Movie Review: ‘Thor: The Dark World’

Image from Marvel Studios via BusinessInsider.com
Image from Marvel Studios via BusinessInsider.com

Minor spoiler alert. Also, I have not read the comics and I don’t think I intend t0, as it’s just too long a series.

I watched Thor: The Dark World twice because:

  1. I like the Thor franchise,
  2. I’m not immune to the charms of either Chris Hemsworth or Tom Hiddleston,
  3. I got free tickets the second time around and wanted to watch with my boyfriend,
  4. It’s just so gosh darn enjoyable.

A sequel will always be held up next to its predecessor. Is it better? Is it worse? Can it stand on its own? Will you need to watch the first movie?

But sometimes, for one reason or another, sequels are completely different animals. Look at the second Transformers movie. Look at the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Heck, look at The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and compare it to The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Director Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World is, in one sense, a completely different animal from 2011’s Thor as directed by Kenneth Branagh. For one, it’s got more visual depth, loads of extras to round out the lived-in feel of both Asgard and London, a faster-paced plot with a couple of neat twists, and most of the secondary cast became truly badass in the personality and fighting skills department.

Two thumbs up for Rene Russo as Asgardian Queen Frigga and Kat Dennings as the loopy Darcy, and maybe a quizzical look in the direction of Anthony Hopkins, who seemed to be holding back in his portrayal of Odin (some of the dickery managed to shine through, though, but it is arguable if that was due to Hopkins’s acting or the fact that Odin’s dickery no longer had to contend with that of Thor’s in the first movie). Even Jane gained a level in badassery, as she actually helps Thor fight Dark Elf Malekith (I swear, thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, I’ve been ruined forever for any other sort of Dark Elf) instead of simply nursing Thor back to health while he still can’t figure out that he’s too big of a dick to wield his hammer. (See what I did there?) We get to see more of her quirks, too, as she briefly tries to move on from Thor with a date and then can’t shut up as she is medically (magically?) examined by Asgardian healers and then verbally put-down by Odin himself.

Is it as funny or funnier than the first? Depends on what you find funny. The humor no longer lies in the ensuing slapstick of Thor’s being hopelessly out of place in the mortal realm, although they couldn’t resist paying homage to that gag of headbutting a big guy like Thor. It ranges from silly hijinx in a field where physics simply gave up and left, to the squabbling brotherly banter between Thor and Loki, to Dr. Selvig streaking around Stonehenge.

All that aside, I do miss the Shakespearean qualities of the first movie. Granted, the Bifrost bridge looked like a plastic rainbow stage and that town in New Mexico was practically a ghost town even before the Destroyer went on a rampage there. But the interesting thing about Kenneth Branagh helming a Marvel movie was that his Shakespearean background as an actor managed to coax a level of dramatic depth from a usually plot-driven superhero movie. I mean, Thor will probably be the only movie where I feel any empathy for Loki (but not Tom Hiddleston. I always adore that man). That doesn’t mean he’s any less fun to watch in the sequel, however—particularly riveting was that scene in his cell, where he makes all the furniture smash against the walls after he hears some distressing news. Such muted emotion—it was perfect.

But moving on, all these reasons are why I’d say to any first-timers eyeing the Thor franchise to begin with the first movie. It did a fairly good job in laying down the groundwork for the personalities and relationships between Thor, Loki, and Odin. This trio’s bond (or lack thereof) evolves into something else entirely with the plot-driven fun of Thor: The Dark World, especially when something that particularly strains the three occurs somewhere near the middle.

I was expecting a few more things, however. Like more screen time for Sif and the Warriors Three (poor Hogun). It would have been fun to see what else Zachary Levi could have done with the Fandral character. And I mean, come on, Sif was making goo-goo eyes at Thor all over the place! I thought she’d be more of a problem for him and Jane.

Malekith is not a bad guy, he simply wants something different and fundamentally against what everyone else wants. That said, he doesn’t seem to be particularly vengeful or grief-stricken for someone who’s lost everything; but then again, he didn’t really have qualms about sacrificing his entire race just to win a war with Asgard.

