Friday, 8 November 2013

Thor: The Dark World, Part 1: Heroes and Villains.

SPOILER WARNING: There are spoilers for Thor: The Dark World throughout this post!

I recommend watching this movie back-to-back with Thor, as it really emphasises the way the two stories shift from personal character journey to sweeping epic. I watch A LOT of superhero movies, but this was probably the best graduation from origin story to sequel that I've seen so far. Thor is purposefully the reverse of your typical superhero character arc because instead of struggling with superpowers and learning how to become a hero, he's learning how to be a fallible human and not have superpowers. Even the obligatory daddy issues are far more interesting than usual, because Odin is an actual character rather than a long-dead ghost or an avatar of lofty paternal expectations.
Thor's unusually well-drawn characterisation means that there's a solid base on which to make The Dark World a sci-fi/fantasy epic with an ensemble cast, instead of just another superhero movie where the central character hits Bad Guys until they give up. I was also pleasantly surprised by how complex it was -- not that I'm suggesting it's a particularly deep and meaningful cinematic work, but more that it was one of the most unpredictable (and rewatchable) superhero movies I've seen so far. If you look at the Thor-Loki arc over the course of their three movies together, Thor is about Loki running rings around everyone because they're all straight-shooting warrior types. The Avengers is about Loki finally meeting his match, in the form of Black Widow (intellectually) and the Avengers themselves (because Friendship and Teamwork triumph over Evil, obviously). Finally we reach Thor: TDW, in which Thor has learned from his mistakes and manages to fool Loki himself.
I don't need to tell you what a gift Loki is as a character, but he's also a solid argument against the concept of disposable villains. The only comparable relationship is Charles Xavier and Magneto, but you don't really see them change to accommodate one another (partly thanks to the current chronology of the X-Men series), whereas you really see Thor getting smarter and more canny over the course of his three appearances so far. Not that he's smart enough, of course. Loki's triple bluff is a thing of beauty. But I loved the way the movie briefly turned into a heist story halfway through, with Thor and the Warriors Three orchestrating their elaborate escape plan.
Unless you've got Lex Luthor in your movie, villains are always the weak spot of the superhero genre. Villains, and the inevitable final battle sequence. (I'm looking at you, Iron Man, Captain America, every Spider-Man movie, and the final 14 hours of Man of Steel.) Luckily, this series has Loki, one of the most satisfying antagonists in recent blockbuster history. Any additional villains are basically window dressing by comparison, which is just as well because the clunkiest aspect of TDW was definitely Malekith, the Aether, and their attendant exposition scenes. Poor Christopher Eccleston. I don't have any particular problem with MacGuffins in general (after all, the entirety of Lord of the Rings is founded on a MacGuffin), but I suspect this movie may have suffered from cutting out some excess Malekith scenes along the way. He just wasn't very engaging. But even though Malekith was little more than a force for mindless destruction, that whole problem was obliterated by the presence of Loki and Odin.
In Thor, Odin was a pretty terrible father, but in a way that wasn't explicitly pointed out to the audience. Fans on Tumblr are definitely aware that Odin is a dick ("One day... one of you will be King, my sons." The Hunger Games of parenting!) but I'm reasonably sure that most average viewers just wrote him off as Anthony-Hopkins-as-Zeus. So I'm very happy that this time round, it was obvious that he's not a good guy at all, and not necessarily even a good king. Thor has matured beyond him, and thus Odin has become a kind of benevolent antagonist. In this context, having Malekith as a kind of ticking time-bomb in the background actually simplified the film and brought the interesting stuff (ie, Loki) into the foreground.
I'm quite surprised by this film's mixed reviews, because I felt that Malekith and the Aether was really its only major weakness. Looking at Rotten Tomatoes, a lot of the negative reviews seem to be thanks to superhero fatigue, which is fair enough because your average professional film critic is not as excited about Marvel movies as I am. However, not only did this movie mostly abandon the typical superhero formula, but it included something that's usually deemed far too complicated for the genre: multiple characters with conflicting yet believable motivations. Usually the most you can hope for is an ~ambiguous villain~ like Magneto, or Batman struggling with the moral dilemmas of vigilante justice. I find it baffling that last year's mediocre Spider-Man reboot received more positive reviews, when it followed the superhero formula to the letter, and was riddled with plot holes.
Another reason why rewatching Thor beforehand was so rewarding is that you get to see Loki's transformation in full. Thor's character development is, obviously, excellent, helped along by Chris Hemsworth being unfeasibly likeable in the role. But with Loki, the changes are beautifully drastic. In Thor, Tom Hiddleston is playful, childish, and overly emotional. He's an angry emo teenager who tries to burn down the school because nobody understands him. But since The Avengers, Loki has transformed into an exhausted, crazy-eyed murderer with papery skin. He's gone from being a doe-eyed sylph to a frazzle-haired angstbucket with a penchant for stabbing. It's beautiful. And, of course, he's an absolute scene-stealer. Ambiguous villainhood is all well and good, but Loki is endlessly entertaining because he's so goddamn hard to predict. You really do get the feeling that he's living from moment to moment, rather than following a carefully itemised Evil Overlord plan like most supervillains. I just wanna high-five Tom Hiddleston and the writers all the way through, both for creating such a fun character, and for developing such an interesting interpretation of Norse mythology.
By the end of the movie, it's equally easy to believe that as king, Loki could lead Asgard to ruin or restore it to its greatest triumphs. If they go the mythological route then the only way this can end is with Loki's destruction. But from a personal perspective, I think most of us want to see him if not actually redeemed, then at least appearing in Marvel movies ad infinitum.

