Why Thor: The Dark World Is Marvel’s Best Phase Two Film

Marvel Phase TwoThe following contains spoilers for The AvengersIron Man 3, Thor: The Dark WorldCaptain America: The Winter Solider and Agents of S.H.I. E.L.D., as well as light discussion of Guardians of the Galaxy.

It’s been six years since Marvel unleashed their cinematic universe on cinemagoers, and in that time they have released a total of ten films, structured into a series of multi-film phases of which there are currently two, though plans exist for many more.

Phase One began in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, and continued through The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger until these four sub-franchises were finally brought together for The Avengers (renamed Marvel’s Avengers Assemble for UK audiences).

Nothing like it had ever existed in Hollywood before. There had of course been sequels, prequels, spin-offs and franchises before, but never separate long-standing sagas running parallel with interlocking stories that shared characters and a common goal. It was a real game-changer, and its influence is still being felt in cinemas today.

Right from the off it was clear that Marvel had a uniquely ambitious plan: Iron Man introduced playboy billionaire philanthropist Tony Stark and his self-sustaining arc-reactor, as well as referencing both S.H.I.E.L.D and The Avengers; The Incredible Hulk featured Bruce Banner and a cameo from Stark; Iron Man 2 fleshed out Agents Phil Coulson and Nick Fury, and introduced Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow; Thor established Asgard, Loki and Hawkeye; and Captain America: The First Avenger teased Steve Rogers, Hydra and the power of Tesseract.

By the time Joss Whedon’s The Avengers rolled around, every one of its members (excluding Black Widow and Hawkeye) had at least one stand-alone movie to their name. The film brought them all together in a way that felt perfectly organic, and in the process marked the beginning of a new age of blockbuster filmmaking: the mega-franchise. Not only was The Avengers a great film in its own right, with its own clearly defined beginning, middle and end, but it concluded a number of storylines from the previous films, continued others and set up more still. It was the end of Phase One, but the beginning of Phase Two.

The second phase of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe began with Iron Man 3, and the problems were apparent from the get-go. After the ever-increasing forward momentum of Phase One, in which every plot beat or character introduction somehow fed into the larger narrative, Iron Man 3 seemed strangely rudderless, self-contained and inert. Like most of the films which proceeded it, the film started with a flashback, retroactively introducing a villain that felt at once extraneous and expendable. Having parted ways with Jon Favroux, Marvel instead hired Shane Black, an auteur who put his own creative fulfillment before the good of the franchise. Rather than revere the canon, the thing that makes the MCU so special and valuable, Black took liberties with it.

These are problems that recur throughout Phase Two: tangential stories, weak villains and indulgent directors. When Marvel should first and foremost have been exploring their shared universe, exploiting their biggest asset, they instead fell back on traditional, stand-alone storytelling while rival studios were catching up and putting the concept to better use. Captain America: The Winter Solider was conceived as a political thriller by directors Joe and Anthony Russo, and concerned Steve Roger’s reanimated friend’s manipulation at the hands of Hydra. There’s no denying it had a huge impact on the series (spelling the end of S.H.I.E.L.D., for one) but it all but ignored the destruction of New York, Miami and London, instead opting to level Washington DC as well. It also felt too self contained.

The MCU had enormous potential to change the way that stories are told on the big screen. By establishing a shared universe Marvel and CEO Kevin Feige had the opportunity to revolutionise the traditional three act structure and pursue long-running narrative arcs not possible in other less secure and less focused franchises. Instead, it reverted to formula, introducing a fresh conflict for every movie and ending on a big effects-laden battle for the future of mankind. When it was first announced, a tie-in television series focusing on the day-to-day operations of S.H.I.E.L.D seemed like a no brainer; it would allow Marvel to explore their cinematic universe from a new angle, to expand the mythology and continue to push the envelope of multi-media entertainment. Where the films largely ignored the wider universe, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D unfortunately became slave to it, reacting to Coulson’s death, Extremis and Hydra when it should have been branching out into new territory.

Whereas streamlined Phase One built momentum by converging on a single point, Phase Two has spread itself far too thin over dead end characters and pointless plot developments. Subplots such as The Mandarin, Extremis, Hydra and Centipede ultimately went nowhere, and with less than a year to go until Avengers: Age of Ultron we are no closer to understanding why our heroes would ever need to join forces once more — leaving Whedon with a hell of a lot of explaining to do before he can get on with his own story. All we really know about the film so far is that it will feature Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Ultron, but rather than setting up superheroes or killer robots Marvel have convoluted matters by introducing random fire people (seriously, WTF?) and a completely separate homicidal AI (which was since destroyed) instead. The post-credit teasers, handled so well during Phase One, have all but fallen by the wayside, ceasing to foreshadow future instalments and instead ending things on a hollow joke.

