Thursday, November 14, 2013

12 Years a Slave and Thor: The Dark World

                    Masterful Misery and Flimsy Fantasy

                                  Reviews by Ken Burke

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting.  But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]

Normally, I attempt to find some connection—legitimate or somewhat preposterous—between/among the movies that I choose for review each week, but sometimes that strategy just doesn’t work.  What we have this time is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave—a slam-dunk for awards nominations and a real possibility for a near-sweep of the major Oscars (no appropriate candidate for Best Actress, based on story structure and on-screen time)—and Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World—a box-office powerhouse having racked up an astounding near-86 million in its opening-weekend-domestic-dollars and about $342 million worldwide (#247 on the all-time worldwide list and still climbing) since its international release, already exceeding its hefty production budget of $170 million—which truly exist in different universes (not unlike the Nine Realms of Thor ... compared to our mundane existence), so on we go to individual reviews.

                                                      12 Years a Slave
The brutally difficult topic of the horrors of enforced bondage as seen from the historical account of a free man sold into slavery in the 1840s, presented magnificently.

A solid indication of the high respect I have for this film is that it’s only the second one since I began posting reviews in December 2011 to earn my very stingy 4 ½ star rating (the other was The Master [Thomas Paul Anderson, 2012; reviewed in this blog in our September 27, 2012 posting]).  Further, I had hoped to pair it with Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée) this week as they both deal with inhuman discrimination against supposedly-less-than-human-outcasts as determined by some self-appointed social “masters,” but logistics limitations have kept me on the east side of San Francisco Bay this week so instead I’ve gone a different, unrelated direction with another review entirely and will just focus my unqualified praise on 12 Years a Slave as being possibly the best film of 2013.  (Hard to know until the season has fully played out and, if you’re curious, “just” 4 ½ of 5 because I reserve that ultimate ranking for something that I believe will set a standard for years to come which I just can’t feel comfortable assigning to almost any film only a few days after I’ve seen it—although I would have had no problem doing so with The Godfather [Francis Ford Coppola, 1972], Chinatown [Roman Polanski, 1974], or Fargo [Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996] had I been publishing/posting reviews in those years—thus, with 12 Years a Slave I’m still not quite resolved as to whether the powerful impact it leaves me with is fully the high quality of the film itself [which isn’t in dispute at all; hardly anything about this onscreen experience seems flawed or compromised] or if some of what I’m feeling is the revulsion against the heritage of slavery that I was raised with in Texas in the 1950-‘60s, a disgust that constantly lingers in the deepest layers of my gut, making me as ill as a guy could be regarding something that never impacted me or my immediate predecessors as directly as it did Black Americans [nobody ever denied me anything because I’m a White male].  I think that any intelligent indictment of slavery could impact me this way, yet I readily agree that 12 Years a Slave isn’t just “any” deconstruction of America’s “peculiar institution,” it’s a powerful rendition of about the only thing more ghastly than slavery itself, which is the relative ease with which a man who had no status as a slave in 1841 New York state could be conscripted into the horrors of that life with virtually no recourse to rectify the grotesque abuse that he was subjected to—but, please understand, that’s all just a statement of relative context in that he was born a free man in the United States [just as were many Blacks and, of course, all the Whites in all the states and territories], then deprived of that liberty even though he was a successful, educated, talented man with a loving family; in principle, though, the only real difference between him and the millions of Africans and their descendants who were forced into servitude is that in our society his language, religion, and culture were already familiar to his White counterparts, whereas the Africans—who also had lives as free people, established families, national languages, and religious/cultural heritages of their own—were given no recognition of such because it was all so “foreign” to the heartless slavers who stole, sold, and dehumanized these generations of Black people.)  For those of us raised in the WASP culture of the United States (even if we didn’t fit all of the referents of those letters; Catholic rather than Protestant in my case), 12 Years a Slave may be even more effective than the 1977 TV masterpiece Roots in making clear the horrid reality of slavery because we see how someone fully a part of our society almost loses everything (except his life, which he would likely have sacrificed at some point as his dignity would have continued to be dismissed and abused as it was during his years of imposed bondage) through no reason of his own, showing how arbitrary our existence can be when complete strangers with no authority over us can impose their will, leaving us with no recourse except the desperate hope of escape or miraculous intervention.