I don’t really get why he wants to put the lights out throughout the universe. Dark Elves can’t sleep with all that starlight? They thrive on darkness? What? And for some reason, the Aether’s ability to turn everything in to dark matter seems less threatening than, say, the Tesseract’s ability to open up portals between worlds.

All in all, Thor: The Dark World will take you on a fun ride from Midgard to Asgard and back, with a sliver of the cosmos in between. It definitely made me want to re-watch both it and 2011’s Thor, so that’s a big bonus.

What did you think of it?

Fact vs. Fiction: On reading social issues in Disney’s ‘The Princess and the Frog’ (a response)

Poster of "The Princess and the Frog," taken from  the movie's Wikipedia entry.
Poster of “The Princess and the Frog,” taken from the movie’s Wikipedia entry.

Yesterday, I came across this blog post called The Pricess and the Frog: A Feminist Fairytale from Feministing.com. It was a trend for me because I was researching on what others had to say about Hercules (1997) and The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) (and their respective TV spin-offs), and yes, I adore The Princess and the Frog (2009). It was the first movie my boyfriend and I saw together (on his laptop in our university’s study hall).

I’ve known a long while now that Disney, even though I grew up with and loved its 90s Renaissance era films, wasn’t exactly known for its feminism, historical accuracy, and cultural representation, to name a few things. But I decided to open that can of worms, in the name of picking up a few useful somethings.

Note that I only carry these opinions because I was raised in a traditionally patriarchal Filipino setting, on a steady diet of Western cartoons and books—but somehow, I don’t buy the traditional gender roles foisted upon women by my own culture. It was not just the Disney Princess line at work on my psyche here.

Anyway, the post itself is all right, but it’s the comments that are a riot. I’m always surprised (occasionally taken aback) by the sheer number of people who misread a work of art, whether this is overreading or not reading enough. Someone in the thread said something along the lines of “It’s okay, it’s just fiction,” and it got me wondering: when is it appropriate to say that and when is it just an excuse?

I’m not saying my own interpretation of the film is 100% correct, but that is the beauty of art: there is no “correct” interpretation.

However, the work itself has a scope and limitations, just like any decent research paper, and some people like to criticize art for things that are way beyond its implied scope and limitations. I’m not saying you can’t stretch its limits, but oftentimes, people forget its scope in a critique.

Case in point. Some of the comments (before they devolved into a critique of one person’s comment about personally not finding anything wrong with wanting a family even after getting an Ivy league education and the first, vicious reaction to this comment) discuss how the film completely disregards the social and classist issues prevailing in 1930s New Orleans that really hindered the so-called “glorified individualism” part of American culture, as exhibited by Tiana’s character.

Also discussed is the “problem” of Tiana and Lottie’s friendship, which boiled down to “why is there a problem with portraying wealthy black families onscreen?”

The issue of marriage naturally came up as well, about whether it was a side plot or something necessary for the hard-working career woman to have. And the speciesism? I couldn’t even wrap my head around that one; more research on my part is needed.

Now, if I said “it’s only fiction” to these people, that would be an excuse to get away from all these arguments.

In art and in life, a delicate balance of both must be struck; you’re never going to get it completely (exhibit A: Disney’s misrepresentation of the Voodoo religion), but you’re never gonna please everybody, either. I laud Disney for really attempting the balance, though.

I don’t know squat about the race issues between blacks and whites in America beyond what I’ve seen on TV and read in books, being a Southeast Asian living in the Philippines whose people have their own race issues. But I do know that The Princess and the Frog is a G-rated Disney musical for children. I highly doubt it could have been classified as such if the problems of the Deep South in the 20s and 30s were accurately represented; liberties will and must be taken. Moreover, it was wonderful to see a Disney heroine with so single-minded a purpose as a achieving a dream that has nothing to do with Prince Charming or happily ever after—something I didn’t quite feel in its successor, Tangled (2010).