The final film before Age of Ultron is perhaps the most removed of the lot. Guardians of the Galaxy, however entertaining it might be in its own right, is little more than a footnote in the grand scheme of the MCU. Again opening with a flashback (this time to the 80s), the film sees human Peter Quill zapped to the other side of the galaxy. This isn’t the universe as seen in Thor, however, a vast array of realms connected by the world tree and accessible only by Bifrost, but a completely new section of space policed by the Nova Corp. Right at the point where it should all be coming together (at this point in Phase One Captain America was forming S.H.I.E.L.D, losing the Tesseract and offering his services as an Avenger), audiences are instead watching a talking raccoon and a walking tree attempt to save a distant planet. With hindsight, this may well be essential foreshadowing, but at the moment it all seems a little bit redundant.

The only film to truly recognise and embrace its place as a small piece in a much larger puzzle is Thor: The Dark World. It may not be the best film in the world, but at least it does its job. At once picking up from Kenneth Branagh’s origin story (Asgard is almost as we left it in 2011, while Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis and Erik Selvig have relocated to London to continue their research), spinning off from The Avengers (Thor and Loki return home to face the repercussions of their actions on Earth), telling a story of its own (involving Malakeith and his search for the Aether, like the Tesseract another Infinity Stone) and planting seeds for future instalments (the film ends with Loki on the throne of Asgard). Director Alan Taylor brings his own sensibilities to the tone of the piece (it’s more George R. R. Martin than William Shakespeare), but his direction never dominates the piece. Style and ambition are all well and good, but when you’re dealing with something as sprawling and ultimately quite delicate as the MCU caution and respect for the established canon is key. Marvel don’t need risk-takers, they need utilitarians.

Although it suffers many of the same failings as the other films in Phase Two (namely an unremarkable antagonist and a big, effects laden finale) it makes up for in stakes, drama and character-driven humour. At times it feels like a direct sequel to The Avengers, and the fact that together with the first Thor it plays out as one cohesive trilogy makes the character deaths, betrayals and cameos all the more resonant. Thor, Loki and even Selvig have all been through a lot together, and the relationships have a far greater resonance as a result. Stark may have had bad dreams after New York, Captain America may still be reeling from the loss of Peggy Carter, but it’s Thor and Loki who have the most pressing (and interesting) issues. The finale may be big and brash but thanks to the involvement of Foster, Lewis and Selvig it has much more personality than automated robots fighting one another in Iron Man 3 or automated helicarriers fighting one another at the end of The Winter Soldier. At the end of the film Thor is back on Earth ready to be called upon once more, whereas Phase Two leaves Tony Stark without a suit and Steve Rogers chasing ghosts.

Again, there is every chance that I may have spoken too soon, and that next year Age of Ultron will show each movie to have been key in its own, unpredictable way. If Whedon pulls it off, Avengers 2 will likely trump The Dark World as the highlight of Phase Two. Even if that’s the case, however, there are still lessons for Marvel to learn if it wants to make Phase Three a more satisfying and all-round successful experience. A balance between style and substance is essential, as is a balance between the intimate and the epic, and the current model — hiring singular directors to branch out in new directions before overriding them for a far more generic last act — isn’t working. There are other ways to be bold and boundary-pushing, like following through with their promise of a shared universe and entering not just a new phase of stories but the next phase of superhero storytelling.

 

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Much Ado About Nothing (2013)

Much Ado About NothingHaving been locked in a war of wits ever since a one-night-stand each would rather forget, Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) are forced to spend some time together when the former’s friend, Claudio (Fran Kranz), arranges to marry the latter’s cousin, Hero (newcomer Jillian Morgese). As Leonato (Clark Gregg) and Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) plot to get the two polemic personalities back together, Don John (Sean Maher), the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro, considers to cast aspersion on Hero’s character as revenge for a past slight. Read more of this post

February 2013 – Snitches end up in ditches!

Cloud Atlas PosterHaving signed up to Dundee Contemporary Arts’  second Focus On Film course in January, I spent the first few days of February critiquing the films screened so far.  Celebrating the art of cinematic adaptation, the series began with David Lean’s Great Expectations, before continuing with the likes of Death In Venice (1971) and The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (1970).