In the case of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), this almost-unbelievable story becomes also almost-forgotten, as director McQueen, a British Black man, acknowledges, in that neither he nor anyone he knew was aware of this articulate testimony written after-the-fact by Northup (published in 1854) once circumstances finally turned in his favor, allowing him to prove his free status and be released from his grotesque nightmare (nor was I aware of this book, but my voracious-reader-wife, Nina, fought off her month-long illness [much on the wane now, thankfully] to get a copy and consume it in just a couple of days prior to seeing this film so I’m now got access to it and have skimmed it a bit myself in the process of attempting to do the film and its source material justice in this review).  After an intriguing beginning to the film where we go from shots of slaves chopping sugar cane, to a scene of a weary woman offering/somewhat imposing herself on Northup as they rest from their day’s labor on the floor of a group shack, to a parallel scene of him in bed with his wife, to closeups of him tuning his violin before a performance in his home community, we quickly follow events where Northup was seduced by a couple of smooth-talkers (Brown [Scoot McNairy] and Hamilton [Taran Killam]) to travel from his Saratoga, NY home (while his wife and children were off on a visit somewhere else) to Washington, D.C. to perform his music for a handsome fee, an offer he saw no reason to refuse—that is, until he woke up chained and terrified one morning after having been drugged at dinner by these 2 criminals the night before.  I guess I’m just uneducated on all of the many aspects of slavery to understand why with all of the captives already trapped under “ownership” by Southerners that there still profit available to be made in capturing free Blacks in the North to add to the existing slave markets, but there it was (in his book Northup says there may be hundreds of such legitimately-free-captives just in the Texas-Louisiana area where he spent his slave years), right in view of the nation’s capital as Solomon first finds himself sold into a human holding pen run by (ironically named) Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), then is sold again (under the name of Platt to further hide his real identity) to be shipped off to New Orleans where he is bought by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), even as we witness the cruel breakup of a slave woman’s family simply for the convenience and future prospects of the new owners.  As a slaver, Ford is the most decent White person in the film until the end, acknowledging “Platt”s skills at waterway engineering and the violin but finally having to get rid of Solomon after his confrontations with cruel-bigot-overseer John Tibeats (Paul Dano, who does his job quite well here but needs to get back to some sweeter roles like he [eventually] had in Little Miss Sunshine [Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006] and Ruby Sparks [Dayton and Faris, 2012; reviewed in this blog in our August 10, 2012 posting] before roles like this one and the disturbed boy in Prisoners [Denis Villeneuve, 2013; reviewed in this blog in our September 26, 2013 posting] get him improperly labeled as nothing but a dangerous sociopath [or at least someone too easily mistaken for such]).  A scene that really intensifies the tribulations faced by all of these slaves is one where shots of their field work is voiced-over by Tibeats singing “Run, n****r, run,” just daring anyone to try to escape, with death as their “reward.”  Solomon finally takes out his frustration with his imposed situation and his anger at the impossible-to-please Tibeats by physically beating him for a change, which leads to Tibeats being fired but Ford having to sell “Platt” to someone else to get him away from Tibeats lurking near the property and Ford’s neighbors not being accepting of him keeping a slave who would dare to attack a White man, no matter the circumstances.

The only relatively-local slaver who will take the rebellious “Platt” is grotesquely-fierce Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who hypocritically preaches slavery’s “justification” from the Bible, loathes these people who do his body-breaking manual labor of picking cotton (followed by daily whippings of those who don’t bring in the average of about 200 lbs. [so Solomon is a frequent victim of this “motivational therapy”]) yet lusts after champion-picker Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and rapes her at his will, even to the point of denying his wife’s, Mistress Mary Epps’ (Sarah Paulson), demand that he get rid of this too-compelling slave.  Epps epitomizes all of the worst horror of this system of human degradation, refusing to comprehend these other human beings as anything but his property to do with as he wishes, even though he undermines his own cherished economic investment by starving and beating them so that many are unable to properly perform their duties, just leading to an even more vicious cycle of abuse and unacceptable response in the required work (including one instance of a man who simply dies in the fields one day from sheer exhaustion).  Fassbender gave a marvelous performance for McQueen in Shame (2011; one of the first films reviewed in this blog, in our December 20, 2011 posting) in the lead role as a sex addict; in 12 Years a Slave his somewhat limited screen time puts him in the supporting role category but with a finely-realized brutish performance that shows another broken, self-wounded man but now one with no willingness to admit his shortcomings, just a venal desire to take out his anger on those around him, including Patsey when she wanders off on her own to the neighboring plantation to get some comfort (and soap, to cleanse her putrid body of the accumulated odor from hauling in 500 lbs. of cotton on a daily basis) from Mistress Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard), in the totally-unexpected role of a former slave now freed and married to a landowner who still has other slaves under his command (and Harriet’s, in her strange position of making the best of a terrible situation, with a husband who’s more like Ford in accepting the agricultural system of his surroundings rather than trying to fight it, even though it strangely requires his Black wife to function as a member of the “master” class as well—she appears accepting of her lot, although personal feelings are hard to find expressed in this film by anyone but the slaves).  Patsey’s punishment for offending Epps’ sensibilities leads to the most vicious whipping of all those depicted (second only in cruelty, perhaps, to a situation where Solomon was strung up to be hung by Tibeats but was somewhat rescued by the higher-in-command overseer; yet, he continued to be forced to almost-hang there for hours as his feet could just make contact with the ground enough to keep from breaking his neck but he couldn’t get solid footing, so he teetered between life and death until finally rescued by Ford, even as everyone around him had to ignore his situation so as to not bring violence upon themselves).  In Django Unchained (reviewed in our December 30, 2012 posting), Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 alternate-universe-depiction of slavery and the vengeance taken by a man (played by Jamie Foxx) who finally gains freedom for himself and his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), then kills a disgusting slaver, “Monsieur” Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and all of his retinue, there are depictions of the atrocities committed by the slaveholders as justification for showing the retaliation earned by these self-appointed societal “masters,” but the intention of the entire film is one of bloody revenge and exaggerated violence, as if done from the perspective of centuries of pent-up-hostility that needs to be visited upon Candie and his ilk (a sort of long-after-emancipation act of evening the score).  In 12 Years a Slave the cruelty dished out by the owners merely confirms their vicious bigotry, their inhumane understanding of the value of other human lives, and their full confidence that they are justified in depleting their “property” of any sense of will, honor, or retaliatory response, yet Solomon continues to resist because he refuses to see himself or his fellow captives as "owned."

