Relationships Make Thor: The Dark World a Fun Film, Even Though the Plot Is Silly (Non-Spoiler Review)

Thor: The Dark World poster.

I was going to pass on the first Thor film because I rarely enjoy the fantasy genre. I only went to see it because it was my friend's birthday and he's really into Norse mythology.

The movie surprisingly worked for me. Asgard was beautiful, Thor and Loki's rivalry was interesting, and I loved the blending of science fiction and fantasy. The Earthbound scenes were weaker, but Thor's fish out of water humor made up for it.

Thor beautifully blends science fiction and fantasy.

Thor beautifully blends science fiction and fantasy.

Thor: The Dark World retains everything that made the first film a success. We see much more of Asgard, its people, and their culture. Earth continues to provide laughs thanks to charming performances by Kat Denning and Stellan Skarsgård. I didn’t realize it in the first film, but the cast is very diverse. The five major female characters include a queen, two scientists, a soldier, and a physician. Unlike Lord of the Rings, people of color have a role to play beyond the forces of evil.

It's great to see more female characters in superhero films, like the scientists played by Kat Dennings and Natalie Portman.

It's great to see more female characters in superhero films, like the scientists played by Kat Dennings and Natalie Portman.

Seeing the characters interact with each other is the best part of the film. Their relationships feel real. It’s fun to see Thor team up with his friends, but the most compelling scenes focus on his family. The messiness of Thor’s relationship with his brother, mother, and father is something everyone can relate to. I didn't buy the chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman in the first film, but their romance is more authentic here.

Thor: The Dark World does have issues that are becoming a pattern in the Marvel Studios films. The plot is hard to believe, especially when a character stumbles upon a secret well-guarded cosmic super weapon. The villain is absolutely forgettable, as is the film's score. Conversion to 3D added nothing to the film (besides the cost of admission). The action is more personal than Iron Man 3's, but it's still a CGI assault.

Thor: The Dark World   has one of the most forgettable Marvel villains.

Thor: The Dark World  has one of the most forgettable Marvel villains.

Despite these problems, I had fun watching Thor: The Dark World. I cared about the characters, enjoyed seeing them interact with each another, and loved learning about the universe in which they live. Christopher Orr, in his review at The Atlantic, said, "Thor: The Dark World often plays like a peculiar mashup of Tolkien and Star Trek—a Balrog here, a Romulan Bird of Prey there—with hints of Alien and Hellboy thrown in for good measure." He criticizes the film’s genre bending but that’s what I enjoy the most about Marvel’s Cinematic Universe – they always find a way to make their heroes accessible to everyone.

Rating: 7.5/10

For different perspectives, check out Rolling Stone’s and NPR’s review. If you’re interested in Thor and Loki's sibling rivalry, check out the psychology of siblings (explained using The Simpsons).

The Wolverine Searches for Meaning, Avoids Fun (Non-Spoiler Film Review)

The Wolverine Poster

I was first introduced to Wolverine through the early 1990s X-Men: The Animated Series. I thought he had the coolest mutant power and loved how he always did what he thought was best (even if Cyclopes hated the idea). The first comic book I bought was Wolverine (issue #67, "Valley O'Death!"). When X-Men: Children of the Atom came out in arcades, I spent countless hours (and quarters) mastering Wolverine’s “berserker barrage”. Looking back, Wolverine was an essential ingredient in my origin story as a geek.

Did my nostalgia for Wolvie set me up for unrealistic expectations for his new movie, The Wolverine? Nope, his last solo adventure, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, was so bad that it completely destroyed any hope I had of seeing a good Wolverine story on the big screen. I went into this film expecting nothing.

Logan travels to Japan in  The Wolverine.

Logan travels to Japan in The Wolverine.

To my surprise, I enjoyed a lot of The Wolverine. It was refreshing to see a movie take place entirely in Japan (with a little bit of Canada) and feature a predominantly Asian cast. Compared to the rest of this summer’s genre films, The Wolverine has better representation of women (3 female leads who speak to each other and kick ass). It met the needs of fans by including major threads from the comics while also making the movie accessible to anyone who hasn't seen a X-Men film.

What I enjoyed most was Logan’s internal struggle. His mutant power is superhuman healing. Combine that with an adamantium reinforced skeleton and our hero is nearly indestructible. The film explores how such abilities impact Wolverine’s psychology. Since pain and fear have no consequences for him, we see Logan habituate to these feelings. This leads Logan to become impulsive, quickly reacting to threats without any concern about what might happen to him (because nothing ever happens to him). Since Wolverine is constantly losing those he loves (because he outlives them), his only source of meaning is his quest for enduring justice. This film challenges Logan by stripping him of his purpose in life. Seeing Wolverine go through this as a psychological ronin gave the film surprising depth and reminded me of some of the ideas raised in Viktor Frankl’s seminal work - Man’s Search for Meaning 

Yukio stole almost every scene she was in.

