Review: Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo. Directed by Alan Taylor.

thor2The first Thor film was an unexpected surprise. I saw the trailer and thought, “There is no way that can be any good.” I was wrong. As utterly bizarre as the premise and plot were, it was an entertaining movie whose underlying conflict between immortal brothers was strangely humanizing. Add that to Thor’s fish-out-of-water story on earth, and there was something almost universal about a Norse god roaming the streets of New Mexico with Padme Amidala.

thor3I had high hopes for this sequel, but then reviews were lukewarm, and people close to me said it was a fairly unmemorable movie, so I didn’t go out of my way to see it until I decided two years later that I want to see all the films in this Marvel universe. Low expectations were surely part of my enjoyment of the first movie, and now they contribute to my enjoyment of the sequel. It’s compelling and funny, with characters I enjoyed spending time with, and I like it just as much as I liked the first film.

thor1Loki is imprisoned by his father Odin, the king of Asgard. Thor and his buddies are finishing a war across nine realms, sparked (I think) by the events in the first movie, so although his heart yearns to get back to Jane Foster in New Mexico, as he promised, he’s been a little too busy. Now the nine realms are about to converge, creating portals linking them directly, and an ancient foe who has been in hibernation arises to undo the mistake that was the creation of the nine realms. Jane gets involved, her life is in peril, Loki’s assistance must be solicited, and we get another round of the Thor-Loki love-hate dynamic.

And it is not tired. It’s still gripping. Don’t ask me how. There are so many ways Thor: The Dark World should just be laughable, but it’s not, and I don’t know how they do it, but it may have something to do with one very quick scene at the beginning of the third act. Thor shows up at Jane’s house, and as he enters, he hangs Mjolnir, the mighty hammer that has vanquished giants with one blow, on a peg on a coat rack. It is an acknowledgment of the strangeness of this film’s premise without conceding any of its reality within the universe it has created. Thor sees how out of place he is, how impossible it is for him to be there, but he is there, and Hemsworth plays his part with the right amount—just a smidgen—of awkward imbalance to flavor the rest of his utmost earnestness. It totally works, even with a nonsensical, ambiguously western European accent.

7/10
72/100

Review: The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson. Written by Zak Penn; directed by Louis Leterrier.

hulk1I didn’t think I’d care much for Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, now that I’ve gotten used to Mark Ruffalo, but it only took a few minutes for me to see the appeal of this casting. He reminds me so much of Bill Bixby in the television version that I felt comfortable and nostalgic with Norton in the role. I love the brainy quiet Norton brings, and he communicates the always-looking-over-his-shoulder vibe well.

hulk2There’s a little bit of playing around with Hulk’s origins, if I remember things correctly, but they’re minor enough that I don’t really care. I don’t remember Hulk having any love interests, so I went in with a blank canvas for Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, whose smart, loyal, kind of girlish silliness I took very quickly to. There is a scene, when Ross and Banner connect after a long time apart that pretty much sold me on the rest of the film just because it felt so great. I found myself wistful and nostalgic for reunions I never had, happy that these two characters were going to go through the next terrible hour together.

hulk3It’s this relationship that makes the tension in The Incredible Hulk bearable. Banner’s situation is so unspeakably terrible that it’s hard to imagine him finding any peace at all, ever again. Yet Ross’s unflinching loyalty makes it seem possible, even knowing the love story is likely doomed to failure.

While I’m neither a fan of extended superhero fight sequences nor urban chase scenes, both are interesting enough in this movie to keep me engaged, especially a rooftop-and-alley run through the slums of a Brazilian city that’s beautiful to look at. There’s a lot of running in Hulk movies.

The villain is a creature named Abomination, the alter-ego of a character played by Tim Roth. I didn’t find either incarnation especially intriguing, even though I generally love Roth. His enabler, a general played by William Hurt, is so two-dimensional he’s practically a line segment on the screen. If not for Banner’s own personal conflicts, this movie would have been dreadful. Thankfully, Norton and Tyler make it pretty dang good.

7/10
74/100

Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci. Directed by Joe Johnston

ca3You know how, in those side-scrolling video games of your youth, you were so familiar with the early levels that you could guide your character quickly to the boss monster, running, leaping, punching, slashing, and firing your way past a hundred no-longer-challenging minions and pitfalls? There are sequences in Captain America: The First Avenger like that, and if you don’t overthink them, they’re pretty fun to watch.

Chris Evans is Steve Rogers, a scrawny young man trying and failing to enlist in the Army to serve his country in World War II. He’s beset with a shopping list of physical ailments that keep him out, but so sincere and pure are his motives that he’s an ideal candidate for a scientific military experiment that turns him into a super soldier.

ca2I’m kind of a superhero newbie, and it seems that superpowers are the
result of military ambition, science experiments gone haywire, or alien birth. Of these, I suppose the military angle is most believable, but it comes with an underlying cynicism that works against my sensibilities. I once scoffed at the rich guys with expensive toys because they don’t actually have superpowers, but their stories are dark enough for my tastes while not originating with physical and mental abuse by the government.

ca_1Despite these ignoble beginnings, Steve Rogers adds enough brains and
earnestness to rise above the intentions of his creators and become an admirable hero without cheap sentiment. My only experience (at all, in any medium) with Captain America before now had been the first Avengers film, in which he was mysteriously bland and poorly defined. I’d missed Captain America in theaters, and after The Avengers, I was in no hurry to get caught up. But then one Captain America film became three, and for some reason, I recently decided I wanted to be completely fluent in the lore of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and I was pleased to discover such a likeable, vulnerable hero. Apparently, one needn’t be the Dark Knight to be a tortured soul with a reason to kick butt.

Supporting characters in this film are interesting if cartoonish, but I guess you can’t really complain about comic book characters being cartoonish, so I won’t. I won’t even complain about the main villain’s ridiculous visage. There’s a canon that needs to be served, and I’m a visitor in this world, so I’ll accept the Red Skull on its terms.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a fun, engaging movie with a reasonable explanation for the dorky name and costume, and the kind of main character I want to see more of.

7/10
74/100