It’s a horrible thing to watch as Solomon, Patsey, and others are beaten by Epps’ overseers as if were part of a farm’s daily regimen for the workers (he even makes Solomon begin the final assault that we see on Patsey but then takes over as Solomon just can’t bring himself to be as harsh as Epps demands; Epps has other maniacal tortures as well, such as forcing his slaves to get up in the middle of the night and dance to Solomon’s fiddle even though some are too worn out to even stand up); as Eliza (Adepero Oduye) back on Ford’s farm grieves for her children long after they’ve been taken away from her, explaining to Solomon in her boundless sorrow how they’re still a vital part of her, like an organ ripped from her body that won’t allow her to heal; as Solomon tries once to escape on his way to an errand but stumbles across the lynching of 2 Black men, then meekly returns to Epps knowing full well that a runaway slave as far South as Louisiana had virtually no chance of making his way through unknown territory back to his freedom in the North because there were killers everywhere to demand an explanation for his presence, with no hope of a mythical Django vigilante showing up to miraculously rescue him.  Yet, a miracle of sorts does happen when hired-Canadian-laborer Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) comes to do construction work for Epps, learns quietly of Northup’s situation, and finally makes the difficult decision to contact people back in NY who can produce his freedom papers, liberating Northup from this imposed life of unearned misery.  Although it appears that Solomon’s liberation occurs after a matter of weeks at most in the film, Nina tells me that in reality it took months to happen, with “Platt” resigned to nothing but evaporating hope that his last, best chance might have eluded him.  The wonderful thing for him is that he’s freed, finally reunited with his wife and now-grown children (although the above photo is from his pre-capture life), one of whom, Margaret (Devyn A. Tyler), now has a husband and child of her own; the terrible thing is that due to the complexities of law that often impede actual justice he was never able to get legal action to stick against the 2 men who originally abducted him nor the slave trader in D.C.  Yet, according to Nina’s reading of Northup’s book (which I will try to get to myself soon, but I trust her reporting), he did not completely condemn the ruthless slavers who so dehumanized him and his fellow Africans/African Americans, as he understood that they were so indoctrinated in their beliefs (although there must have been others like Ford who found themselves troubled by this rigid situation) that they felt righteous and justified in acting as they did, even when carried to the extremes practiced by Epps (and his bitter wife, as least where dishing out punishment to Patsey was concerned).  I don’t mean to imply that Solomon Northup in any way accepted the unjustified cruelty that he was forced to endure or that he felt there was any justification that anyone else should have to live in such degradation, but he does seem to have been a decent-enough, rational-enough man to have understood that when you’ve been brainwashed into a certain perspective on human existence—distorted and despicable as it may be—that you know nothing else, especially when any alternative is violently rejected by your family, your neighbors, your local politicians, and even your clergymen (including William Ford), so to reject such a worldview, even one so atrocious, can be extremely difficult.  However, unlike Tarantino’s Django, Northup wasn’t out for revenge or even a twisted sort of fame as a result of his ordeal; he simply wanted for it to be over, a desire that sustained him for those 12 terrible years.

