Thor: The Dark World: A Beyond the Bunker review

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BTB Reviews Movie

Marvel’s got a hell of a challenge ahead of it, particularly with Thor. With Robert Downey Jr hanging up his french waiter moustache and goatee until Avengers: Age of Ultron, the weight of convincing crowds that Marvel has what it takes to make us deal out the dosh to see Captain America: Winter Soldier, Ant Man and Guardians of the Galaxy before the next team building exercise and universe bending threat to humanity falls on the not insignificany shoulders of the God of Thunder himself, this time directed by Game of Thrones' and first time blockbuster movie director; Alan Taylor.

Of the three (four) big hitters in the Avengers, Thor's films are by far the broadest in setting and effectively most responsible for setting the outer limits of the Marvel Universe, presenting a massive challenge. It was the villain of Thor (Tom Hiddleston's Loki) that represented the threat in the showcase movie Avengers (we don't call it Avengers Assemble here) after all – so while Thor is the least profitable (by a small margin) and arguably the slightest of the original three movie franchises that lead to Avengers in spite of capable direction from Shakespearite Kenneth Branagh – it carries with it the burden of being potentially the most influential. This film is no different, with Iron Man 3 resolving Tony Stark's story arc until the new Avengers film and the trailer for Captain America making it clear that it's focus is one of internal conflict and very human warfare, the onus is on Thor to kick the excitement for Avengers: Age of Ultron up a notch. This it does with absolute aplomb, a wry sense of humour and a sense of it’s audience rarely seen in an established franchise.

We find a cast very much changed by the events of Avengers, some of which finally have the opportunity to be developed more effectively with a plot that deals much more with the nine realms of which Earth (Midgard) and Thor's home (Asgard) are only two. Most improved are the formerly peripheral and comic book mainstays otherwise known as the Warriors Three (Hogun, Fandral and a slightly less voluminous Volstagg) and Thor's female interest in Asgard, Sif. Though Tadanobu Asano's Hogun is out pretty early on. The film pauses deliberately to present these characters a little better, Volstagg now better realised by the brilliant Ray Stevenson (Rome, Punisher: War Zone) and Zachary Levi as dashing Fandral stirs memories of old Robin Hood movies. Sif's clear love for Thor as a subplot is an interesting and welcome development in Sif's character, though she is used sparingly in action sequences and the first to be removed from the equation when the action begins to heat up, something regrettable as Jaimie Alexander is such a capable actress, Sif an interesting character and both are such bona fide hotties.

Rene Russo's Frigga, as Thor's mother takes a more prominent role in proceedings as well, as the influence she has over her husband Odin (Anthony Hopkins), her real son, Thor and step son, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is the linking subplot that allows three warring characters to find any common ground.

But, hilariously, it's the master stroke of Stellan Skarsgård's Dr. Erik Selvig and his burgeoning mental illness that wins the film over. Rather than sideline him as a result of him being driven mad because he 'had a god in my head', Selvig becomes welcome relief from earnest and worthy moments threatening to become too overbearing and tipping the plot into farce by taking itself too seriously. Kat Dennings' assistant Darcy Lewis and her 'interns intern Ian Boothby played by Jonathan Howard create very neat comic moments and IT Crowd's Chris O' Dowd as Dr Jane Foster's (still ably played by Natalie Portman) doomed alternative love interest rounds out a very well used set of side characters.

Playing Doctors and Norses: Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) meet up in a pub car park....

Playing Doctors and Norses: Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) meet up in a pub car park….

If I haven’t mentioned the primary cast of Hemsworth, Portman, Hiddleston and Hopkins (and Idris Elba as all-seeing Heimdall) it is because there is little change amongst any of them. They are uniformly great, with only Hopkins seemingly phoning it in a little at the very beginning. They occupy the centre of the plot brilliantly, each fulfilling the potential of the characters well. Hemsworth himself proves himself a generous and humble actor in scenes with others, giving a the god of thunder the depth of storm clouds in quieter moments and allowing other characters to share the limelight in one on one scenes.

It is perhaps the familiarity of the archetypes that causes the film to slightly dip in the centre however. Away from the cast of unusual and offbeat side characters the course the characters take is almost unavoidably predictable. Not boring at any point, and peppered with nice moments which will make you laugh unexpectedly. However, the main tract of the tale take second place to the decidedly enjoyable character moments. When the main plot takes over, it can’t help but become a slightly predictable, if exceptionally well paced and directed, fantasy fare.

