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.

Practitioners 9: Grant Morrison

As a catch up for all new visitors to Beyond the Bunker, we’ll be representing the original Practitioners series 1-55 (Simon BisleyChris Bachalo and featuring the most influential comic creatives in history). Thoroughly incomplete but featuring legends like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Frank Miller and Alan Moore already more will be hitting the site every two alternate weeks. For now though, sit back every Tuesday for a run-down of the men and women who created the comic industry we know today. (Or check the full list in the menus above). This week: Global comics megastar and frustrated visionary; Grant Morrison.

All Star Superman 6 (DC, 2006)

Grant Morrison is a scottish comic book writer and playwright born 31 January 1960 who harnesses and embraces the full power of literature, psychology, history, science and mixes it all with an acute awareness of readership and popular culture. Sending Frankenstein to a land at the end of human experience and standing Wolverine and Sabretooth at the urinals of the Hellfire Club in the pursuit of perfect storytelling in comic books, drawing on a bewildering array of sources to bring forth writing that elevates and encourages its readership with rich language and deep, irony laced ideas of impossible futures and near unrecognisable presents, outer dimensions and the end of many worlds. Due to leave comic books at the end of his run with Batman, Morrison’s legacy will be one that lasts.

All Star Superman

Never scared of the poignant or the difficult Morrison has the canny knack of shifting seamlessly from the scientific explanation of a Voyager Titan mentally preparing to be launched into deep space for centuries in All Star Superman to the very real failure of Scott Summers to retain his marriage in the wake of post traumatic stress he is unable to express in New X-Men. It his acknowledgment of the need to ground – at least to the degree required for a readers’ mind if not in real terms – absurd statements and events with less abstract and more concise human situations and scenarios, underpinning everything with realistic and recognisable reactions.

He achieves this while still understanding the bare bones of comic book storytelling – still revelling in the idea of superheroes and extreme science fiction and (occasionally) magic. Elevating the subject matters though he does, he knows at all time who he is speaking to – and speaks as one of them, only with greater authority and verve.

He recognises, as all great writers perhaps do – no matter how many stars and space cannons are exploding around the main characters – that it is the individual humanity carefully identified by the writer that each character demonstrates that pins the story to the ground and allows it to resonate with the reader. In the same way that horror relies on the reactions of the participants, Morrison crafts insane worlds that are either (mostly) wholly accepted by its participants or accepted begrudgingly by them. The level of disbelief is relieved most of all by Morrison’s dialogue in which central, authoritative figures matter of factly describe high end science fiction ideas in lyrical and poetic language that causes the reader to wish it were so and, more subtly, believe it is possible. Using real science, meticulously applied and expanded upon, Morrison creates ephemeral worlds on solid foundations, allowing a degree of believability. The idea that Lex Luthor keeps a trained Baboon dressed as Superman in his cell for instance relies on the idea that reinforces Luthor as a genius, capable of manipulating his environment and the malign patience required to train a baboon and the influence to get the materials required. This falls into Morrison’s third greatest trick; an astonishing array of subtext and context to all of his characters. This is demonstrated beautifully, with the realisation that Luthor has a cavernous escape route available at any time through a trap door in his cell. His character is yet further reinforced as Kent is met at the base of stone stairs by an ambiguously aged girl in mild S&M uniform, piloting a Gondola on an underground lake. The iconography involved draws in sexual ambiguity (what is Luthor’s relationship to the girl – later uncovered as his niece, possibly for matters of taste), themes of power and influence and the mythology of the river Styx, as the innocent Kent is slowly taken back out to the living world. This may seem overly detailed and analytical but Morrison is at least that referential. His notes to his artists perhaps second only to the great Alan Moore.

His pacing and use of character is impeccable as he inhabits the mindset and responses of all of his characters – no matter how peripheral. It is in these reactions as Lex Luthor remains steadfastly oblivious to the possibility that Clark Kent has saved him as a prison riot rages around them in All Star Superman – assuming, naturally, that he has the situation well under control when in fact Kent continues to use an array of powers beyond his notice to ease his passage and even save him from a blundering Parasite. Kent remaining true to the honest and unassuming character of Superman to great comic effect.

