Last night I watched "The Dark World", and as armored, red-caped Thor (Chris Hemsworth) bounded from a London street into a dark red cloud of CGI Evil, a shot of his lover-girl Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) showed a big red bus in the background. The ad on its side blared cheekily a false movie poster, for a film called "Moral Sacrifice". You, like me, might sense a lack of literary value.
Despite its clunkiness, "Thor: The Dark World" starts explosively. The beginning sequences shovel heaps of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings onto the pile, and it's admittedly glorious. Asgard soldiers (read Elves) swing glowy swords (read lightsabers) at white-helmed laser-shootin (Stormtroopers) foes, dark forces are locked away, and ashy landscapes in The Dark World contrast with the gold, fertile castles of Asgard. For anyone who has ears to hear, I kept waiting for some Protoss to show up.
See what I mean?
More impressive than the animators and art designers, however, is the establishment of characters. Tom Hiddleston's ever-Shakespearean Loki arrives in chains like an imprisoned Aaron (Titus Andronicus),Thor himself arrives making quips like Petruchio, and a particularly well-written scene shows the romantic tension and unrequited interest between Sif and Thor. Some of these moments are so believable, creating characters with whom we can connect, that I can legitimately compare it to the Lord of the Rings. Elegant, deep, simple.
The rest of the film fails on this. Sif, easily the most compelling and least predictable character, is shunted out of the limelight before she's had two seconds in it. A lengthy subplot with Loki, instead of bringing any changes to his and Thor's relationship, resorts to name calling, even in a scene on a boat that had at least some potential.
Natalie Portman gets entangled in the plot, which seems basically to be: The bad guys need the red goo in order to destroy the universe. The good guys fight them. Poor Jane Foster gets some of the goo in her blood, making her dangerous and doing absolutely nothing to her in any other way. (Another shoutout to the animators for the scene where is examined by Asgard "doctors" using some very fun equipment, clearly touch screen but cooler even than what us earthlings have.) Portman pales in comparison to Freda (Thor's mother) and Sif, who not only are totally awesome fighters and independent women, but stay modestly dressed throughout the whole film (if you're worried about nudity, Thor's impressive breasts are thoughtfully considered by the camera at one point).
The story is predictable, the fights are interesting but never emotionally compelling, and worst, Thor does not change in any way. As a hero, he has no characteristics to admire or dislike. He is blandly righteous, blandly temperamental, and blandly self-sacrificing. Sort of. Even when he is in danger he comes out with wounds that avoid his beautiful features.
Here I know I am in a comic book, not a story about heroes. Thor is a brightly drawn figure with very few defining lines, drawn by animators who make money on making more books. He "sacrifices" for his friends, and it leaves us thinking, "you know, I would do that. I would walk through fire for the people I care about". What a good thing to be encouraged. But that's rarely a story we live. Rarely are we faced with someone near death who we can heroically save. But we are faced every day with people who need help. Little things can be cries for help. We can help even when we are not asked, instead of waiting until it makes us look heroic. We can choose to open ourselves up and be vulnerable, allowing our faults and failures to be seen. We can choose to care. Thor does none of those, and still gets offered to be the King of Asgard. It doesn't seem to be a good recipe for me for real heroism.
If Marvel is really hitting its stride in Thor, it is in connecting it stylistically with its source material. Comic books were intentionally numerous, serialized, and individually rather bland. We can feel comic book sensibilities in the naked Dr. Selvig running around Stonehenge, with Thor's hammer chasing him around the nine realms, with Jane's silly sidekick.
Perhaps it is a success, then, just not in my style. The reboot genre has become a medium with value because it allows us to reconsider old things. Thor: The Dark World is instead a loving revisiting of the same old melodrama.