My attendance was to suffer after the first three weeks, however, as the cinematic landscape was ultimately dominated by Glasgow Film Festival. Accredited on behalf of Best For Film, I travelled through to Glasgow on my days off to use my press tickets and sample the festivals many myriad delights. Still behind on theatrical releases after my sojourn to Syktyvkar, however, the first ticket I booked was for Beautiful Creatures.

All together I saw nine films at this years GFF, splitting my time almost equally between Glasgow Film Festival and Cineworld Renfew Street as I tried to squeeze First Position, Village At The End Of The World, Citadel, Songs For Amy, Stoker, The Paperboy, Aftershock, Shell, A Place Beyond The Pines, Welcome To The Punch and Much Ado About Nothing into my weekends. The best film to be shown at GFF 2013 was one I had seen prior to the festival itself, the utterly incomparable Cloud Atlas.

Running for ten days from Valentines Day. this year’s festival came to an end on the eve of the Academy Awards. Opting to spend the day queuing to meet Joss Whedon rather than napping in anticipation of the event itself, I ultimately missed the ceremony itself. In preparation, I compiled my own list of winners for categories such as Best Onscreen Chemistry, Most Memorable Line and Best Use Of 3D. Needless to say, for the most part my own choices differed from the big winners in Hollywood.

Back at the multiplex, I spent February watching Django Unchained, Movie 43, A Good Day To Die Hard, Hitchcock, Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters 3D, This Is 40, Mama and the trailer for Fast And Furious 6. I also returned to see Les Misérables for a second time, falling in love with Tom Hooper’s musical marvel all over again. I also revisited The Twilight Saga: Eclipse when it was aired on television.

Film of the month: Cloud Atlas

 

Avengers Assemble (2012)


Saved from oblivion by a race of aliens craving dominion, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives on Earth in search of The Tesseract: an item of unlimited power that currently lies with S.H.I.E.L.D. When it is stolen and the world endangered, Director Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) revive the Avengers Initiative in the hope of uniting Earth’s mightiest heroes. As they reach out to Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), however, it quickly becomes clear that a vengeful former Asgardian and an army of extraterrestrial warriors might be the least of their worries.

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The Cabin In The Woods (2012)

With plans to escape the so-called grid, a group of five college friends – Dana (Kristen Connolly), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Jules (Anna Hutchison), Marty (Fran Kranz), and Holden (Jesse Williams) – set out for a relative’s remote cabin in the woods, just past the hick-run gas station and far out of range of the nearest cell phone signal. When they happen upon a basement full of bizarre artefacts during a game of Truth or Dare – a gruesome diary, a collection of broken dolls, a puzzlesome sphere and a few reels of film –  they unwittingly unleash a supernatural force that could be their undoing. As an outside influence finally reveals itself, however, this particular threat quickly becomes the least of their problems.

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Season 8 Motion Comic (2011)

Following the series’ climactic closing of the Hellmouth, and the corresponding destruction of Sunnydale, Buffy and her burgeoning slayer army have dispersed in an attempt to recruit the newly empowered women awakening around the globe. Suddenly a palpable threat, the slayer army has attracted the attention of the U.S. Ministry of Defence, headed up by General Voll. When an enigmatic new foe begins to present itself, aided by returning witch Amy Madison and an undead Warren Mears, the slayers must band together in the face of such varying threats as an army of Scottish zombies, a cabal of Japanese vampires and a British socialite coming to terms with her own superhumanity. Comprising the first nineteen issues of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8, this collection charts the first half of Buffy’s adventures post-Sunnydale.

I suppose I should address the proverbial elephant in the room, probably before it tramples someone and leaves footprints in the margarine. This is not a movie. I review movies. But, and here’s the thing, it’s Buffy. BUFFY! And that’s all that matters. Nevertheless, I have never reviewed a motion comic before. Heck, I’ve never even seen a motion comic before. So this isn’t so much a tempered appraisal aided by informed comparison as a gut reaction that verges on arbitrary fanboy waffle.

In dealing with the basics, then, I should probably make something immediately clear: I don’t get motion comics. What are they for? Having already pursued Buffy Season 8 in comic book form, I managed to extract meaning from the page quite by myself, my own imagination filling in the blanks as needed. I found the simulated motion inherently invasive, dragging me out of the story with a determination that was in the beginning quite shocking. Jarring ‘special’ effects and an abrasively unsuccessful voice-over detract from the source material, proving entirely incongruous with my aforementioned imagination and failing to recapture the spirit and rhythm of the show.

