Thor: The Dark World – Checking off the Boxes

thor__the_dark_world_v_2_by_natetravis23-d5dktesSo I says to my wife this morning, I says, “Hon, is it just me, or are a lotta folks throwin’ a lotta other folks under buses nowadays?”

And she says to me, “Oaaaah, yeah, hon, they’s been throwin’ each other under buses right and left out dere in de alley!”

Okay, so, no we don’t really talk like that. We’re Baltimorons only in the geographical sense.

My actual question concerned my growing perception that people in the workplace are faking it. They take credit for work they didn’t do. They’re desperate to make it look like they’re accomplished big things, and they’re equally desperate to make it look like they never make a mistake. They therefore cast a lot of blame and aspersion on their colleagues. Colloquially, they throw each other under the bus an awful lot.

My wife agreed. She’s noticed an increase, over the years since we both started working in the 1980s in people doing what she calls, “Checking off the boxes.” They put down on paper that they’ve done all the things they were supposed to do, often whether or not they’ve actually done them, and with blissful disregard for the outcome. Did doing those things (or claiming to?) actually move anything forward? Did a larger plan get carried out? Are conditions better than they were before said things were done? They don’t care. They’re supposed to check off the boxes on the form, and so they check them off. It’s all about building a resume, not about doing a good job.

This kind of empty, step-by-step approach works if you’re following a recipe to make a cherry pie. It works less often if you’re, say, managing a project with a million-dollar budget.

Case in point: Thor – The Dark World. We saw it Friday night. I was really looking forward to this movie. The trailers looked fantastic. Jane Foster was in Asgard, Renee Russo was appearing as Frigga, Thor’s mom. Anthony Hopkins was back as his dad, Odin, and, of course, Tom Hiddleston was lovable as ever as Loki. It not only looked like a worthy successor to Kenneth Brannagh’s first Thor film, it looked like the creative team had been energized by the phenomenally successful Marvel’s Avengers of 2012, and was making an even more fun, more character driven movie that would bring even more of the wondrous imaginings of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to the screen.

You’re probably already guessing that I’m about to tell you that looks can be deceiving. Yup. I am. And they can. This film, sadly, fell prey to the “all the best stuff was in the trailer” syndrome. It wasn’t a bad film. It was an extremely mediocre film, though, and there was no reason for it to be.

Except that someone decided to check off the boxes rather than make an honest attempt to tell an entertaining story. They threw in all the right ingredients: A hunk of a leading man, a perky, intelligent leading lady who’s not daunted by being opposite a man who rivals her for having the prettiest face on the screen…Well, Natalie Portman’s used to that, having done two films with Hayden Christensen. At least her co-star this time is a bit more believable than Hayden was when he was trapped in Annie Hell. But about those ingredients, we had not one but two spunky sidekicks, a naked physicist, for those who are into that, Anthony Hopkins and Renee Russo, fifty years of back story to skip through… and Loki.

What more do you need? Well, I’ve often though that, in addition to leading you to check off the boxes, a recipe should also tell you what not to do. To wit:

Do not use boring villains. Malekith? Who the Hel is Malekith? I admit I haven’t read every issue of Thor over the years, but… this is the best you can do? I had to look the guy up. He was introduced in 1984, after Thor had already graced the comic book page for over twenty years. Really? After just one film, we skip ahead over twenty years, passing over such luminaries as Hela, The Enchantress and the Executioner, Mephisto, The Absorbing Man, Karnilla the Norn Queen… and we pick Malekith?

Sorry, but he’s not an intrinsically interesting villain. A good villain should grab audiences in ways that mirror how a good hero does: He should be funny, sympathetic, or scary as hell. Malekith just looked like a Star Trek Reman and reminded me that I had once wasted money seeing Star Trek Nemesis. That made me angry at Rick Berman, not at Malekith.

It didn’t help that, overshadowing Malekith was Loki, a villain who is alternate funny, sympathetic and scary as hell. Audiences love to hate Loki because he’s well-created and well-played. And he’s not hiding behind several pounds of latex.

And the Dark Elves were a terrible mistake. They were way too reminiscent of Lucas’s Stormtroopers. It made me feel the team wasn’t sure audiences would like Thor, so they felt the need to rip off Star Wars, and, oh yeah, kids love those Tolkein films, so let’s make the Stormtroopers elves. Hedge our bets. Yeah, this is a lot like the workplace practice of taking credit for the work of others, or trying to ride on their coattails. And it’s just as off-putting in this film as it is when it happens on the job.

Add to all that that Malekith and his dark elves got way too much screen time that should have gone to Thor, Sif, Jane, the Warriors Three and Jane’s scientist buddies, and you have a recipe for a sleeping pill. Which worked. I fell asleep five or six times.

Don’t include supporting characters just because they’re “supposed to be there.” Give them something to do which advances the story. Yeah, I love Dr. Selvig and Darcy too, and the time we spent with them in this film was fun. It just seemed pointless. We keep cutting back to them doing, well, nothing which seems in any way related to what Thor, Jane and Loki are doing. At the end, it pulls together, and there’s a payoff, but it was an awful long distance to go for a pretty small payoff.