He ends his eloquently-written account with: “My narrative is at an end.  I have no comment to make upon the subject of Slavery. … Chastened and subdued in spirit by the sufferings I have borne, and thankful to that good Being through whose mercy I have been restored to happiness and liberty, I hope henceforward to lead an upright though lowly life, and rest at last in the church yard where my father sleeps.”  Chiwetel Ejiofor does an outstanding job of conveying the suffering and sincerity of such a remarkable man (for me his most notable line in the film comes early on when he says “I don’t want to survive, I want to live”), as do all of the others in the cast of making us feel the plausibility of their positions, even those we quickly learn to detest; still, I must give my highest additional performance praise to those whom I see as strong contenders for Best Supporting Actor, Fassbender, and Best Supporting Actress, Nyong’o, although with solid support as well for McQueen for Best Director and to everyone involved for Best Picture.  There may be something better that comes along before the end of December, but, if so, I’ll be highly (and pleasantly) surprised.  12 Years a Slave takes one of the most difficult issues in American history, an institutionalized program of human contempt which still reverberates in our society’s racial tensions, and faces it without hesitation, without explanation, without any attempt to soften the whiplash horrors of how a system of calculated cruelty was made even worse for one man who was unwittingly thrown into this maelstrom, surviving only by determination and chance.  No one of any ethnic background should be criticized for not being able to endure watching this historical freak-show all the way through because it may just be too honestly brutal for some to tolerate (most African Americans likely need no such history lessons but might attend this cruel experience anyway, simply because the topic is finally given appropriate showcasing in such a well-crafted manner and might help to open some long-neglected dialogue on racial injustice; but for the rest of us, if we can’t watch a movie for a bit over 2 hours—even a horror-fest such as this one [although no actors were physically harmed in the filmmaking process, yet all were greatly moved by what they portrayed]—I don’t know how we could even begin to realistically comprehend the insane horror that plagued actual slaves every minute of their lives from captivity—or birth into such—until death), but, likewise, no one should pass up the opportunity to at least consider attending a screening of 12 Years a Slave, a magnificent film that gives substance to what so many bigots would prefer to remain as increasingly-forgotten tales of the past.  As with the Nazi holocaust of WW II and other human atrocities almost beyond comprehension as having actually happened, the events of Solomon Northup’s life, along with all those he spent time with in the pre-Civil War Deep South and all the millions of others before and after him that lived such horrid lives should never be forgotten but instead become better known and rectified into our own times.

I try to end each review with a piece of referential music that speaks (at least in my sometimes twisted mind) to the subject at hand, so in regard to 12 Years a Slave I’ll offer Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” (especially with the lyrics that note the singer will “remember every face Of every man who put me here” and the verse “Standing next to me in this lonely crowd, Is a man who swears he’s not to blame.  All day long I hear him shout so loud, Crying out that he was framed”), written by him in 1967 but first made famous by his musical collaborators, The Band, on their 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink; this version ( is from The Band’s farewell performance on Thanksgiving night, November 25, 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, featuring Dylan, Ron Wood, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Ringo Star, and others that I can’t quickly identify (but remember, upon reading the credits, from watching this great musical archive far too many years ago), from the documentary film of the event, The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978).  I hope this choice is received in the spirit in which it’s offered, not as a bunch of pop musicians diluting the message of a great film but as something that echoes the substance of that film, about release not just from incarceration but also from the personal/emotional limits we face, self-imposed or otherwise.

                                                     Thor: The Dark World
Asgard’s favorite warrior-hero flies again, this time with another un-Earthly foe attempting to destroy the universe before that silver hammer comes down to restore order.

