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In the aftermath of the Chitauri’s attack on New York City, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) fights to restore order across the cosmos… but an ancient race led by the vengeful Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) returns to plunge the universe back into darkness. Faced with an enemy that even Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Asgard cannot withstand, Thor must embark on his most perilous and personal journey yet, one that will reunite him with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and force him to sacrifice everything to save us all. (From Marvel’s official synopsis)

 Thor: The Dark World
Since this current wave of superhero blockbusters began, arguably with Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, the second film in a series is generally better or at least more balanced on a narrative level. The exception to the rule was Iron Man 2, because it was both a sequel and a first attempt at creating a foundation for the larger Marvel movie universe. During this first round of films, now dubbed ‘Phase One,’ Marvel was flying by the seat of their pants with only a vague outline to construct a complex, interlocking series of films together. Iron Man 2’s direct follow-up, Thor, was awkwardly split into two halves – a problem shared by every one of Marvel’s introductory films and, in turn, most introductory superhero movies. However, in the case of Thor, director Kenneth Branagh was also forced to squeeze a bunch of leftover S.H.I.E.L.D junk into an already overstuffed narrative (there was really no place for it in Captain America, since that was a period piece). The center of that movie, where the title character is learning to appreciate humanity, was the biggest sacrifice, robbing the arc of its eloquence.

None of the post- Iron Man Marvel releases entirely worked on their own, but the overall experiment worked when The Avengers pulled all of the elements together into an extended pay-off. With audience confidence earned, the studio kicked off Phase Two – a more rigorously planned series of films that would lead up to the release of Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. Having learned their lesson from Iron Man 2 and Thor’s overstuffed meta-plot, the first two films of the second phase, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, would be relatively self-contained, non-cross-over events. Iron Man 3 was built around the talents of its stars and Shane Black, an unlikely writer/director with a strong, trademarked style. This set a nearly singular vision for the sequel (Black co-wrote the script with Drew Pearce, a man more familiar with the history of the comic’s characters) – the complete opposite of almost all of the studio’s pre- Avengers features, which were slowly developed with entire committees of filmmakers/writers. As a result, Iron Man 3 was the tightest, most satisfactorily structured of all the Marvel movies.

 Thor: The Dark World
Though Avengers 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy will also be writer/director-driven (by Joss Whedon and James Gunn, respectfully), Thor: The Dark World was made using the ‘old’ Marvel model. After some behind-the-scenes strife, the folks in charge chose Alan Taylor as director, a man whose previous experience was mostly in low-budget comedies and HBO series, specifically Game of Thrones. He was a relatively cheap choice and one that would be easy to control if the Marvel think tank decided to change course in the middle of the creative process. This fluid production technique could be blamed for the movie’s strangest structural choices. There are two moments when we are given redundant information for no discernible reason, which jostles the film’s otherwise powerful momentum. The first instance occurs when Odin repeats the tale of the Dark Elves, even though he did it just fine with his opening narration. The second instance is when we are re-introduced to footage of Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) wandering naked around Stonehenge; though in this case, it is the initial appearance of the footage that seems misplaced. Still, corporate tool or not, Taylor proves himself as a technical director. The action scenes are an improvement over the previous Thor, especially the visual effects-heavy scenes featuring battling spaceships and the climax – a well-executed series of flying punches and black holes. Thor: The Dark World looks a little cheap and cheesy, but, like the first Thor (and The Avengers, really), it embraces the camp side effects of limited budgets and production times. It’s knowingly a little silly.

Taylor reportedly did not approve of all of the film’s sillier moments (he publicly complained about the Guardians of the Galaxy tag in the middle of the end credits), which is weird, because the unexpected comedy is really the element that holds the barreling narrative together. The plot is full of the kind of coincidences and shortcuts that typically appear in this kind of movie (the narrative thrust literally depends on turning Jane into a MacGuffin) – things superhero/fantasy audiences have learned to overlook in preparation for big action set pieces. Incredible Hulk aside, the Marvel films have excelled at covering their exposed story tracks with a well-placed joke. Based on the trailers, some fans (myself included) initially feared that Phase Two was going to take the same grim ‘n gritty road that Warner Brothers had been dragging their DC characters down since Batman Begins. Thankfully, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were actually funnier than their predecessors and, in the case of Taylor’s film, comedy actually saves a handful of the more exposition-heavy sequences.