Don’t, Don’t, DON’T Put all your exposition in a narrative block at the beginning.  EV-er! This movie opens with a pretentious narration about some sacred object that Malekith found or lost or accidentally swallowed back when Hector was a pup (and no, they don’t show Hector. Showing Hector could only have helped the dead boring intro. Puppies are cute. Malekith and his dark elves are not.)

This is boring. This is a huge violation of a simple rule of story. This says that the writers didn’t care enough about their work, or the audience, to carefully weave the exposition into the narrative itself, and let the audience learn as the characters do. There’s no excuse for this. Presumably, we’re learning something in this opening narration that Thor and the Asgardians already know, so the narrative is here to avoid having them explaining to each other something they already understand: “As you know, here in the future…” Yeah, except you have a whole set of characters who don’t know all this. You could easily have Jane Foster and friends learning who Malekith is, and let us learn along with them. But no, these storytellers chose another, less, um, entertaining route.

And this annoying flashback segues nicely to…

Don’t start the story with characters your audience doesn’t care about. You have thirty seconds. Make your character interesting to me. Go. That’s every screenwriters job. First scene. Here’s the character. Make me like him or I’m getting up and leaving. Novelists, short story authors, same challenge, only you get words instead of seconds. You are not excused from this assignment if you’re using characters most people already know. Perhaps some of you are tired of this example, but, dammit, James Bond is introduced to us before the credits in every single Bond film. We’re shown, quickly, this guy is slick, he’s smooth, he’s handsome, and he’s good at what he does. Any questions? No! Are you bored? I doubt it. I guess some people are bored by James Bond being cool, but not as many as are probably bored by long blocks of exposition read over shots of guys in latex.

Start with your heroes. They’re the ones your readers care about, particularly in an ongoing series. Don’t start with a villain unless the villain is the protagonist.

Things are not people. No one wants to watch, listen to or read a story about things. Things crashing, things shooting, things crumbling and falling to the ground. Unless the things are somehow anthropomorphic, like the Brave Little Toaster, watching things happening to things is like watching paint dry. Thor – The Dark World spent way too much time showing us spaceships (things) shooting buildings, shooting other spaceships, and generally landing on things. Again, it looked like someone wanted to appeal to fans of Star Wars by showing lots of CGI battles. So time we could have spent enjoying more Loki / Thor antics was spent… not enjoying Loki / Thor antics.

Don’t under-utilize top talent. Anthony Hopkins is in this film. I keep saying it so I won’t forget that Anthony Hopkins is actually in this film. But he doesn’t do anything except accuse his son of being, um… somehow disappointing to him. And then he makes a couple of faces when bad things happen. He gets no dialogue about said bad things, which, if you think about how bad these bad things are, is surprising. He’s a joy to watch, as always, because he’s Anthony Hopkins; but the role of Odin is thankless and empty in this film.

Don’t lose focus. Okay, so this film is an epic. It’s big and sweeping and takes place across nine worlds. Those worlds literally hang in the balance as our characters chase the Maguffin. But stories don’t happen to people in wide angle shots. They happen close up. This movie jumps around so much, sharing time between so many characters, moving so quickly that we can’t maintain focus on any of them.

Gone With the Wind is also an epic. It takes place over the course of years, includes sweeping historical events, is set in multiple cities… but it never loses the focus on Scarlett. Either Thor and Loki or Thor and Jane should have been made the anchors to this story, and we should have seen nearly all the action through their eyes. But we didn’t. As a result, the story was hard to follow, and didn’t feel personal. Above all, you’ve got to make the story personal for your audience.

So there are my “don’ts.” Again, it’s not a bad film. There are a lot of fun moments with beloved characters. If you love Thor, Loki, Jane, Sif or the Warriors Three, go see it. They each get moments. So do Darcy, her new boyfriend and Dr. Selvig. And Chris O’Dowd is even in it, and he’s always fun. So go see it. But understand it’s flawed. You’re not getting Avengers.

A lot of people will still love this movie. A lot of these mistakes will be perpetuated. Would-be writers see movies like these, and think that this is how you tell a story. You build complicated worlds with tremendous back-story, and you convince yourself that that’s what your audience wants, not tight plotting or meaningful character development. And, sadly, that IS what some audience members want. They look at a well-made film like Avengers and see only the CGI and the stunts, and the huge alien armies. But that’s not what makes a good story.

Because, again, it’s not about checking off the boxes. It’s about keeping your eyes on the prize. The prize was a good story, a tasty dish. And, to get it, you have to look at every box your checking, ask yourself about every ingredient, “Is it adding to my finished product? Is it making it better?”

Don’t check the boxes. Don’t ride on anyone else’s coattails. Don’t take credit for someone else’s work. By all means, be prepared to tell everyone how wonderful you are and what great things you’ve done… but be wonderful and do great things… first. There are no shortcuts.

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3 thoughts on “Thor: The Dark World – Checking off the Boxes

  1. I think you’re being a bit too harsh on Thor II, Steve. A lot of things that bothered you didn’t bother me, and I found a lot more enjoyment in it. I’m sorry you were asleep during the movie.