As for self-imposed limits, I really wish I could give Thor: The Dark World a higher rating because I have great fondness for the main character (the only one from the Marvel-comic-book-universe that I ever followed on even a part-time basis) and an I-know-she’s-almost-young-enough-to-be-my-granddaughter-but-she’s-very-appealing-anyway-fascination with Natalie Portman (which had better not generate any dagger-eyes from Nina, given her ongoing lusty looks at Chris Hemsworth), but just like my earlier-this-year-dismissal of I-wanted-to-like-it-better-than-I-did Iron Man 3 (Shane Black; review in our May 11, 2013 posting) I just can’t go any higher than 3 stars when I consider the 3 ½ and 4 star decisions I’ve previously made on other cinematic offerings (a complete list, as noted in the introductory comments far above, is available at http://filmreviews*).  All of the trappings of what we’ve come to expect from a Thor story based on Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011) and The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012) are in place regarding titanic battles featuring the triumph of our hammering-hero (Hemsworth), stunning views of the lofty realm of Asgard, evil treachery from Thor’s adopted brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and the budding romance of Thor and Jane Forster (Portman), but, as with any superhero movie that falls short of expectations, there’s just too much sound and fury without enough balancing interest in why all of these on-screen events really matter to us, which is a sad commentary on a tale that features the impending destruction of the entire universe as we know it.  But that can be a problem when you’re attempting to construct a movie plot that has to endure on its own as the only face of the particular franchise for some months before we get another episode of related-superhero Captain America in April 2014, followed by the even-longer-awaited return of the Avengers in 2015 (unless you’re satisfied with their mere mortal colleagues in ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D on prime-time Tuesday nights) when the comic-book-world that it springs from has the advantage of pumping out dozens of issues a year that feature these characters so that the franchise survives in the comics even if the individual plots are repetitious, the imagery known and expected, and the character arcs move at glacier pace so as to meet the intricate-continuity-expectations of dedicated fanboys—and girls—(until timelines are periodically reset in both the Marvel and DC universes through some significant catastrophe so as to keep the characters roughly the same age for a new generation of readers without that blasted continuity factor forcing them to age into their own parents).  In other words, the comic-book originals of these extraordinary characters have lots of leeway in failing to be spectacular in their month-to-month existences, but when their big-screen counterparts are depended upon to justify years of audience expectations and hundreds of millions of production/postproduction (more of that all the time as computer technology continually ups the ante on what can be visualized) dollars it becomes a big problem for all concerned when the released product falls short of anticipation.

(*Just for comparison, here are my ratings for other fantasy films [a category in which I’d include the Thor stories]—most, but not all, of which feature some sort of superhero protagonist—which have been reviewed here since the Two Guys blog debut: 4 starsThe Amazing Spider-Man [Marc Webb; review in our July 12, 2012 posting], The Dark Knight Rises [Christopher Nolan; review in our August 5, 2012 posting]; 3 ½ starsThe Avengers [review in our May 12, 2012 posting], The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [Peter Jackson; review in our December 20, 2012 posting], Man of Steel [Zack Snyder; review in our June 19, 2013 posting], Snow White and the Huntsman [Rupert Sanders—with Hemsworth in the latter titular role; review in our June 7, 2012 posting], Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace 3-D [George Lucas; review in our February 11, 2012 posting]; 3 starsJohn Carter [Andrew Stanton; review in our March 17, 2012 posting]; 2 ½ starsOz the Great and Powerful [Sam Raimi; review in our March 16, 2013 posting], Wrath of the Titans [Jonathan Liebesman; review in our April 12, 2012 posting]; 2 starsChronicle [Josh Trank; review in our Feb. 11, 2012 posting].)

Certainly the conflict in Thor: The Dark World is more complicated than what drove both Thor and The Avengers, which could be reduced in both cases to Loki’s sullen jealously of his celebrated brother, driving him to assume command of either Asgard (in the earlier movie) or Earth (in the latter one), forcing the thunder god (if in fact he should even be called that, given that the comic-book character seems to embody the Norse god, son of All-Father Odin, while [I assume, in deference to real-world religious sensibilities] his screen version, along with the other Asgardians, is defined as "merely" superhuman—given that they have strength, invulnerability, and command of Force-like forces that far exceed any such abilities of our planet’s inhabitants, along with enormously-long lifespans—yet if the opponent is of their caliber [such as with Superman battling fellow-Kryptonian, General Zod] then death can easily come from something as powerful as a laser weapon’s blast or as personal as a flesh-piercing sword) to respond in a manner that solves the threatened world and contains—at least temporarily—the menace offered by his scheming brother.  In this latest episode, though, we have even more deadly villains, from the race of Dark Elves that populate Svartalfheim, 1 of our universe’s Nine Realms (you can get more info on that concept at, although you’ll find that 4 of them are on the Asgard planet, 1 is us [referred to as Midgard rather than Earth by the Asgardians—who, of course, are more than just superhuman in their original mythology, as they apparently created most of these realms], 1 is the domain of some of the dead, and the others are homes of Giants, Demons, and Dark Elves; given that these Elves are attempting to destroy the universe that came about after the solitary existence of their “dark world” [which looks more like Scandinavian summer twilight than darkness in this movie] I’m not sure how the vast dimensions of the rest of our universe are supposed to fit into this cosmic scheme, but I further doubt that’s supposed to matter much, given the continuity limits clearly inherited by screenwriters Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely from both actual Norse mythology and the previous decades of convoluted Marvel Thor stories in the comic books).  The “darkest” of these Elves, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), and his chief warrior, Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje)—respectively center and left in the above photo—have been revived, along with their eons-long-slumbering-troops known as Kurseds, by the reappearance of an equally-long-hidden weapon known as the Aether, which will give Malekith the ability to obliterate the universe’s Nine Realms (although that seems to include his realm of Svartalfheim, so once again let’s not dwell on continuity concerns, shall we?) during a rare cosmic convergence of the Nine, so obviously this plan must be thwarted if truth, justice, and chili dogs are to be preserved.