Continued in Part 2Female characters and representation.

28 comments:

  1. Sif/Loki? This is the only part of your wonderfully comprehensive take I can't go for. Now, Sif/Hawkeye, that would be interesting.

    (Although truth be told, I'd be much happier seeing Sif in a roadtrip adventure with Big Barda and Wonder Woman. But that's a whole other story.)

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  2. I was having the same conversation about Hogun--I know next to nothing about the Thor mythology/comic history, so when Thor told Hogun "dude, it's cool, stay here with your people" I was totally thrown. Is Hogun supposed to be from a different planet than the Asgardians?

    It struck me as pretty weird that they singled out the one nonwhite Warrior Three to go stay on another planet, especially since they had to recast Fandral. Why not have him be the one with the least screentime? It might decrease the chances of the audience remembering that he looks different.

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  3. Re: fainting, I would say that the part where Jane is told she is incurably possessed by an ancient evil superpower and *doesn't* immediately turn into a gibbering wreck makes her look pretty strong. I mean, they weren't exactly big on details when they dumped that on her! Just another example of Odin being a bit nasty.

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  4. Historically, the Vanir (who resides in Vanaheim) are counted as being older than the Aesir, who were brought into Scandinavia by invading people, and mostly associated with fertility, so I think that making Vanaheim a grassland isn't REALLY strange. Neither is Hogun's decision to stay, after his home has been recently invaded. That being said, I GODDAMN MISSED him. There was no good reason for leaving him there. He could've come back after making sure everything was ok. If it was a question of too many characters, I feel like he could've easily taken Fandrall's place (a character that I feel is pretty eeh).
    (And since they seemed to establish a more asian appearance overall in Vanahem, Freya (the Goddess of Love and Fertility, and one of the most powerful deities in the Nordic Pantheon) is now dreamcasted as Lucy Liu).
    I really enjoyed the few scenes between Jane and Sif and the fact that Sif was allowed to be standoffish towards her, NOT because Jane is dating Thor, but because she brought an actual threat to Asgard and Sif's home. Don't forget, Sif is a warrior of the realm, it's her Calling to protect the people, and Jane (however unintentional) brought something that could, and did, endanger them.
    Frigga, noooo! But how refreshing to see a female character die defending another female, and none of them being portrayed as weak.

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  5. Vanaheim is a different realm from Asgard, but in mythology the Vanir were kind of absorbed into Asgard after a lot of fighting between the two races long ago. Frigga and Heimdall are Vanir. Or were, I guess. So there is really no logical reason for Hogun to be white or not-white, since already we have racial diversity amongst the two Vanir characters we knew. But I agree that it seemed odd to sideline him.

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  6. Just wanted to say I adore your analyses of these movies. I find myself nodding along and really don't have any thing to add except keep doing these! I purposely waited to read your first post until I'd watched the movie and I'm SO glad I did. Thanks!

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  7. In the comic canon, not mythology, Vanaheim IS a very seperate realm and Hogun is Vanir, and being an odd one out on Asgard is part of his character. I'm not saying it's not problematic that they reduced the PoC cast screentime, and it wasn't their only option, but I can see why they did it.

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  8. I thought that the reasons they gave for Hogun staying on Vanaheim were actually fairly reasonable, the part about how being where your heart is being one of the themes of the movie and all, and Hogun does make sense because he IS the only one who isn't native to Asgard, his character has canonically always been Vanir.
    I do wish that Hogun had more screentime and considering their lack of diversity I do agree that they should have taken a different path but I also don't think that saying they cut him for no reason at all is entirely fair.