Unfortunately for season eight, I wasn’t that taken with the story to begin with – even in static comic form. Trampling the series’ M.O. in a hurry to exceed the television show’s budgetary constraints and show just what the artists are capable of, Buffy’s underdog struggle and relatably human issues are all but forgotten in favour of scale, production values and novelty. Dawn is now a giant, Scottish zombies attack in their thousands and the Scoobies globe-trot like they’ve got intercontinental ants in their pants. With series creator Joss Whedon’s iconic dialogue lost on a cast that has apparently never even seen the programme, there are one too many factors conspiring to keep you at arms length where seasons 1-7 had you locked in a wombic bear-hug of gooey proportions.

Not least problematic is the madness of the plot. Resurrecting characters with careless abandon, the comic slowly undid the good work of the series with a determination to bring as many people back as possible. Not only are some characters forced back into the narrative despite having already run their course, but others are bent out of recognition as they are made to service the unwieldy plot. Dracula is mangled as he turns convenient good-guy, but it is Buffy herself who really requires a suspension of disbelief. One quirk in particular, a baffling romantic decision, smacks solely of contrivance as the writers push disastrously for controversy.

This is still Buffy, however, and there are moments that evidence the show’s trademark greatness, most likely thanks to the involvement of so many of the show’s staff writers. The actress voicing Faith doesn’t entirely fly in the face of everything we’ve come to know about the character; she even brings a welcome air of Eliza Dushku-ness to the role, which brings Brian K. Vaughan’s ‘No Future for You’ storyline to life with a verve that is noticeably absent from the other arcs. Joss’s writing is simply too niche for most actors to wrangle without his own-brand direction, the words he has written failing to make the transition from speech-bubble to speech.

With a scattering of memorable moments and boasting approximately four hours of footage (presented in a series of ten minute segments), the Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 motion comic may yet constitute the most affordable way of experiencing the story. A must for completists, a maybe for just about everyone else.

FILM NEWS: Joss Whedon is an absolute legend.

Rather than burdening BestforFilm or HeyUGuys with my rampant geek love for all things Joss Whedon (again), I have opted to relay to you (hello Florence!) just how superawesometastic he is right here, right now.

With The Avengers going before cameras today – as in this hallowed collection of 24 privileged hours (amen) – the deity himself felt the need to mark the occasion by posting on Whedonesque. Here’s what he had to say:

Film Greatness. On the Eve of Our Endeavor, I celebrate an american classic — or possibly all of them.

Hi Pumpkins, joss here.

Tomorrow we start shooting (I THINK I’m legally permitted to say that). Day one. That’s right. We’ll be shooting the pivotal death/betrayal/product placement/setting up the sequel/coming out scene, at the following address:

[Marvel Lawyers rush in, take Joss’s keyboard, blowtorch a picture of his family like in “Stormy Monday”, drink his milkshake, leave the seat up, fluff his pillows, violently unfluff his pillows, leave]

Went too far. My bad. Anyhoo, it should be a fun day, followed by the eighty thousand other fun days it will take to finish this. I’ll be checking in from time to time, if there’s news or I crave attention (i.e. am awake) . None of it will be Avengers news — I have some very denty pillows to remind of that — but I may have tidbits. (They’re not about Firefly. I should say that up front, if only to protect Sis Mo from the HATORZ.)

Some of you may be saying, Joss! Why this link, here, now, why, huh, howcum? My friend Allyx turned me on to these guys, and I’ll tell you, they’ve gotten me through this intensely pressurized, preply time. I strongly recommend checking out their other vids — I’ve watched them many many times, and I have a very special place for “Teamwork” in my heart. These guys are the guys. And IS there a better movie title than “Eagles Are Turning People Into Horses”? I thought not.

So wish me luck. DO IT! LUCK! NOW! I’m off to finish some Buffy pages, and then figure out what the movie is about already. I’m pretty sure it’s about the Justice League [Marvel Lawyers re-enter, unspeakability occurs] or possibly something else. I’ll get it. I’ve been looking forward to this. For about 46 years.

Catchphrase!

-j.

Oh yeah, writing!

I’m sorry, but why doesn’t this man have his own range of sat-navs, voice elevators and spend his days off directing traffic at your local post office? It really is a crime against one fifth of your senses.

So, there you have it: The Avengers have finally assembled. With 4 May, 2012, approaching steadily, we shouldn’t have to wait too long for more “news” from the master himself.

And what of the end of the world? Well that’s not until December.