Arcadia Byron of the Invisibles (Vertigo)

Morrison’s first published works were Gideon Stargrave for the brilliantly titled Near Myths in 1978 at the age of 17. Soon followed Captain Clyde, an out of work superhero for the Govan Press, a local newspaper in Glasgow, plus various issues of DC Thomson’s Starblazer, the sister title to the companies Commando title and the New Adventures of Hitler. He spent much of the early 80s touring with his band The Mixers, putting out the odd Starblazer and Zoids strip for DC Thomson.

In 1982 he submitted a proposal for a storyline involving the Justice League of America and Jack Kirby’s New Gods entitled Second Coming to DC. It was dismissed but his fascination of the New Gods no doubt formed the skeleton of the enormous Final Crisis saga in which Darkseid launches armageddon on an unsuspecting world in a second age of the New Gods using Earth and its inhabitants as hosts and demonic incubators. His desire to write DC’s primary superhero group was no doubt sated with his long run on JLA in 1996 to revamp the team and bring it up to date which he pulled off with Rock of Ages, Earth 2 and World War 3 (in no particular order).

At every stage he proved time and time again that he expanded the material handed to him – writing for 2000AD with Big Dave, Future Shocks and the unusually superhuman for 2000AD – Zenith under his wing before his tenure at DC.

The Filth with Grant Morrison and Gary Erskine (2003)

Upon crossing the Atlantic he demonstrated immediately his capacity for reinventing fringe characters and enhancing them beyond the original idea – taking the near unknown fringe character Animal Man and not only imbuing his character with the real reactions of a man who could channel the powers and thoughts of animals nearby to him but forced him to look through the fourth wall at the reader – breaking the indefinable rules of the medium in the process to brilliant effect.

Morrison is known for treating mainstream established titles in the same way as fringe titles and this has earned him a status as the great re-inventor in Modern comics. He was the man to make Scott Summer’s cool again as he took hold of the X-men universe and rang the life out of it – a process he tried to make un-reconnable – Killing 16 Million Mutants and giving Professor Xavier an unborn, evil sister who returns as a mind slug and unleashes the Shi’ar navy all over the mansion. Introducing a cavalcade of new Mutants some as hilariously and poignantly useless as ‘Beaky’ the featherless, beaked bird boy who batters in the head of the newly uber-feline and faux gay Beast. Jean Grey dies but for once is given no reason to return – as psychic hyper-bitch and new headmistress of Xavier’s Emma Frost sways Scott Summer’s exhausted heart, filling the emotional vacancy usually left by Phoenix every time she summarily carks it. Magneto is beheaded after destroying half of Manhattan and Xavier’s approaches an actual curriculum and focusses on its students for the first time in its history.

Jean and the Beast (New X-Men, 2002)

Morrison often – whether intentionally or not – represents the discussion boards and blogs of the fans – testing theories that are discussed hypothetically on public pages that no one expected to see them on. Batman is killed and returned and given a son in Morrison’s watch. Jason Todd effectively returns breaking the almighty unwritten rule of comic books – partly you suspect out of sheer bloody mindedness. Morrison finally being characteristically brave to investigate the reality of Dick Grayson under the cowl.

Dick Grayson as Batman (Batman, 2009)

The content of his independent titles have become mainstream – for good or ill – leaving many readers of Final Crisis utterly confused as to what was taking place – an abstract Superman tale in which he passes through multiverses in order to combat an abstract thought form made real in storytelling in an ephemeral world populated by reality vampires via a limbo championed by an indifferent Woody Allen-alike in a jesters outfit in order to save Lois Lane in between her penultimate and final heartbeat borders on the lunatic – but is incredibly detailed and worth the three reads it takes to fully grasp the deliberately overlapping realities thrown at it.

Morrison clearly found a like mind in penciller Frank Quitely, bringing to life the inner workings of Professor X’s mind in New X-Men, the gnarled and diseased but lithely libidoed geriatric in Lust for Life from Jamie Delano’s 2020 Visions (Speakeasy comics, 2005), scraping by each other by two volumes of the Authority – Morrison on Volume 4 with Gene Ha and Quitely on Volume 2 with Mark Millar, empowered the new JLA with a little much-needed modern sheen in the book of the same name in the early naughties and reinvented the greatest super hero of them all in All-Star Superman.

