Monday, November 11, 2013

More SFX, Less Feminism, Too Much Loki (Thor 2)

I want to start out this review with yet another disclaimer: I liked Thor: The Dark World (hereafter to be referred to as Thor 2). I liked it because it was entertaining and reasonably well-written, because the characters were funny, and Idris Elba and Kat Dennings were in it, because it had nice moments of tension and humor, and because the story made sense and wasn't too long.

But in case you can't tell, none of those are really ringing endorsements, are they? They're not things on which to build a film. Thor 2 is a good movie. It's fine. It's nothing special, but it's not bad. 

Except for one thing. One tiny inconsequential (to most people) thing. It's not nearly as feminist as its predecessor.

Now, you may be staring at me weirdly right now, because that's a bit of a specific nitpick. And I don't disagree with you. I am being very picky here. But I don't feel like I'm wrong either. The first Thor is, for all that we really weren't expecting it, a very feminist movie. It has a lot of female characters, who don't just interact, they have deep relationships with each other. The women aren't entirely focused on male characters either. I mean, some are, but mostly, they have their own crap going on. They aren't just there to flesh out the love story or to make sure that character A gets to plot point B. They're there because they matter. And they're all awesome.

So, with that in mind, let's talk about Thor 2. Like I said in the beginning, it's not a bad movie, exactly, it's just not as good as I wanted it to be. Which is, in a weird way, a compliment and a critique.

SPOILERS from here on out.

The movie takes place not long after The Avengers finishes. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been brought back to Asgard to answer for his crimes, and the punishment is life imprisonment. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) flat out tells him that if it weren't for Frigga's (Rene Russo) imploring, Loki would be dead. Loki, who seems to have a suicidal streak at the moment, is sad to hear that he won't ever get to see his mother again, but less sad that he got to piss of Odin, because what is Loki without his daddy issues?

Meanwhile, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is off pacifying the nine realms, all of whom fell into disorder because apparently they are incapable of ruling themselves without Asgard's help. Which was kind of weird and imperialistic. I mean, are we supposed to assume that literally every planet needs Asgard's help or they will devolve into civil war? That would be insane. And I doubt it's true. But, whatever.

Anyway, Thor, Sif (Jaimie Alexander), and the Warriors Three manage to bring peace to the nine realms, and go home to party. But at the party, Thor isn't super into it. He misses Jane (Natalie Portman), his astrophysicist honey, despite not having seen her in two years. Odin councils Thor to take a more Asgardian bride, like Sif. Sif seems up for it, but Thor isn't, instead going to Heimdall (Idris Elba), so that he can Bifrost-stalk Jane. But, weirdly, Heimdall can't see Jane anymore. That can't be good.

Back on Earth, Jane has been moping around missing Thor, going on disastrous dates with Chris O'Dowd (who is spectacular) and generally annoying Darcy (Kat Dennings). That is until they get a weird gravitational reading in an abandoned warehouse that leads Jane and Darcy (and Darcy's intern, Ian) to a set of gravitational anomalies - spots where the laws of physics just go nuts.

Jane being Jane has to investigate them, which leads to her being sucked into another world where she's attacked by some weird CGI red stuff that goes into her body, makes her look like a heavy metal album cover for a minute, and then leaves her looking totally normal, but passed out on the floor of the warehouse. She comes back out to find that she's been gone for five hours, Thor is here, and also she's being arrested.

A series of events occur and Thor takes Jane back to Asgard to get her checked out, because that red stuff can't be good. And it isn't. Odin, after a few moments of insane curmudgeonliness and also calling Jane a goat, identifies the weird red stuff as the "aether", a weapon made by the Dark Elves out of dark matter, to be used in order to bring destroy the light and bring back the dark. Because the Dark Elves are evil and stuff. But also dead, according to Odin's father.

Spoiler alert, they're not dead. No one is ever dead. These are comic book movies. No one is ever dead. Unless they're a woman. Then they're probably dead.

The Dark Elves, led by Malekith (a woefully underused Christopher Eccleston), are low on numbers but high on resolve. They determine that because this is the moment of Convergence, when all the nine worlds are aligned, they can use the aether to bring back the darkness. So they strike, attacking Asgard to get to Jane and steal the aether out of her. Battle sequence. Lots of people die. And one of them is Frigga. 

This is pointed on several levels - Frigga dies protecting Jane, and therefore the world, while dying in such a way as to spur Thor to want to stop Malekith even more and therefore serving as great character development, but also giving Odin a reason to have unreasonable grief-stricken moments of irresponsible kingship. Oh, and Thor uses Frigga's death to get Loki's help in hunting down Malekith. So I guess it's a win for everyone. Except Frigga. She's still dead.

Lots of other things happen in this movie, like some amazing antics back on Earth with Darcy and Ian and Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgaard) running around insane asylums and downtown London, or all the moments with sassy Loki snarking about everyone and everything. There's even some nice Jane and Thor moments, with one or two Sif and the Warriors Three jokes thrown in.