 Thor: The Dark World
Arguably more important than Phase One’s responsibility to story was its establishment of characters and a key part of that process was casting the right people. Kenneth Branagh wasn’t the best choice for a technical director (he shot Thor with an excess of arbitrary Dutch angles, his action scenes were confusing, and many of the digital effects-heavy sequences were either too dark or too plasticy), but he found the perfect actors for the parts and brought out the very best in his cast. His major contribution to the Marvel movie universe was the ‘discovery’ of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, and his reputation helped secure the likes of Stellan Skarsgard, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Anthony Hopkins, and Natalie Portman as well. Following The Avengers, Hemsworth and Hiddleston became vital pieces of the ongoing series and I can’t imagine these films without them at this point. Both actors continue hitting all the right notes in Thor: The Dark World and, unhindered by the magnetic personalities of their Avengers counterparts, even improve on past performances.

Taylor and the screenwriters also manage to find a whole lot more for Natalie Portman to do, though various behind-the-scenes stories have credited the actress herself with the expansion of her character (Portman was even rumoured to have dropped out of the film in anger when her choice for director, Patty Jenkins, was cut in favor of Taylor). Thor: The Dark World isn’t the first Marvel film to pass the notorious Bechdel Test, but is still in increase in significance for women in these films. Most of the feminine screen-time pertains to either Portman or Kat Dennings (who I found genuinely funny this time around), but, even with large chunks of their subplots ending up on the cutting room floor, Jaime Alexander and Rene Russo (whose Spoiler death is used as a shaky means to motivate Thor and Loki to work together, which is an almost textbook example of ‘stuffing the refrigerator’) also manage to make a much bigger impact than they did in the first film where they were practically afterthoughts. I’m also elated that humans are such a vital part in saving the universe. It would be disappointing if it were all left up to Thor and his hammer.

 Thor: The Dark World
Unfortunately, not everyone in the cast has improved since original film. The bulk of the supporting cast at least matches the charms of their previous performances, but Anthony Hopkins seems lost without Branagh’s guidance and appears bored by the experience. Newcomers Christopher Eccleston and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje are completely wasted as Malekith and Algrim, two textureless villains that are so buried in prosthetics and post-production voice effects that they could’ve been played by stunt doubles without anyone noticing. The first Thor had similar problems with its secondary villain, Laufey the Frost Giant (played by an unrecognizable Colm Feore), though, in that case he was positioned as second fiddle to Loki – this time Loki, is relegated to an antihero position and doesn’t even take part in the climax, so the waste of Eccleston and Akinnuoye-Agbaje is all the more disappointing. Also disappointing: ditching Hogun at the beginning of the film, not only because Tadanobu Asano is an amazing screen talent, but because pushing the Asian guy to the side feels a little…suspect.

 Thor: The Dark World

Video


Thor: The Dark World was shot using a series of digital HD cameras (Red Epic, Arri Alexa, Canon EOS…) and was post-converted for its 3D release. This 1080p, 2.40:1, 2D Blu-ray meets the expectations set by similar blockbuster Hollywood fare shot using similar camera systems. It’s a grittier and more contrasty film than the original Thor and, in turn, has some harder edges and harsher gradations. The first film was significantly grainier, since it was shot on 35mm, but Taylor and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (another Game of Thrones alumni) take pains to recreate the general feel of film. As the title indicates, Thor: The Dark World is definitely intended to be a dark movie, but this transfer might be darker and more crushed than the digital projection I saw in theaters. The scenes shot in the lowest light are almost indiscernible, outside of the most vivid highlights. Details are definitely flattened during these moments, but are delightfully complex and tight during the brighter, cheerier sequences. The clarity of the digitally-extended Asgardian sets is breathtaking (probably a vital element in making the 3D version of the film work effectively). The colour palette is appropriately unreal, but doesn’t feature the same soft blends that often coincide with digital HD features. The palette is divided according to location with some places appearing cool and crisp, some are warm and soft, while others are sickly blends of yellow and green. The red of Thor’s cape and the Dark Elf technology seems to be the unifying highlight element throughout all of the environments and it shines without any notable blocking effects.