But it was WE-3, the story of three prototype ‘animal weapons’ as they flee the project that ‘enhanced’ them encapsulates the creative partnership. Morrison was meticulous as ever with his descriptions and insisted on consistent and protracted revisions of minute details from Quitely in order to produce a work of rare and fine quality. This certainly was achieved as it was released via Vertigo imprint in 2004 to public and critical acclaim. Morrison’s subtlety and nuance of character supplied each of the fleeing and desperate central characters; a rabbit; a cat and a dog a bewilderingly believable character each recognisable as an individual and the drives and psychology of the animal in question. Morrison’s capacity for invention supplied the narrative with a relatively basic speech pattern simulator for each of the animals allowing them to emote through limited cognitive language in a way not human but beyond its species. The effect is a dizzying, gripping and poignant story of extreme science inflicting havoc and chaos on three innocents’ lives – each reacting in their own very specific way. In many ways WE3 is exceptional and as near perfect as a comic book can get because it uses – perhaps most transparently and as such to best effect – Morrison’s greatest creative methodology – to recognise inherent and recognisable characteristics in vulnerable and capable beings and then inflict seven hells of pseudo lunacy on them – in whatever form seems most fun!

We3 (2004, Vertigo) by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

Most recently, Morrison has become devoutly lambasted for his incredible work in the Batman titles; killing Batman himself, replacing him with Dick Grayson, who struggles with the responsibility of the cowl. The hardened purists in the DC readership continued to make life harder and harder for Morrison to ply his trade. That, combined with his increasingly bizarre statements about his influence and involvement in the comics industry have begun to slow the genius down. His ideas were beginning to outgrow a perhaps more commercially minded DC as it tries to keep up with it’s Red banner rival, Marvel. Increasingly limited in the titles he has been permitted to write, Morrison announced recently that he will be leaving the comics industry behind, citing specifically the antagonising nature of the hardened fan – who actively denounce any major creative changes in the writing of any major character – irrespective of sales or popularity among the general public. This is an enormous loss to the industry and should not be underestimated. Wild card though he was, Morrison was a comic book loving wild card, determined to bring innovation and broad ideas to a fairly staid and unchanging medium. This is the man who finally killed Batman, deified Superman and killed 6 million mutants in 1 issue. Let his comics epitaph read; ‘went down fighting, but took a lot of characters with him.’

BTB Investigates: Is Thanos the real Avengers movie bad guy?

The previews for The Avengers movie next year reveals the expected obliterated New York / Chicago / Seattle streets and the various Avengers charging into battle looking pouty and slightly impractically dressed and the suggested central bad guy, Thor’s half brother, Loki, flailing about in a cloak looking fairly imposing in a way an impish theatre actor might in a storm scene on stage. While we’re looking forward to the Avengers movie based on what we’ve seen – I can’t help but think that there’s an absent power behind the throne on this one. There’s a few reasons for this one:

  • Joss Whedon, assigned to direct this little number, is not one to work on a one threat script. Whether it’s Firefly or Buffy or Angel, it’s the initial threat, usually controlled by a shadowy puppet master and then often revealed to be a cosmic threat of unimaginable power. Not just that, he has a wry sense of humour and an acute understanding of what audiences like. He’s also a populist. Unafraid to do what is cool and follow expected narratives, he is a creature of loose habit. His plot structures have always incorporated big and very charismatic entrances of large scale bad guys. He’s also got a history of abstract and old school sci-fi and horror influences in everything he does, usually taking the source material and advancing it to be acceptable to TV/ Movie audiences.
  • Marvel has shown increasing bravery in bringing forward obscure characters from it’s ranks in it’s current spate of films and dealing with broad and fun themes rather than taking themselves too seriously. They also stick pretty close to source material and introduce figures that represent the proper threat for the development of the character.
  • The Avengers themselves have to be facing a threat on a scale that tests them well enough. Thor alone beat Loki. Loki is not a threat. The Hulk is clearly being held in reserve until the effects are finished but who is he going to face?
  • Mark Millar’s Ultimates is informing the Avengers. While there is an invasion of fantasy hordes in Ultimates 2 which may well fill the gap, it’s been well done and may still happen without undermining the theory that it’s Thanos that’ll step into the fray. An Alien invasion isn’t discounted either as appeared in Ultimates 1 and the Nazis might still be involved. Hard to say. Point is extra terrestrial or god attack, it doesn’t matter, Thanos is attached to both.
  • Rumours state that Thano’s glove from the Infinity Gauntlet series is visible on the Avengers set photos. Thanos brought the entire Marvel Universe to a standstill in the early ’90s as he took hold of the Infinity Gauntlet and threatened to destabilise the universe. A threat easily big enough to justify a call out at Avenger’s towers.