Children’s movies need a healthy mix of fantasy and reality to get the message across. Maybe for Disney, some social issues need to take a backseat in order to tackle the main one? I don’t know. They’re not known for being good at that, so I suppose this effort in that context is a big one.

As a children’s movie, I think it depicted just enough of reality (like when Tiana and her mother were taking the bus home and it was shown that their neighborhood consisted solely of financially-struggling blacks). I had no problem with Lottie and her family being rich and white because that was the way things were, back in the day. What was truly remarkable about Lottie and Tiana’s friendship was that it existed at all—and sure, it’s only fiction. Maybe that kind of family with that kind of attitude toward people was not the norm in the American South of the 20s. Lottie and her dad are the exception, and an exceptional fictional example of human decency. Her friendship with Tiana is so strong that she, in full princess-bride get up and inches away from her dream of becoming a princess and getting her prince and happily ever after, offers to kiss Naveen in order to break the spell–no marriage required. How’s that for debunking the infamous Disney Princess image?

Kids are intelligent, no denying that. But the age group to which Disney caters should be shown movies accurately depicting life’s harsh realities when their ages hit the double-digits. Let them have their happy childhoods first, or they will grow up cynical. Besides, many of the more complicated symbolisms go over their heads anyway (example: I did not realize the sexual politics behind Hercules until I was much older); for as long as they’re at the age they are, we should keep molding their foundations with positive messages. And when that’s been built, then do you let them see the darker side and the gray patches of reality.

In the end, I have yet to make up my mind as to whether or not the human race places too much emphasis in the role of media as the hands that form the clay of the human mind. I think of the Catholic Church and well-meaning parents who go to crazy lengths to censor a work for its “depravity” or “obscenity” or whatever, even if all the work does is work along the lines of “what if.” I think that’s when it’s okay to say “it’s only fiction”—when the work is challenging one’s pre-conceived notions and the “taboo” status of a subect. One must delineate between fact and fiction…but at the same time, one must be open to what it might be trying to say, as all good fiction contains a grain of truth.

The only time it’s not okay is when it outright fictionalizes and romanticizes—not merely borrows elements from—an existing culture. That’s a recipe for promoting stereotypes. Perhaps that is why Disney will always have the problem of culture, gender, and sex on its hands, as it often fails to strike a balance when depicting cultures completely foreign (look at the way Genie in Aladdin (1990) and Mushu in Mulan (1998) are so staunchly American—perhaps that is their way of keeping up audience interest).

The Princess and the Frog, however flawed it may be, is a big step in that long way to go. Let’s see how Disney does with Frozen.

Learning to take care of your sanity, or enjoying rest in all its forms

I had one of those rare days off in which I simply stayed at home in my house clothes and did nothing but eat/lounge around/mentally work out a few stories/play computer games/surf the internet all day.

I watched two episodes of Disney’s TV spin-off of the Hercules movie and discovered that I really like it, whatever reviewers may say.

I even went on to see what a bunch of blogs had to say about Disney movies (particularly The Princess and the Frog) and their feminisim or lack thereof (needless to say, I opened a can of worms).

Reading all those reviews got me thinking about a certain point regarding how it’s okay to say of a work that it’s only fiction sometimes and at others, dispute how it is untrue to life and unfair to certain minority groups even if “it’s only fiction”—but that merits a whole other post altogether.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that today was rather productive, if only because it engaged my thinking faculties. I am trying to tell myself that it is all right to spend a day mostly resting—even from writing stories or catching up on submission deadlines—because sometimes what you really need to do is let your brain veg.

I don’t know if I’ll ever again have a day spent mindlessly playing computer games or doing something certain high-powered individuals I know wouls call “useless” or “lazy.” But if I ever do, I am training myself to think that that’s all right, too.

After all, it would be best for my sanity to move on my own time, at my own pace, and do whatever I want to do with what I’ve been given.