thor the dark world poster

Thor: The Dark World – A Nontraditional Superhero Movie

Most critics’ and many viewers’ response to “Thor 2: The Dark World” was ambivalent. The general consensus seems to be that the Thor franchise is weaker than those of the other Marvel heroes, that the movies are entertaining but nothing to write home about. Instead, people rave about “The Avengers.” “The Avengers” was fairly standard comic book fare: a team of superheroes bands together to save the world from a looming menace of epic proportions, learning how to get along in the process. Neither “Thor” nor “Thor 2” boasts a particularly divergent plot from this formula (looming menace, save the world, etc). Yet both of these movies – and especially the second one – stand apart from, and above, the rest of the Marvel canon. The reason for this is not anything novel in the twists and turns of the plot, but in the characterization of the villain, Loki, and in the female characters of the franchise, most notably Jane, played by Natalie Portman, and her sidekick, an unpaid intern named Darcy.

First, Loki. As any fangirl will readily explain, he is the true star of the Thor movies. In Norse mythology, he is a shape-shifting trickster figure who is eventually made to suffer eternal torment for accidentally causing the death of another god. In the other superhero stories, Marvel was starting from scratch, but with Thor, the creators had a lot of old myths to draw upon, and they did not shy away from this task. As a trickster god, Loki is chaotic neutral – sometimes a villain, sometimes a hero. Part of the reason he has such pull is because Tom Hiddleston, who plays him, is an excellent actor; but the main reason is because he is a genuinely interesting, believable, nuanced character. He has complex motivations, which are actually quite reasonable considering the context. He is relatable and charming, with a quick wit and good love/hate chemistry with his brother Thor. Ignoring “The Avengers” (which threw the characterization established for him in Thor completely out the window), he never does anything really evil. He may be out for his own gain, but he also shows genuine affection for people – his mother, for instance, a major plot point in The Dark World – and even acts selflessly on occasion, exhibiting nobility or kindness when he stands to gain nothing – for example, saving Jane at the risk of his own life. In this way, he is a complete departure from the traditional comic book villain: neither an evil maniac bent on the destruction of everything, like Malakith, the actual villain in this movie; nor a sympathetic enemy, like Two-Face in “The Dark Knight” or Prince Nuada in “Hellboy 2.” He is not truly a villain at all. Instead, he is a dangerous randomizing factor thrown into the mix to either help or hurt Thor and his goals. He keeps things interesting.

Here is a good point to mention that Odin, Thor’s father and the ruler of Asgard, is the worst king in history. Firstly, his bad attitude and pointless bigotry is the real reason why Loki is such a jerk. Secondly, his response when Thor gives him a reasonable alternative to a worlds-spanning war resulting in the deaths of millions of people is to veto it without any concern for logic. He sends armed troops after his son, ignoring the fact that Thor could easily have been killed in the assault, and treats Jane like crap because she is a mortal and therefore beneath him. In other words, he is a ruthless, arrogant racist who brooks no opposition either real or imagined and apparently cares for no one except his wife. It is a great point in his favor that Thor seems to finally realize as much during the course of this movie.

Speaking of Odin, his wife, Frigga (or Freya, more commonly seen in mythology) is quite the opposite of her husband. She is loving and accepting, treating both Loki and Jane with kindness in defiance of Odin’s wishes. And, despite being a middle-aged aristocrat, she is also a complete badass. She is able to easily get the better of Malakith, something even Thor is unable to do, and could have killed him were she that sort of person. She is portrayed as clever and wise, a capable queen and also beautiful despite her age (the actress, Rene Russo, is sixty).