    Thor wasn’t an awesome movie, and it’s not going to win any awards, but as a comic book movie, it was pretty solid. It didn’t necessarily transcend the genre of where it came from, but it had a lot of heart, and it felt like I was reading an authentic storyline from the Thor comics.

    I’m totally fine with Malekith being just Mister Bad Guy Doing Bad Things, because that’s usually the modus operandi of these villains. I think it would have been a mistake to have tried to flesh him out more, or humanize it (svartalfenize him?) since I don’t see the point in doing that when Loki’s there for the complexity.

    And it’s not like they literally skipped over 20 years of Thor comics and can’t go back. The pulled the villain they wanted, for the cosmic threat they wanted. I doubt they were going for some kind of Tolkien-tie-in as you were suggesting.

    It’s not like they decided to go with Thor’s original nemeses, the Stone Men from Saturn. At least this was Norse-ish and mythic.

    Or for the Star Wars Stormtrooper look. That wasn’t the impression I got on viewing, and it’s not the impression I have now. I thought the featureless masks of the elves have a creepy doll-like quality that the Troopers geometric symmetries do not. One is creepy, one is cold.

    As for preloading the movie with a prolog, I’m fine with us seeing action in a chronological way, instead of a flashback sandwich. It didn’t seem unauthentic or inconsistent for a Tales of Old Asgard sequence at the beginning of a Thor movie, the first movie did the same thing. It happens in the comics all the time.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree about starting the action with characters we don’t care about, since I don’t know who those characters were that you’re talking about.

    Making a Thor movie has a ton of challenges, you have to have Asgard, you have to have Earth, there has to be secondary characters in both realms since Thor has to be the hero of both.

    To my surprise, Thor got a lot of support from the human characters, which was unexpected and great, and there were really effective touches of humor.

    It was the difference between a great and interesting fight between Thor and Malekith, and the Superman/Zod slugfest.

    I think Thor II deserves more credit than it’s getting from the critics, but I’m glad that the general viewing audience is rating it higher.

    • Well, Pat, there’s certainly a lot there to love. There’s fun to be had. But I stick by my argument that what they succeeded in making was a mess. A fun mess, but still a mess. I don’t think comic book movies should be held to a lower standard than other movies. And I think, overall, the Marvel movies since Iron Man have proved they don’t need to be.

      Interesting you should mention Man of Steel, as I have to say some of the drawn-out battle scenes brought that film to mind. But you’re right, they were briefer and more interesting here.

      And they DID include a Stone Man of Saturn. That creature Thor destroyed in his first battle! That was one of my favorite moments.

      The characters I’m talking about them starting with are Malekith and the Dark Elves. It was a mistake to start with them, from my perspective. It didn’t bother you, and maybe that’s the key: I’m a comic book fan, but not so much an action film or fantasy film fan. I think I have less patience with films that go too heavy on the epic fantasy feel. I also slept through the Hobbit. (Clarification – I did not sleep through Thor – I just had to keep waking myself up. I SLEPT through the Hobbit!) These are not my kinds of films. And what that says to me is that Thor – The Dark World is less accessible to a general audience because it breaks so many rules. And I still feel it cynically chased elements of other films in an attempt to expand its audience.

      BUT… every film is (hopefully) loved by someone. I’m glad a lot of people enjoyed this one, no matter my opinion of its failings. And I did find a lot to enjoy within it.

      • Thanks for the feedback, Steve. I do appreciate your analysis of the movie from a storytelling perspective, and even though we had different take-aways from the movie, these intersections of ideas are fun to talk about, where we like and dislike stuff.

        That’s not a new idea, I know.

        Anyway, I understand you saying that comic book movies shouldn’t be held to a lesser standard than other movies, but I have complicated feelings about that. Many other movies concentrate on character growth, or other strong narrative elements, but that’s not always the case. If I was to see a Sherlock Holmes movie, I’d just want Sherlock Holmes to pretty much be the same game at the end as he was in the beginning.

        (I’m just saying this because some of the more critical reviews I’ve read complain about Thor’s lack of growth, things along those lines. I’m not saying that you’ve brought that up as a weakness.)

        For something like a Holmes movie, or for that matter a Superman movie, sometimes I just want there to be an engaging story that I feel captures the kind of experience that I got from reading comics, being a comic book guy.

        Random action movies often shoehorn in faux character growth, and that’s usually out of place.

        So I don’t know if I’m holding the movies to a higher or less standard as a film product, I’m judging them more on how comic-book spirited they are.

        Avengers was surprisingly good, for an ensemble team movie.

        The Iron Man movies had ups and downs, but pretty much blazed the trail.

        The Nolan Batman movies were a different animal, and are almost in a class by themselves, but they were working on a more realistic premise.

        For Thor, I felt we were given a cosmic spanning story that worked where a similar movie, Green Lantern did not.

        Thanks again for the feedback, I appreciated the chance to put down some Thor thoughts down. It might not seem like it, but I do have problems with the story, but it wasn’t necessarily from what you brought up. We can talk more in person, since I think we’ll be seeing you this weekend.

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