Aside from occasional hiccups in the edit the film is littered with curiousities and odd decisions that are later satisfactorily resolved, which highlights how this film isn’t being written by template. It can be argued it under utilises a cast capable of greater emotional depth but it does so in order to remind itself that it is a superhero yarn and one that demands a heavy dose of fun and would suffer from too much hand-wringing. Never the less the relationship between Odin and Thor at loggerheads in the first film as a loving father and son incapable of agreeing on anything is satisfyingly realised here. The writing of a character as unpredictable as Loki leaves you guessing how many bluffs and double bluffs you’re seeing with red herrings subtle and layered as the God of Mischief tries to justify his actions enough to disappoint everyone all over again – a highly enjoyable tight rope walk for a sympathetic character – and one that pays off nicely.

Portman’s involvement draws parallels with the Star Wars franchise and there are touches of Padme Amidala in her appearance, but it is the blend between mythology and science fiction, well realised in this case, that makes Thor: The Dark World the film the Phantom Menace and Clone Wars should have been. The idea that technological advancement creates worlds reminiscent of fantasy epics works because secretly it’s an ideal existence, a comfortable blend between nature, control of physics (advanced science giving rise to magic that utilises great power) and balance. Here, the Marvel universe draws together the ideas that the Star Wars saga failed to and it’s exciting and impressive to behold.

Perhaps most notably for a resident of the denizens of London, it looked (with only one exception) like the city we know well, a refreshing change from interesting global landmarks used as interchangable backdrops for unintelligible action sequences or the foppish, lamp lit London of Richard Curtis romantic comedies. Neither does it rely on overly recognisable landmarks, this film is brave enough to put the action away from the obvious tourist track and for that it deserves credit – though recognisable landmarks to Londoners are used briefly and effectively to raise a smile. Having said that, those with a clear knowledge of the underground will definitely take umbridge with one otherwise well placed London Transport gag. Put simply, without showing the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s, the O2, The London Eye or Trafalgar Square this film manages to depict a city both recognisable to Londoners and attractive to tourists. Something it’d be good to see in other films.

Enormous ideas are realised with effective visual shorthand and a recurring light touch. Happily, having watched a film that involved alien starships, multiple dimensions and gods the thing I admire most about it, particularly after the seemingly pointless carnage of Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel, is it’s self control. Thor maintains the Marvel tradition of understanding that devastation doesn’t have to be global, total or even city wide. With effective set pieces the final battle, while grand, is geographically contained (at least while limited to this dimension) but is more engaging as a result.

This an incredibly assured debut to mainstream film making, with the risks that Marvel are taking paying off film after film. If any of you are waiting for Marvel to falter, this film most certainly isn’t it. Based on the trailer of Captain America: Winter Soldier and the now traditional title sequence clips, Marvel isn’t going to slow down anytime soon. Unexpectedly, perhaps, the concern over the end of Downey Jr’s run as Iron Man as a franchise in it’s own right was misplaced, his absence now allowing focus to fall on extremely worthy elements of the Marvel Universe. We say more of this and Marvel will secure its place with one of the finest legacies in movie history.

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Practitioners 20: Olivier Coipel

Olivier Coipel is a French comic book artist who has set the world of comic books on fire (several times at the behest of the script) and was described by Marvel Editor-In-Chief as being one (of very few) who has the qualities that make a ‘future superstar penciller.’ With clean compositions even in the heat of superhero battle, Olivier represents the French habit of ensuring that the emotional information in a panel is communicated as effectively as the physical. His intricate character design and attention to detail are unusual in an artist that can also turn on enormous set piece panels featuring superheroes clubbing each other on castle ramparts, shadowed by flying battleships (as in Marvel Crossover Siege, 2010, for instance).

Coming to prominence and frankly significant controversy as the artist of the DC Comics book Legion of Super-heroes while under the safe hands of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning (who later joined Marvel Universe to create Bunker favourite the Guardians of the Galaxy), beginning with the Legion lost story.

A spread from Seige (Marvel, 2010)

Legion of Super-heroes is not one of DC’s all time big hitters but has a loyal and regular following. Hard to believe though it is now Coipel recieved increased criticism on his run with Legion. His artwork slightly less sharp and contoured the fans felt that his style was ‘too rough and unrefined’ leading to a significant number of prominent critics to pan his first major work. One prominent critic (unnamed even went as far as to call him ‘Ol’ Scratchy’. In spite of this Coipel continued to draw the series when it was relaunched under the new title ‘The Legion’.