 Thor: The Dark World

Audio


Once again, Marvel and Disney deliver a demo-worthy DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. The film’s sound designers (who mixed with the new Dolby Atmos system in mind) have a blast mixing the disparate aural elements of fantasy, sci-fi, and the real world into a relatively ‘natural’ track. Obviously, the action sequences stand out, especially those that are built around chase scenes, where the zippy, Star Wars-meets- Lord of the Rings effects crash the channels with super-loud bombast. It’s like listening to rocks fighting laser beams. The sounds of the Bifröst warping characters through space, black hole grenades sucking victims into oblivion, and the Dark Elves’ jittering spaceships are all major highlights as well. Dialogue-heavy sequences aren’t left out of the audio immersion equation and usually include effective environmental ambiances. Composer Brian Tyler returns for his second Marvel movie, following Iron Man 3 and, once again, knocks it out of the park. Thor: The Dark World doesn’t have the same memorable melodies of some of Tyler’s strongest work, but is still a nearly perfect underscore for the film’s constantly changing tones. The theme he writes for an unspecified funeral sequence is outstanding.

 Thor: The Dark World

Extras


  • Audio commentary with director Alan Taylor, producer Kevin Feige, actor Tom Hiddleston, and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau. This track is cleverly cobbled together from (at least) two different commentaries – Taylor & Feige’s more substantial and technically informative commentary, and Hiddleston & Morgenthau’s more spotty discussion (I believe Hiddleston and Morgenthau were recorded together). Not surprisingly, studio leader Feige leads the discussion with Taylor hanging back to point out his more important contributions (I should probably note that he doesn’t directly state that he dislikes any of the comedy). Hiddleston crops up with relative regularity, too, while Morgenthau pops up to support something the actor is saying or softly describe a technical detail.
  • Marvel One Shot: All Hail to the King (13:50, HD) – In what might be the set’s most anticipated special feature, writer/director Drew Pearce shows us what happened to the false Mandarin, Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), after he was jailed for his part in the events of Iron Man 3. No spoilers here, but let’s just say that those people that didn’t like the hilarious and spectacular twist towards the end of Iron Man 3 will probably be satisfied. Hopefully, this fantastically funny short is where Marvel will leave the whole Mandarin thing for the time being.
  • A Brothers’ Journey: Thor & Loki (31:40, HD) – This two-part featurette covers the relationship between the series’ main protagonist and antagonist throughout the original comic books and the films ( Thor, The Avengers, and Thor: The Dark World). It includes footage from Hemsworth and Hiddleston’s audition tapes and leads into a more generalized behind-the-scenes look at Thor: The Dark World during its second part.
  • Exclusive Look at Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (3:40, HD) – An EPK/extended trailer for the next Marvel Cinematic Universe release (apparently, the Winter Soldier’s identity isn’t a mystery?).
  • Scoring Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World with Brian Tyler (5:20, HD) – An interview with the composer that includes footage of him conducting the recording sessions.
  • Six deleted & extended scenes with optional Alan Taylor and Tom Hiddleston commentary (7:50, HD)
  • A gag reel (3:30, HD)
  • Trailers for other Marvel releases


 Thor: The Dark World

Overall


Thor: The Dark World is a more problematic movie than Iron Man 3, but there was more room for failure in a second Thor movie, following the uneven original film. A weak lead villain and predictable storyline are respectable prices to pay for a surprisingly funny and dramatic follow-up. So far, it looks like Marvel’s Phase Two is on track to be a thematically substantial and tonally satisfying long-form second act. Marvel’s 2D Blu-ray looks good, if not darker than I remember it being in theaters, sounds spectacular, and features a decent little collection of extras.

 Thor: The Dark World

 Thor: The Dark World

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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