But why Thanos? 

Thanos is a being of credible bad that has sulked, skulked and schemed his way around the backwaters of Marvel’s cosmic universe, occasionally bringing the whole thing into doubt with his plans. Lover of the dubiously aged Death and as such effectively immortal, he is a corrupted Titan, a shrugging destroyer of time, space and any sentient being stupid enough to wander into his path. He’s Marvel’s Lobo. He has a death grin, incurable curiosity for how much chaos and death he can cause and how brilliantly he can destabilise the powers of the universe. For fun.

  • He’s a cosmic being and a god. Thor made it clear that Valhalla was a realm in space, responsible for galactic peace. Thanos is a deity on par with the Frost Giants. A corrupted and deformed child of gods. As the story goes according to Marvel.com – On Saturn’s moon of Titan lived a colony of Eternals, and Thanos was born as one of the last sons of the original colonists, Mentor and Sui-san. However, he was born misshapen and monstrous in comparison to the other Eternals, particularly his handsome and carefree brother, Starfox.
  • He is a collector of Cosmic Cubes. The one connecting link between all of the films (excluding Iron Man) is the Cosmic Cubes. The Red Skull was killed by it, underestimating it’s power in Captain America while the Cosmic Cube was cared for by Odin and stolen by Loki at the end of Thor. Thanos has long been associated with the cosmic cubes – which he aquires and uses regularly to keep causing trouble.
  • He’s just returned to the Marvel Universe in a plot involving a cosmic cube. Guardians of the Galaxy, while a lesser known title outside the industry is critically acclaimed and one of Marvel’s most consistent books. Returning wild and beserk, Starlord effectively punches him in the face with it to bring him down. But the fascination with the Cosmic Cube is obvious in the character and clearly a fundamental aspect of Thanos from the view of Marvel.
  • Abnett and Lanning aren’t writing him in the usual way. Thanos has never been hailed or fanfared like a galaxy spanning threat, narratively. Thanos is a tinkerer and walks in from the side lines to see what he can get away with. That wry curiosity and mischievousness was always the defining characteristic of Thanos. Even when associated with the destruction of butt loads of planets, Thanos is intellectually involved but never held up as a purveyor of all-hell-breaking-loose. But Thanos has been elevated this time. He’s not stronger, Thanos was always tough. He’s not more imposing, or larger. But the way he’s being written this time round suggests a greater awe, as if this character is just about to lift beyond his station in Marvel. It’s not uncommon, Iron Man, Thor, War Machine have all had massively increased status in the universe since seeing celluloid. Is Thanos gonna get the same treatment?

Thanos is a great bad guy and although the natural resistance has been removed now that Marvel is under the Lassetter banner of Disney and internally responsible for it’s own brand there would be sensible resistance at using an obscure, radiator chinned, purple god with a chip on his shoulder as the central pivot for a major blockbuster that’s never been tried before. Abnett and Lanning’s response is likely a reply to the existing rumours that Thanos almost got a big screen appearance.  The contrivance of plot that would be needed to introduce a second disgruntled child of the Gods when any sensible writer can apply the same emotional palette to the existing character without dropping a stocky, purple, alien gorilla face with 1980s shoulder pads into the action. But it’d Thanos. Against the Avengers. Directed by Whedon. Keep wishing guys but in all liklihood it’s just too cool to risk.