There's never been anything like Marvel Studios' multi-film, multi-major-star effort over the last half-decade or so.
I don't know why it took Thor: The Dark World to make me realize this in full. Maybe it's the fact that I couldn't stand the first installment in this franchise and yet there I was a few days after the sequel opened, eschewing a host of other more appealing options. Maybe it's that I find both Thor -- the superhero -- and Chris Hemsworth's wooden portrayal of him incredibly dull and yet somehow I found plenty of reasons to grin and/or chuckle anyway.
Whatever the reason, these films are different, and not just because of the ambitious balancing act between the various Avengers or the massive box office numbers. Marvel's mutant power, it seems to me, is to somehow make all of its obnoxious tics -- and it has a number of them! -- become eminently forgivable in a way other films can not.
Thor: The Dark World might be the best example to date of this. All of the things about it that I expected to dislike were present in full effect. The first 30 minutes nearly put me to sleep. The exposition required at the beginning of most Marvel films is rote at this point. But the Thor franchise is particularly egregious in this regard because it requires you to remember a minimum of 20 Norse words or concepts that theoretically make the ensuing plot easier to understand.
A quick glossary for this film:
- Aether: A mysterious force in the form of a red mist that can be harnessed as a weapon and that inhabits the body of Thor's romantic interest, human Jane Foster, who is played by Natalie Portman.
- Malekith: A dark elf once vanquished by Thor's grandfather Bor. He seeks to harness the Aether and use it to plunge the entire universe into darkness.
- The Convergence: A rare celestial event that aligns the nine realms (yes, there are nine, duh) and puts Malekith's sinister ambitions in reach.
On top of its complexity is piled an uncharismatic hero. Is it Hemsworth himself? Is it the difficult-to-connect-with demigod he plays? Three films in, I still can't put my finger on what makes Thor so yawn-inducing, but we've got quite a body of evidence at this point, don't we?
And yet ...
And yet, the supporting cast is outstanding. Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Ray Stevenson and Anthony Hopkins reprise their roles as Asgardians with a regal ease. Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard provide great comic relief as Jane's science pals. Then there is Tom Hiddleston, back again as Loki to inject wry wit and mischief, almost stealing the entire film with his smiling snarl.
And yet, the spectacle is breathtaking without feeling exhausting. Yes, our very existence is threatened. Buildings are destroyed. Humans are tossed around like ragdolls. Somehow it leaves you less weary than in Man of Steel or Star Trek Into Darkness, to name two contrasting examples.
Thor: The Dark World has its flaws, but it stands up as yet another example of the powerful spell Marvel seems to have most of us under. I'm not sure what it will take for the spell to be lifted, but a complicated plot and a snooze of a hero weren't enough this time around.