Given that it was Odin’s father, Bor, who once vanquished the Dark Elves millennia ago and stored the powerful Aether in a hidden place that no one knows the location of (although he didn’t realize that Malekith and his band of troops escaped to their hibernation chambers), it’s clearly the task of almost-almighty (but not enough when it counts, such as when the Dark Elves invade Asgard) Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and his own extraordinary son, Thor, to stop Malekith’s dastardly plan before it’s too late.  However, things get really complicated because back on Earth, Thor’s long-lost-love-but-astrophysicist-in-her-own-right Jane went to investigate some mysterious happenings at an abandoned warehouse in London (where she’s now working, along with her assistant, Darcy Lewis [Kat Dennings], and Darcy’s assistant, Ian [Jonathan Howard]), only to be sucked into some other location (I never was sure where, especially in relation to the cosmological explanations of the Nine Realms that we keep getting throughout the rest of the movie) that just happens to be the hiding place of the Aether, which conveniently attaches itself to Jane.  Given that the Realm-connecting device called the Bifröst has been repaired (it was destroyed during the earlier Thor movie as a means of preventing a previous Loki calamity; it was presumably still out of action during the events of The Avengers so how it was that Thor got back to Earth there I’m not so sure, but as for continuity concerns …), Thor whisks to Jane’s location (where he has to fend off some displeasure on her part that he couldn’t have found time to visit a bit after he helped rescue New York City in The Avengers story, but that quickly melts into her relief to see him again—and, in his defense, he did have to do battle in several of the other Realms to undo the damage caused somehow by Loki’s attempts at conquering Earth), then just as quickly whisks her to Asgard for safekeeping, but never underestimate the wrath of a hyper-focused Dark Elf, as Malekith leads his troops right into Odin’s territory, where a lot of warriors on both sides die before the chief Dark Elf escapes, but not before showing his displeasure at Queen Frigga’s (Rene Russo) successful hiding of Jane by killing Odin’s wife (see, when the combatants are of equal power, even the chief “goddess” of Asgard can be terminated by a well-placed-blade, which makes it clear that when he’s not on Earth Thor is subject to a lot more vulnerability that we’ve previously come to expect, raising the stakes for our golden boy to possibly meet his match against Malekith or his vicious super-soldier Algrim [whom hardly anyone in the Marvel universe seems able to defeat because he's powered by some Aether as well, or at least something that pumps him up beyond standard Dark Elf capacity]; following Frigga’s death is one of the most visually-stunning scenes, a nighttime “burial” where the fallen Queen and all of the dead Asgardian troops are put into boats heading for a huge waterfall but before they reach the edge onshore archers send flaming arrows into their crafts so that the bodies are burned before tumbling over the steep, watery precipice).