But for me, the movie ends here, when Frigga dies. Why? Because that's the moment that I realized that I wasn't watching the same kind of film I saw in Thor. I was watching some regular, annoying male heroism crap that just pooped all over the things I loved in the first movie.

Allow me to explain.

Frigga's death makes sense in the story. It shows the stakes of the battle, gives her a moment of true badassery, and adds some emotional heft to the story. But it is entirely gratuitous. She dies so that Odin will be unreasonable, so that Thor will be determined, and so that Loki will have a reason to help them. She dies so that the plot can go on. And that's awful. Like seriously awful. 

The only reason they even gave her a moment of badassery is so that she could die moments later and we would mourn her death all the more. It's manipulative, and it's honestly not very clever writing.

In fact, it was just emblematic of the really deep problems all the female characters faced in this film. Far from being the strong, sassy warrior she was in the first film, here Sif is shy and slightly uncomfortable in battle. She needs Thor to jump in and save her. When a giant beast comes attacking them, she steps back and allows Thor to handle it. That honestly doesn't sound like her. And when Odin presses Thor to get married, specifically to her, she's all girlish and flirty, despite the fact that she knows damn well how Thor feels about Jane. What the hell, writers? Was it just too hard to keep her awesome?

Even Darcy, amazing, taser-happy Darcy, ends up with a love interest in this movie. Ian, in fact, seems to only exist in the movie to give her someone to kiss at the end, thereby letting off some of the tension. And I get it. Kat Dennings is hot and Darcy is hilarious, so it totally makes sense to give her a love interest, but still. What it does is make it so that literally every female character in this movie is concerned solely with the men in their lives. There is no female character safe from the rage of romance, and not a one who has something going on in her life unrelated to her romantic entanglements.

Jane, for all that she is a brilliant astrophysicist, seems to have given all of that up to mope around her mother's house in London, sad that Thor came back to Earth to stop Loki from destroying it but didn't call her. This woman has three PhDs, and we're supposed to accept that she's just going to crumple up when her boytoy doesn't answer the phone?

It's not that any of these changes (except for the Sif one) would really bother me in isolation. But they aren't isolated. For a movie with four main female characters, not a single one has any indication of a life outside of the male characters and their motivations. They are there to play backup and love interest. They have no lives of their own.

And, honestly, I expected better.

I also expected more of the storyline with the Dark Elves. I feel like a great opportunity was lost here. The Dark Elves actually have a very compelling storyline: they come from a time before this universe, when the world was darkness. Now that the light has come, they are dying. The light hurts them. For thousands of years they suffered and died, until Malekith found a way to save them. To, from their point view, save the world. To bring back the darkness is, to their eyes, just a restoration of the way things should be.

That it involves killing off all the races and people who came into being since the light began is the great ethical problem. Imagine a film that completely accepts and understands that the Dark Elves have a point, but posits that Thor must argue in favor of the continued survival of those younger races that only exist because of the light. Chris Hemsworth and Christopher Eccleston arguing ethical principles during an epic battle? Yes please.

But we didn't get that. Instead, we got special effects, too much CGI, and a lot of gun battles. No character development or complexity, just a creepy bad guy insufficiently explained. It makes me sad.

Also making me sad? I know he's the internet's darling, but I am genuinely and truly sick of Loki. I feel like I'm getting Jack Sparrow'd here, because the more of Loki I see, the more I wish I saw only a little. He is a character who works best in the shadows, only coming out for moments of revelation or to give a witty bon mot before sashaying off again. He does not work well as a character constantly in the camera's eye. He's kind of boring.

I mean, yes, some of the funniest and best moments of the film came from him, but they all felt a bit much. Like so much had be contrived in order to get him out of his cell and onto Thor's team. He was funny, sure, but he really wasn't necessary. He didn't have to be there. We would have been fine without him. In fact, the story would have been leaner and more emotionally concise if Loki hadn't taken up so much screentime. It's mean, but it's true. Loki's presence made the story suck more. 

Sorry, tumblr.

In a very real sense, I feel like this film, while still being a perfectly serviceable movie, failed at being a great movie because it incorrectly understood the success of the first Thor. The first Thor isn't a good movie because Loki is sassy or because the women are beautiful or because everyone wants to sleep with Thor. Those things are all true, but they're not why the film works. It works because it depends on a core emotional story about family and identity and the choices we must make. By reducing Loki to a sassy pseudo-villain with no explicable motivation anymore and gutting the development of half the characters, by killing off Frigga and making Jane a macguffin, by relegating Darcy and Erik to comic relief, the movie kills itself. It removes all chances at emotional depth, and instead relies on special effects and fight sequences to make you care.

