Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The "Wolverine" and "Thor" Sequels

Now that I've gotten through the backlog of prestige pics, it's time to catch up with some of last year's superhero films. 2013 wasn't a very good year for superheroes, though they were among the top box office moneymakers, as usual. I found both "The Wolverine" and "Thor: The Dark World" pretty underwhelming, so I'm covering both in a single post.

First there's James Mangold's "The Wolverine," a perfectly noble second attempt at building a feature film around Hugh Jackman's "X-men" character. This time Logan is summoned to Japan, where an old acquaintance, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), who Logan met during WWII is dying of old age. He wants Logan's help in extending his life, and out hero quickly gets himself entangled in the messy affairs of the Yashida family. He falls in love with Yashida's granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), becomes allies with her mutant foster sister Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a precognitive, and gets on the bad side of Mariko's father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and a new femme fatale, the Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova).

"The Wolverine" mostly avoids the pitfalls of the 2009 "Wolverine" feature, delivering some decent action scenes and delving into Logan's past. It also does an admirable job of addressing the fallout from the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who appears in several dream sequences. It's refreshing to see a superhero film that isn't afraid to slow down a little and really delve into some character drama. However, I'm sorry to say that as with most American action films set in Japan, the Orientalism is laid on pretty thick, and the Yashidas aren't a particularly compelling bunch. Tao Okamoto as Logan's new love interest is a bland presence, and the movie doesn't do enough to sell the romance. I liked Rila Fukushima's Yukio, though, and hope she carries over to future "X-men" movies.

It's hard to escape the film feeling very perfunctory, a story that was necessary to get Logan from point A to Point B, in light of the mid-credits sequence and the new "X-men" movie coming this summer. As a stand-alone adventure it works, but there's not much in it that is particularly memorable or stands out. It's hard to see where a third "Wolverine" movie could go from here, since so little of consequence seems to have happened in his solo films so far. Still, compared to some of the other superhero films this year, at least "The Wolverine" managed to make good use of its central character and tell a coherent, fully-formed story.

I wish the same could be said of "Thor: The Dark World." I found the first "Thor" film to be a terribly flawed piece of work, and among the worst of the Marvel superhero movies. The sequel is better in some ways, but overall about on par. It builds on the existing characters and character dynamics to good effect, but at the same time it wastes an awful lot of potential and the plotting is about as slapdash and messy as the first.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still keeping the peace in the Nine Realms while his trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been locked up by their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) for his shenanigans on Earth in "The Avengers." Soon enough a new threat, the Dark Elves lead by a baddie named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) are invading Asgard and threatening Earth too. Thor's human lady love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) gets caught up in the mess when she accidentally becomes a vessel for a destructive power called the Aether that Malekith wants. Thor and Loki have to team up, as you might expect, to defeat the new foe.

"The Dark World" relies on a lot of energetic chaos to make it feel like important things are constantly happening, but it's all very shallow and unsatisfying. The villains are utterly one-dimensional, and Malekith has no discernible personality whatsoever. I felt bad for Eccleston, buried under all the make-up with little to do except posture in an intimidating manner. Natalie Portman gets a little more autonomy this time out, but Jane's relationship with Thor remains largely unexamined, which would be all right if it had been properly established in the previous film, but it wasn't of course. A possible love triangle with Jamie Alexander's Sif is alluded to, but nothing comes of it aside from people exchanging meaningful looks at opportune moments.

So the heart of this Thor movie is once again Thor's relationship with his wayward brother Loki, and thank goodness because Loki remains the only interesting villainous character in the entire run of Marvel movies so far. Tom Hiddleston is not onscreen for nearly long enough, but when he does show up he plays a big part in keeping the film's momentum going and making it feel like there are actual stakes to the story. Also, his performance is a lot of fun, as usual, and Hemsworth's Thor tends to work better in his vicinity too. At this point I'm convinced that Loki is more vital to the "Thor" movies than Thor is.

Alan Taylor takes over directing duties from Kenneth Branagh, and he's fine. There's not much to say about the action or the effects, except that they are very competently executed. There are some nice visuals, like a floating truck and some spiffy monsters, but nothing particularly noteworthy. The comic relief, in the form of Kat Dennings' Darcy and Stellan Skarsgaard's Erik Selvig are more emphatically comic this time out, which won't be to everyone's tastes, but I thought they were fine. And at least they are properly identified this time as Jane's intern and mentor respectively.

I'm sure there will be a third "Thor" movie, but I'm not especially excited for it. These movies have gotten so episodic that it feels like I'm tuning in to a television series. And "Thor: The Dark World" was mostly filler.

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