So, given how badly things are going for the home team at this point Thor does the unthinkable, turning to Loki for help even though he knows some of his attention must be focused on making sure his crafty brother doesn’t betray him at an opportune moment, just for old times’ sake (it’s not that he particularly has reason to trust Loki, but he’s hoping to leverage the sadness that Loki feels about the death of his adoptive mother to increase their mutual chances for revenge against the Dark Elves).  Such treachery would even seem to be the case as we see Loki stab Thor just as the 2 of them, along with Jane, have entered Malekith’s (semi-) dark Realm (after a difficult journey, which brings about an odd but amusing comment from the dark brother that “if it was easy then everyone would do it,” a direct quote from reforming-alcoholic-women’s-baseball-league-manager Jimmy Dugan [Tom Hanks] in A League of Their Own [Penny Marshall, 1992]) to confront the villainous Elves after their assault on Asgard.  Thor then has his right hand chopped off so that even his wondrous hammer, Mjolnir (possessed of a magic that again seems more of the “realm” of gods rather than mightily-enhanced humans, but I guess that Asgardian blacksmiths know some tricks that we haven’t discovered yet), but all this was just a ruse on the part of the brothers, as the Thor we see is just one of Loki’s trickster projections set up to catch Malekith off-guard as he draws the mighty Aether out of Jane.  The real Thor then appears, but his plan to destroy the Aether doesn’t work, Malekith escapes now vastly empowered, and Loki is fatally stabbed by Algrim before the evil Asgardian somehow dispatches the monster with some (possibly Aether-based?) device, leaving Thor and Jane to rush to Earth via a wormhole in a Svartalfheimian cave (where all sorts of missing items from that strange London warehouse turn up) for an attempt to ward off the attack from the remaining Elves, as the deadly Convergence is imminent, with the center of the universe right in London’s Greenwich (so it marks the nexus of space as well as Earth’s daily time march from the Prime Meridian; no wonder they built that fabulous O2 arena there—a live version of Simon Cowell’s music competition on Fox, The X Factor, happens there on March 21-22, 2014 so get your tickets and airline reservations now!).  Even Thor alone couldn’t stop this disaster, but he has help from Jane and company, including their mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), who set up some sort of interference field that stalls the catastrophe, giving Thor the opening to kill Malekith as Selvig sends the Dark Elf vessel back to their home world, allowing everything to settle back down again and give the reconstruction crews some workspace and overtime as they try to rebuild Asgard and London (the boring sequels that we never see after all of these superhero urban demolitions: Cleanup Crew 4—Rubble Removal).  

(Some reviews have noted another continuity question: Why aren’t the other Avengers available to help out when the stakes are even higher this time than in their previous battle with Loki?  Good question if you’re one of those continuity-enforcers, but this is a reality that even the comic-book versions of these characters have had to confront ever since these cross-platform gatherings were invented for the Avengers in 1963 [following DC Comics’ 1960 formation of the Justice League of America with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter—itself based on the 1940 beginning of DC’s Justice Society of America on what later came to be known as Earth Two of a parallel dimension, with that planet’s versions of Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom, but also others such as the more unique Spectre, Hourman, and Doctor Fate] because any of these stories get too complicated if they’re always filled with such a large cast of main characters, so in print you just have to keep them in separate stories most of the time [with the understanding that these individual exploits often interfere with their availability to enter each other’s conflicts] and in movies you have to acknowledge the unspoken reality that Hemsworth, Portman, Hiddleston, Hopkins, etc. cost enough as it is without adding Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow, and/or Samuel L. Jackson … or even Clark Gregg for that matter, now that he’s a big TV star again … to the budget burden [although Evans does make a cameo as Capt. America during a humorous moment with Thor and Loki as the shape-shifter brother keeps offering alternative personages for them to appear as in an attempt to make their emerging collaboration more palatable].  Still, once we know that Iron Man and The Hulk are out there somewhere it’s hard to accept their non-presence, but that will be yet another continuity concern that will plague all of these ongoing Marvel/Disney superhero movies, a conundrum that we’ll just have to learn to ignore—an even more disruptive one, which I doubt we’ll ever see in the movies unless Disney merges with Time Warner, came about in the comics when there were some DC-Marvel “special edition” crossovers, such as the 1976 one that allowed Superman and Spider-Man to co-exist [adding New York City to the already-overcrowded East Coast that already contains Metropolis and Gotham City], so if we start dragging the DC/WB superheroes into the mix the villains are going to have to be inter-galactic, inter-dimensional, and über-acquisitive to provide proper antagonism, just as long as Disney doesn’t completely overwhelm it all by making it inter-chronological as well, allowing Jedi knights and Sith lords to enter the fray from their place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”)

So, what’s my problem with Thor: The Dark World?  Mainly, it’s the same problem I had with Iron Man 3: there are a lot of familiar characters and situations, but when you put the whole experience together it feels like you’ve just been watching one long, continuous battle scene for 2 hours (even though it all begins with Bor and Malekith in combat eons ago and finally concludes when Malekith is defeated by Bor’s grandson in our present-day, maybe implying that it was just one continuous battle after all, with some variations of the combatants, but if so the fight-after-fight-after-fight does get tiring in the same manner in which ongoing warfare gets a bit tiring in The Lord of the Rings trilogy [Peter Jackson; 2001, 2002, 2003], although there again you have a plot constrained by needed adherence to the printed original and the terrible non-movie-world-reality that wars usually linger on for years, far beyond their intended purposes; nevertheless, in this latest episode involving Thor it’s far too much brawn and not enough heart, as if there’s nothing bicep-boy can do except rumble whereas his father, brother, and girlfriend all show much better capacity for contemplation and strategizing).  It’s no easy task to construct these superhuman, superhero movies because the expectations are so high that there will be dazzling visual sequences that would have been impossible even in the early days (late 1970s) of the Star Wars and Superman franchises, given the sophisticated-computer-generated effects that can be created from sheer imagination these days, yet there also have to be adequate human-interest aspects, or you end up with something as expensive but ghastly as Wrath of the Titans or as nobly-intended-but-narratively-inert as the final 2 Christopher Reeve Superman movies (Superman III [Richard Lester, 1983], Superman IV: The Quest for Peace [Sidney J. Furie, 1987]) or the Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006) attempt, judged by many to be a misfire.  Thor: The Dark Side transcends these failures (as does the Man of Steel reboot for the Kal-el franchise), but not by much because we’re just back again in territory where an age-old Asgard enemy is desperate to re-acquire a mysterious something that will aid him in destructive domination until Thor comes barging along to the rescue (I can’t help but think of that line from War’s “The Cisco Kid” about “Cisco came in blastin’ drinking port” [from their 1972 album The World Is a Ghetto]; take a listen for yourself if you like at