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  9. I thought Ian should have been an MoC too, until I remembered how Darcy treated him, and how loaded it would be for a a white woman to have an unpaid intern whose name she refuses to use.

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  10. I loved that one of the ways Jane gets to shine is when the Asgardian healer woman is all "it's a soulforge, your tiny human brain couldn't possibly comprehend it" and Jane is like "does it function like this??" and the healer lady is like "oh uh yes. yes it does." All after Jane has spent MAYBE 10 minutes lying inside it watching them work.

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  11. Yeah, Hogun in the comics has always been presented as very steppes-nomad-esque (his degree of Asian-ness varies by artist, and isn't always well done), and very outsider-to-Asgard.


    That said... dammit. I guess I get what they were going for, but I would have liked a bit more thought into "but aren't we sidelining one of our few non-white characters?"


    Look, I love Ray Stevenson to death. I was very happy when we saw all of Volstagg's kids at the feast, because yes, one of Volstagg's deals is that he is the family-man of the Three. Much as it goes against my inclinations to wish for *less* Ray Stevenson -- it would have made more sense to sideline Volstagg by showing us his full and happy family-life, and for Thor to tell him to stay where his heart is (i.e. with his family), rather than be a part of their dangerous adventure, or whatever. And give Hogun the Volstagg bits in the film.

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  12. Oh, interesting. I guess I had assumed that since the Frost Giants and Dark Elves didn't look like normal (albeit muscular and attractive) humans, that the other planets would be similar in that their people look different. That does make the whole thing make a little more sense, and now I'm actually kind of interested in the backstory of the Warriors Three. Off to the comics I go.

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  14. They could've just written it differently, though? There are plenty of ways for their relationship to have been funny without it needing to necessitate the casting of a white actor. I think too often the excuse for not casting a PoC in a role is 'well can you imagine how awkward it would've been if we had?!', which maybe is sometimes valid but should also really cause the writers to step back and ask why they are writing roles that they feel are impossible for PoCs. This is why it is lazy writing, on top of lazy casting.

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  15. Meh, I dunno, I'm kinda with Larenxis here. The whole point/joke of Ian was to be the sub to Darcy's dom in that pairing, and I do think this is a case where it legitimately would have been sketchy. Richard, I think, could have been cast as a PoC pretty easily.

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  16. The ship of my heart is Darcy/Loki, and you can't convince me othewise. Even Kat Dennings ships it!

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  17. You should read some Bruce/Darcy fic. It's boootiful.

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  19. I hope Thor 3 has ... Beta Ray Bill

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  20. I think it would have been a bit worse if Ian had been black or brown. Darcy is his sort of superior which means he is subservient to her. I would rather have had it run like Rose and Mickey's development in Dr.Who where Mickey actually develops into a badass warrior type over a LOT of episodes. The problem is this is only one film and the only way that Ian would have been on even terms is if he was actually science geeky smart and balanced off Darcy's street smartness but otherwise science cluelessness. That might have played well.

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  21. Hogun possibly could have had some more footage both at the start and the end, though at the end it would only have made for more comedy (and people complain that there's too much comedy in the last battle as it is) with him possibly chasing around the British fighter planes in an Asgardian flying boat.

    Tada!

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  22. Francis Arandez27 November 2013 11:37

    I think it's a good point that as a PoC Darcy pushing Ian around may have been taken the wrong way. Although I think casting him as a white male made sense BECAUSE of the fact that its the default choice.

    As a character he's mostly treated as being invisible and bland by the other characters in the movie. Its the same type of reaction that's garnered by audiences when they see casting default to a white male character. By being cast as the default typical white male allowed him to more easily sink into the background. I mean there were times I forgot he was even there. but as a PoC he'd be far too easy to identify in a scene simply from appearance.

    As an additional point I think they would be working against themselves if they made him a PoC and tried to make him additionally bland so that he could sink into the background. Not to mention making a PoC as bland as they could might have sent a whole different wrong message to the audience.

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  23. full-as-much-heart29 November 2013 05:47

    I'm just going to put this here: http://auroralias.tumblr.com/post/67757505978/after-seeing-tom-hiddlestons-only-lovers-left. Stupid Tumblr.

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  24. There is a popular theory that Ian Is a secret Shield agent.He delibrately stays in the background because he is watching over Darcy and Jane.Some points is he seems to go along with all the crazy things in the movie,and he got Selvig released from custody.I

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