Leaving DC in 2005, Coipel signed an exclusive contract with Marvel Comics in January 2005 and has had a significant amount of pencilling work to date. With a huge amount of expectation placed on him right from the go – Coipel was asked to kill the Avengers under Brian Michael Bendis. The flagging title was gaining lower and lower sales figures and a new approach had to be introduced, and in that testing ground new talents were introduced. Coipel introduced Flashback pages to the final issues of Avengers alongside master Marvel penciller David Finch (X-Men, New Avengers).

While Finch went on to create New Avengers series some months later, Coipel released one of the most assured and impressive visual storytelling pieces in comics. Straight out of the gate (only stopping for a single cover design for Black Panther 16), Coipel was assigned the pencilling duties on House of M; in which Coipel would have to build the Marvel Universe from the ground up; utilising designs from throughout the Marvel universe. There was no doubt that this was going to launch Coipel into the limelight – no doubt what Marvel wanted – House of M incorporated every title in the Marvel Universe for four months; the culmination of all these events took place under Coipel’s pencil line in the House of M mini-series. He didn’t fail to impress, with grandiose scene making and exceptional characterisation – he captured visually the demanding emotional effect on the central characters of the Marvel Universe as they reeled from the effects of the reality shift. Wolverine talks momentarily on the deck of a renovated Shield battlecruiser over New York. In it his and Mystique’s reactions are perfect and refined, reflecting intimately on their faces the subtexts introduced by the script. And when Wolverine throws himself off the deck of the ship the skyline of New York moves up to meet him; his face still registering the conversation and revelation that has occurred to him; he has made matching draftsmanship and illustration perfectly together, seamlessly to form a memorable visual moment. Few artists could have realised better the agony in Peter Parker when he discovers that his wife is dead and his child shouldn’t exist in a harrowing and emphatic moment in comic history; no doubt lost soon to its lack of relevance to continuity.

It was in this series that Coipel’s unique sense of space and composition became obvious. In panels crowded with fighting super humans, Coipel finds space and clarity in the maul. His assured use of the panel, allowing open space, even accounting that which has to stay free for dialogue speech bubbles is nothing short of masterly. His use of free space brings the eye firmly down to bear on its intended target – the character or event. But rather than carrying the eye off panel and out and onto another page the detail fixed in his choices of moment holds your attention and makes the book you are reading significantly more engaging.

His mastery over physicality, anatomy and expression is exceptional too (expected perhaps from a French artist given the artistic traditions of his home nation) as each character is given different baring and expressions under numerous circumstances. His facial expressions can echo a perfect moment caught in a photograph in an entire play and roll from panel to panel – endlessly engaging.

Coipel was engaged in New Avengers (Variant cover only), Ultimate X-Men 61 (variant cover only), a story in the New Avengers Annual 1 and Stan Lee meets Spider-man, for which I think Dan used some artwork for the upcoming Stan Awards article last week.

Astonishing Thor Gatefold (Marvel, 2009)

But it was Thor he fell on. Working on the reintroduction of a Thor series with J. Michael Straczinsky. Set in the American Midwest, the new Thor series gave Coipel the opportunity to realise wide open skies and landscapes in the towers of Asgard as it hovered 15 feet over corn feilds. His subtle character designs and nuances worked well with the title, allowing a well realised group of all-too Human and otherworldly characters; most notably in the town meeting in which panel reveals the Gods of Asgard sitting politely on one side with the small nearby town’s population looking whistfully back at them from the chairs on the other side of the room. Every expression, costume and detail well realised. A cinemotgrapher would sit back and smile if any shot appeared as well realised in a blockbuster movie.

Coipel rounded it off with Seige, another enormous crossover event to announce the company’s creative direction with the ‘Golden Avengers’; a return to heroic age. Coipel’s work in Thor put him great stead with this book. Asgard was under attack by the corrupted Shield forces under Harry Osborne; now beyond the President’s control – allowing the cast of the heroic age of Marvel (and Nick Fury and Maria Hill) to unite and stand against a clear, black and white enemy. This was Marvel’s announcement of a return to simpler ideals and an acknowledgment of heroes and it was beautifully realised by Coipel. His friendly, clear and emotive style enhanced the events considerably.

Norman Osborne goes nuts!! (Seige, 2010)

Coipel is the new breed of comic book artists; in which cinema plays an enormous part. In a future in which the demands on an individual artist are to create as close to a photorealistic portrayal of the wonders in a comic book – Coipel will represent a spearhead in beautifully realised, perfectly poised and utterly engaging superhero and comic book fiction. He is due to return to Matt Fraction’s Thor this year.

VIVE LE FRANCE! VIVE LE REVOLUTION!!