There can be a lot more to superhero movies than that, as evidenced by Christopher Nolan’s work with the Batman character, especially The Dark Knight (2008), so we’ll just have to see how things evolve for Thor and Jane in upcoming episodes, especially when we’re left with the final pre-credits teaser that the heartfelt father-son talk between Odin and Thor as the latter declines the Asgard throne so that he can play to his strengths as a warrior rather than his fallibility as a kingdom-administrator was all a setup for future problems because as Thor leaves the scene we find Odin shape-shifting into Loki, leaving us with the critical questions of why isn’t Loki dead and what the hell happened to Odin?  While you’re pondering those not-soon-to-be-answered-concerns, I’ll close with another musical number to satisfy my San Francisco Bay Area colleague Tony Hicks (not that I know him directly, but we do have mutual friends in Two Guys-inspirer Barry Caine and Two Guys-phantom-co-reviewer Pat Craig), whose 2 of 4 stars review of Thor: The Dark World offered a “complaint” that he was “disappointed” because Hemsworth “never once uttered ‘it’s hammer time’ before pulverizing a foe into dust,” to which I reply with the original hammer-master (in the music world at least), M.C., and his 1990 hit (from the Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em album) “U Can’t Touch This” at  Happy hammerin’, Tony; I’ll try to nail down something substantial for the rest of you next week.

If you’d like to know more about 12 Years a Slave here are some suggested links: (43:54 press conference from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival [begins with about 4:00 of the above trailer and a promo for the TIFF] featuring director Steve McQueen and actors Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, and Alfre Woodard)

If you’d like to know more about Thor: The Dark World here are some suggested links: (12:51 interview with actors Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control, as well as difficulties we’ve encountered with the Google RSS Feed Alert when used in conjunction with iGoogle and Google Reader.

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. 12 years resonates because of the perceived historical accuracy obtained through the words of the victim and not those of typical fiction. A nuance I gained was that justice was possible even through local sheriffs when documentation was presented. Of course Texas still is a strong property rights state.

    Congress had outlawed the Atlantic slave trade by 1808, but the internal trade remained legal. llegal activities continued. The church's compliance is most damning even in modern times (KKK meetings advertised on the marquee of a Protestant church in Houston in the 90s...the1990s). I wonder what another hundred years will bring? Will we think more should have been done to stop the indentured slavery that effectively traps some Asian immigrants today?

    Overall, a very good movie, one that is hard to watch in places, but should be required viewing.

    1. Hi rj, Marvelous comments, which extend the contents of the review in a very useful manner. Thanks for so regularly being part of this analytical process. Ken

  2. Ok another good sci-fi review from the master of detail, Mr. Ken Burke. Very good effects in this one with lots of livid liquid forms and I am not just talking about one of my favorite ladies, Rene Russo. But what was the post credit scene all about?

    1. Good to hear from you on this one as well. I agree on the visual qualities of Ms. Russo, but as for the post-credits stuff I'm just not that familiar with the Marvel Universe to get the references. I'm sure it will all be revealed in time, though, as the continuing adventures of the various Avengers keep unfolding well into our Medicare years.

      Still, it makes you wonder how the Marvel/Disney folks will handle the aging realities of Downey Jr., Hemsworth, etc. because we don't want to get to a point where Thor looks like Odin, even if he never claims the throne. I know we've gotten used to interchangeable James Bond actors over the decades, but these Avengers actors have really become linked to their roles. Maybe at some point the story masters will have to do one of those "reboot the universe" things from the comics so that everyone will be 30ish again and we can more easily accept new faces topping the uniforms. Check back with in about 10 years and we'll see how this is working out. Ken