Better yet, all of the women in the film get similar treatment. Sif, a female warrior in Thor’s band of buddies, likes to party hard, is as good a fighter as any of the men, probably has a minor crush on Thor but never makes any romantic overtures towards him, and never pushes the love triangle the film hints ever-so-vaguely at into being. She is the best characterized of Thor’s friend group. Darcy, a nerdy physicist/hipster, is there mainly for comic relief, but still manages to help save the day, and is shown to have a brain, a very strong personality, and real interests. When she and her own intern feel inspired to start a romance, she dips him, not the other way around; and though they do kiss, the romance is a minor part of her story. Finally, Jane, Thor’s human love interest, is a person of agency and volition. She mopes over Thor’s absence, just like any person does after a breakup, but she does not let it rule her life. Instead, she continues to pursue her career. Despite being pretty and feminine, Jane is a doctor of physics, spouting expert technobabble[a] that could rival that of “Star Trek,” and she comes off more as dorky and adorable than nerdy. When threatened, she does not simply stand around waiting to be rescued, but tries to help herself get out of danger, and likewise, she goes to Thor’s aid when he is under threat. Ultimately, Thor could not have saved the universe without her aid. None of the women dress in skanky or impractical clothing, lose or damage their clothes during action sequences, or get the lingering fanservice typical of most women in comic book films. Thor himself, on the other hand, is given a long panning shot up his glistening, shirtless, muscled body as he bathes, and Loki a similar treatment while clothed and in chains. Take that, male camera gaze.

The characterization of the women in this film is probably the best part about it. The movie only has fifteen characters; four are female, almost a third of the total, which is much more than in most superhero films. “Iron Man 3,” for instance, features only two women, Pepper Potts (ie. Iron Man’s current girlfriend) and one of Iron Man’s exes. “The Avengers” has two, Black Widow and one of the SHIELD agents. “Captain America” has only one (Captain America’s girlfriend). In “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” it’s Batman’s girlfriend; in “Man of Steel,” it’s Superman’s girlfriend and Superman’s two moms; in “The Amazing Spiderman,” it’s – surprise! – Spiderman’s girlfriend, mom, surrogate mom, and girlfriend’s mom. Furthermore, in all of these movies (with the exception of Pepper Potts), the woman’s role is firmly pigeonholed into “girlfriend”, “mom”, or “flat token female”. Darcy, as a character whose role is “sidekick” and “plucky comic relief”, is a pleasant anomaly, and the fact that neither Jane nor Freya is defined by her relationship to Thor is a welcome refreshment.

Finally, “Thor 2” is anomalously feminist in another simple way. There is a measure called the Bechdel Test which can be used to see if a movie/book/etc has a narrative bias. The test is simple: if, at any time during the course of the movie, two named female characters have a conversation about something other than a man, the movie passes. It isn’t a test of whether a movie is inherently sexist, but it does illustrate just how male-focused most movies are, and how most female characters are defined by their relationship to the male characters. None of the movies in the above list passes, except for “Iron Man 3” (thanks to a few sentences between Pepper and the female villain). “Thor 2,” however, passes it at multiple points. Darcy and Jane begin the movie having a talk about Jane and her work (which also interrupts a date, showing that Jane places her work above her love life); they have several talks on these topics. Freya also speaks briefly to Jane about a plan to keep her out of Malakith’s hands, and Sif and Jane have a similar exchange. By comic book standards, this movie not only passes the Bechdel Test, it blows it away.

The plot of “The Dark World” is nothing new. The finale action sequence, however, is delightfully novel, and the movie never loses its sense of humor. The after-the-credits scene is especially wonderful. As in nearly any science fiction flick, there are plot holes (why are Asgard’s defenses so laughable?) and things that might not be plot holes but could have been done better on the characters’ part (why didn’t Freya make a hologram of herself, too, instead of waiting around in person?). The twists are mainly predictable, nor is there much in the way of suspense. Good special effects are par for the course, good acting a plus, but in a rare departure from the majority of the genre, “Thor 2” also has a sense of whimsy paired with some surprisingly deep characterization. These qualities, plus the relative abundance of strong female characters, make the plot holes seem a minor flaw. This movie is also better than the first “Thor,” keeping the same nuance with Loki while adding in some layers to the previously monotone Thor and the previously underdeveloped Jane and Darcy. “The Dark World” is well worth watching, or even re-watching. Stay through the credits until the very end; there is more than one scene hidden there.

4.5 out of 5 stars because the movie had flaws but none of them unforgivable.

Rated PG-13 for the S-word, a couple of moderately gruesome injuries, an old man in tighty-whiteys, and a singularity grenade that crushes people in on themselves in a fascinatingly icky (but bloodless) fashion.

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