Another month, another Marvel movie. Funny how quickly one can get jaded to incredible characters carrying out unbelievable feats of heroism and daring. Still, of all the comic heroes brought to the cinema screen by Marvel Studios so far, Thor seems the most unlikely candidate for a movie, let alone a sequel. Even as a comic-obsessed kid, the character always seemed dull and ridiculous to me; the naff costume, the cod-Shakespearian dialogue, the endless Norse mythological waffle, so at odds with Marvel’s more grounded, street-level creations.
So how do you turn Thor into a film franchise? Not having seen the first instalment, I have no idea how this compares, but apparently by aping Mike Hodges’ bombastic Flash Gordon (albeit with the camp factor heavily dialled down). A bizarre hodge-podge of science fiction and swords and sorcery? Check. Tacky, wacky production design? Check. Stolid blond hero? Check. A roll-call of English thesps hamming it in supporting roles? Check. (The only thing missing is the Queen soundtrack,sadly.)
Is it as much of a guilty pleasure? Not really. Admittedly Marvel have this kind of thing down to a fairly fine art by now, and the preview audience I saw it with laughed and applauded in all the places that a marketing exec might hope a preview audience would. And there are some decent gags along the way; most likely added via an uncredited script polish by Joss Whedon (nothing to compare with the ‘puny god’ moment from The Avengers, but doubtless he’s saving his best material for the sequel). There are also some less decent gags involving Stellan Skarsgard losing his trousers every five minutes that might have been the result of an additional polish by legendary English farcester Ray Cooney, but maybe everyone else was busy on the Captain America sequel.
However, it all feels so familiar. With over 50 years of comics history to draw upon, why does every Marvel movie seemingly revolve around a villain discovering yet another Device That Will End The Universe and ripping a big hole in the sky? What originally gave Marvel comics their edge was the fact that these were superheroes who had the same problems as the rest of us; meeting girls, passing exams, paying their rent on time. Yes, there were massive fights and thrilling heroics and awesome spectacle, but it was all rooted in whether Peter Parker was going to get a date, or if the Fantastic Four were going to be evicted from the Baxter Building because Doctor Doom smashed all the windows. Thor gets some mileage from the fact that the titular character is apparently two years late for his date with Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster, but beyond that the only interest in actual humanity it shows is in a secondary romantic subplot that seems lifted from a bad (is there any other kind?) Richard Curtis film.
There is fun to be had around the margins, with colourful supporting turns from Kat Dennings, Rene Russo and the ever-reliable Tom Hiddleston as Loki. But Chris Hemsworth’s Thor does nothing but play dutifully dull straight man, Anthony Hopkins makes yet another payment on his pension plan, Natalie Portman must be wondering how she stumbled into another boring girlfriend part after the horrors of the Star Wars prequels, and poor Christopher Eccleston has possibly the most thankless role of his career as the villain Malekith, unrecognisable under prosthetics and saddled with sub-Tolkien Elvish dialogue to spout dramatically at every turn. Seriously, Hiddleston’s Loki isn’t even the villain in this film, so how does he still get all the scene-stealing lines and moments whilst Eccleston gets nothing but subtitled exposition and a 7-foot tall CGI henchman?
No doubt Thor: The Dark World will go on to make several hundred million dollars and pave the way for yet another bout of fraternal squabbling with his badly behaved sibling (the last scene is a shameless sequel hook, and the credits offer a Bond-style promise that ‘Thor will return’). But as much as Marvel undoubtedly know their market, it does feel as though familiarity will soon give way to contempt, and that it could be time to start ringing some changes and taking a few risks with their undoubtedly rich stable of characters. Otherwise Ragnarok might be coming around a lot sooner than the company accountants would hope.