And the result isn't terrible. It's not the worst movie I've ever seen. It's not even the worst movie I've seen this month. I saw it twice even (once by myself, once with my sister, who loves Thor to distraction). It's a perfectly okay movie. But it's not great. It could have been great. And, honestly, nothing offends me more than when something could be great, but it ends up mediocre instead because greatness would have been more work.


  1. I think your last sentence is probably a perfect synopsis of God's take on how we view accepting his glory. Loki's screen-filing dilution seems to be a nice parallel to our fetishes for things that are entertainingly distracting but not beneficial, too.

    1. Oooh. Yes. I'm going to pretend that this parallel was something I was going for on purpose from now on. :DDD

  2. Even Darcy, amazing, taser-happy Darcy, ends up with a love interest in this movie. Ian, in fact, seems to only exist in the movie to give her someone to kiss at the end, thereby letting off some of the tension.

    What I'd have really liked there was for a "how can I repay you" type question followed by Ian asking her to be best woman at his wedding. (Not as much as I'd have liked for her to be the one to flip the car over, though).

    I can't really argue with anything you've said, which is sad.

    I did like Jane wanting to be talked through the gadgetry the Asgard techs were scanning her with - that seemed more like the core of Jane. And I did like that stopping Malekith took everyone.

    1. Oh, I will add one thing... whether Sif was up for marrying Thor (it would have been interesting to have them as exes who are still friends, thus explaining why they're married in mythology, but that's beside the point), she at least didn't let it get in the way of anything.

      And I will forever believe that Heimdall bringing down a spaceship with two daggers was meant as an FU to those who objected to Idris Elba's casting.

    2. Definitely. The scene with Jane and the science snarking was by far the most "Jane" moment in the movie. It was the moment when she stopped being a MacGuffin for a second and started being a real girl. And then it went away. Sigh. Also, agreed about Darcy. She should have been the one to flip the car, at the very least.

      Heimdall is amazing, and I was mostly sad that the romance angle was all we got to see of Sif. It could have been interesting, but not when there was nothing else to her.

    3. I hope I didn't come across as disagreeing, about Sif, because I didn't mean to. You could pick loads of cool feminist moments from the first film, but you didn't have to because feminsim was right there in the background noise. You can do the same from this film - like Heimdall trating Jane as someone impressive, because she could meaningfully be said to be studying the convergence, a phenomenon mysterious to most of Asgard - but you *do* have to, because it's gone from the background noise. And that's a shame (in both senses).

      Also, agreed about Darcy. She should have been the one to flip the car, at the very least.

      Ian was pretty extraneous all round. The final battle could have been done with Jane calibrating the control, and Erik and Darcy hammering the spikes in, and Darcy could have got Erik out of the clink without him. It's not like he's a bad character as such, but he really comes across as a "we need more dudes" character. And we didn't.

    4. That's a really good point. The way that the feminist moments in this movie are seen as exceptional is the real problem. They're so matter of fact in the first one! Blarg.

      Ian was cute but not super helpful to the plot. I mean, I kind of enjoyed having him around, but in a vague sense. And in a movie this jam packed, nothing should be wasted - especially not an extra dude character just supposed to even the odds or pair with the spare. :(

  3. ...People objected to Idris Elba? For anything? Ever?

    When I read his name I was in this review I was like, oh, right, I should try to see this movie.

    The rest is alright, too, but...

    1. Eh, I'd stick to just marathoning episodes of Luther to get your Elba fix. :DDD

  4. Sorry for the necromancy, but I just got this on DVD, and there was a deleted scene included that I thought was worth mentioning.

    It's just after the death of Frigga, and starts with Jane investigating the aether via a holographic archive she's figured out how to use in the short time she's been on Asgard. Thor comes in and comments on her being a quick study, to which she replied with the deliciously Jane-ish line of "when I don't know what to do, I work."
    Anyway, she's found out some of the aether's properties (including a couple of aspects that Odin told her in the final film), and some things that Odin didn't tell them - whether he didn't know or just didn't want them to know.
    Then that group of Einherjar show up to arrest Jane - not looking all that thrilled about it, which might be conscience or might be down to Thor being there and clearly willing to use force to prevent it. Jane refuses the latter, and goes with them, citing the reason that no one else from Asgard is going to get hurt over her.

    I wish this had been in the film that'd been released. We see Jane actively engage with what's happening, seek work as solace, and being brainy (I would assume most Asgard tech is pretty user-friendly, but it would still be a steep learning curve for someone from Earth). And we also see Frigga's death motivating [I]Jane[/I], which is better than it only motivating the menfolk.

    More than anything though, it irritates me because I'm convinced you wouldn't have to make all that much different for this film to have been as feminist as the first.

    1. I agree. That would have changed a lot. If nothing else, it would have cemented Frigga's death as a genuine tragedy, and not just a catalyst for male action. Especially since I like to think that Frigga and Jane liked each other very much.

      Dang it. I just really wanted this movie to be feminist. And it was so close.

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