify that they’re friends. Considering that Civil War is right around the corner, the Avengers team-up seems very fragile at this point. It doesn’t help that the man (Nick Fury) who brings them together and the organization (S.H.I.E.L.D.) behind him have their own agenda.

The counsel behind S.H.I.E.L.D. seems really deviant at this point, outlines of people on screens that only Fury is allowed to talk to, people who scrapped the Avengers Initiative and instead set their money on having Tesseract-powered weapons – just like Hydra did in the 40s. And ultimately deciding to nuke New York. It doesn’t bode well and is possibly the set-up for the big Hydra-reveal in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

And this is just one more point to prove that The Avengers brings all the strings together and puts new ones out into the second phase of the MCU. The Avengers makes us hungry for more, just like the heroes are hungry in the end credit scene. It says: this is only the beginning – and what a beginning it was!

Next: Iron Man 3 (the movie I truly hate)

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God Among Mortals

Thor (2011) by Kenneth Branagh

Upon first reading that Kenneth Branagh had directed a comic book movie, I was a bit confused. Mind you, that was before he did Cinderella but after he did most of my favorite Shakespeare adaptations. The fault wasn’t really with him, I guess, but with me, because I considered comic book movies mere action movies (considering I’d watched Iron Man and Iron Man 2 up to this point, who could fault me?). I guess you could say that I wouldn’t have bothered if Branagh hadn’t been the director. You can read my early thoughts on Thor here, though my scope was admittedly a bit narrow back then.

So, let’s try again:

Odin (Anthony Hopkins) tells his sons, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), about the time he beat the frost giants on Earth and took the source of their power from them. Years later, on the day that was supposed to make Thor king of Asgard, a small group of frost giants tries to steal that power source back – and fails. But the event spurs Thor to forget his father’s warning and go to fight the frost giants once more – and almost loses but for the fact that his father intervenes.

Odin takes Mjolnir (the source of his power) from Thor and casts him out – he falls onto earth where he’s hit by a car. Three scientists, among them Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), try and support Thor on his quest to reclaim Mjolnir while in Asgard, Loki makes a grab for Odin’s crown.

In my other review, I said Thor was entertaining yet forgettable. I hadn’t yet grasped the connection between this one and the movies I had already watched (as I said, I was a babe in the woods), and the friend who tried to educate me had only done a superfluous job (or wasn’t aware of all the implications yet). Anyway, of the first outings of all our favorite superheroes, this one is far from forgettable. It’s actually quite epic.

And here comes my astonishment over the director at play because while Kenneth Branagh might have been an odd choice of director for a comic book movie, he certainly isn’t an odd choice for a director of an epic (almost Shakespearean) tale. Thor is a story about Gods, about power, about scientific exploration, and Thor learning humility. It has several well-told layers to its narrative, going way back to the time of the Vikings here on Earth and combining it with our time where Thor falls to Earth just to be hit by a car.

Where you have Branagh, you have visual splendor and you also have a great cast: Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, and Colm Feore are recognizable veteran actors who star alongside newcomers (at the time) Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Kat Dennings, and Idris Elba. The list goes on.

I can think of few directors who could’ve introduced us to Asgard in the same way Branagh did, and yes, I’m kind of a Branagh fan. He’s got a rather vintage style, very elaborate, a little bit show-offy, and I like it – mostly. There’s a certain amount of ego that usually makes it onto the screen with him and I think it’s no coincidence that Thor’s beard is more reddish than blond in this one – Branagh probably would’ve liked to play the God of Thunder himself.

Of course, Chris Hemsworth is more impressive, physically. His good looks and physique go a long way in representing what Thor is about. But he also makes him likable, charming. Hemsworth may not have the acting chops some of the other heroes in the MCU have but he makes one fantastic Thor and by next year he’ll be the only one with four solo movies.

I’m focusing a lot on the actors here. I guess with this kind of franchise, where there are already fans of the original text, it’s especially important to have the right actor play the part. Can you imagine Tom Cruise playing Iron Man? Do you want to? No, I don’t think so. The actors make these roles, or as in Edward Norton’s case, they don’t. Norton was a great Banner but he gave the role up and fans seem to like Mark Ruffalo way better in the part. People were probably critical of a no-name playing Thor but Hemsworth won everyone over.

Thor is a very impressive film. You have lots of protagonists and changes of places. I’m sure I didn’t follow the whole plot when I first watched it and was very impressed last night by the sheer magnitude of the film. It’s huge, not just from the visual point of view (it’s magnificent to look at), but the narrative is complex and we have multiple sets of players in multiple scenes. Branagh directed it well and it’s a pity that he withdrew from Thor: The Dark World.

If you haven’t watched Thor in a while, give it another go. It’s really worth watching again. It’s a great origin story for the God of Thunder and we may not see him in this way again.

Next: Captain America: The First Avenger (which I didn’t see at the movies)