Yukio stole almost every scene she was in.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film is shallow. The villains bored me (I've been spoiled by Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison from Star Trek Into Darkness). Besides one fight on a train, the action was uninspired. Remember that epic Wolverine/samurai battle you played out in your head as a kid? Yeah, it never happens.

It's sad that this film will be mostly remembered for its post-credits setup for next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. Wolverine consumed my imagination as a kid and I'd like to see him done with the same attention to detail as my adult obsession - Batman. That probably won't happen anytime soon. I'll just wait for the next X-Men movie, for which I now have enormously inflated fanboy expectations.

Rating: 6.5/10

AV Club had a nice take on the film, calling it the only standalone superhero movie of the season. However, I agreed most with NPR's more critical review (but watch out for minor spoilers). 

Superman is an Immigrant Star-Child (Man of Steel Non-Spoiler Review)

Man of Steel Superman Poster Wide

I ended last week’s psychology of Superman article with the following:

"If [Man of Steel] focuses on Clark’s loneliness as the last son of Krypton, the humanity of Jonathan and Martha Kent, and Superman’s sympathy for humans, it’ll be successful in rekindling our empathy for this superhero."

Was Zack Snyder successful in rebooting Superman? Yes, absolutely!

Man of Steel worked because it focused on Kal-El’s science fiction origin and Clark Kent's connection to humanity. Much of the story highlights Krypton, its culture, technology, and downfall. While reviews have criticized the Alien, Dune, Independence Day, and War of the Worlds feel of Man of Steel, I loved its star-child foundation. The geekiness of this film allows for interesting, albeit familiar, threads on cloning, first contact with aliens, and terraforming.

Man of Steel is best when it gets inside Clark Kent's head, specifically his loneliness as the last son of Krypton and his love for his adopted home of Earth. Critics find this part of the story "too dark", "melancholic", and claim it's an inappropriate "Dark Knight-ification of Superman”. I disagree – Superman has always been the story of an immigrant's escape from a doomed civilization. It's a dark origin.

Critics are also comparing Man of Steel to Richard Donner's 1978 Superman. Yes, the original Superman singlehandedly launched the superhero movie genre and everyone loves Christopher Reeve's portrayal of the superhero. But that movie isn’t sacred to me. You have to remember that it’s the film that had Superman reversing the rotation of the Earth in order to travel back in time to save Lois Lane. That might have worked in the 70s but audiences would never buy that today. Man of Steel has its flaws, but no one doubts that this Superman exists in our modern world (unlike 2006’s Superman Returns).

Man of Steel does have issues. The film's MacGuffin is completely disposable compared to the more interesting story of Clark’s transformation into Superman. Krypton looked too much like Avatar's Pandora. The defining moment between Clark and his dad didn't work for me (even though I adored Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent). The 2nd act has some major plot holes that require big leaps of faith (e.g. how Lois and Clark meet, the fortress of solitude, the phantom zone). The fights feel like they're lifted from the recent Injustice video game. While that type of building busting violence is awesome on the Xbox, it’s hard to follow on the big screen. Amy Adams’s Lois Lane was great, but she only worked in service of the male hero (Matt Zoller Seitz describes this disturbing trend in his review).  

Despite that long list of concerns, I deeply enjoyed this film. I don’t demand perfection from cinema, but I expect films to make me feel something and leave me with ideas that live on in my head. As the son of two immigrants, I identified with Clark’s feelings of being alone, different, and yet completely connected to the only home I’ve ever known – America. Will it occupy my thoughts? Not as much as The Dark Knight trilogy, but far more than any previous Superman film.

Rating: 7.5/10

Check out Slate’s review for a great comparison of superhero movies and medieval religious art. For a harsher critique, read AV Club.

Superman's Greatest Power is Empathy

superman-man-of-steel.jpg

For the past few weeks I’ve been detoxing from a Star Trek overdose by diving into superhero mythology. After reading a bunch of comics and watching cartoons, TV shows, and movies I’ve realized that empathy is the most important part of a superheroes's psychology. And there is no one more empathetic than Superman. 

Empathy Leads to Helping

Superman Helping in Action Comics #1

Empathy helps us understand what others are thinking and feeling. When someone is suffering, empathy leads to sympathy (a concern for others). Combine sympathy with a sense of responsibility to do something, and you get altruistic (helping) behavior. Empathy is so vital to our survival that we have specialized brain cells called mirror neurons that replicate the experiences we see in other people.

Superman uses empathy to understand the frightened face of a Metropolis citizen, realize they're in danger, and feel enough sympathy to come to their rescue. Without empathy, Superman would just ignore people in need of help. 

Humans experience different degrees of empathy. Some struggle to understand the motivations of others and have less mirror neuron activity (like those diagnosed with Autism). So what is it about Superman that allows him to have super-empathy?

Temperament

Man of Steel Young Clark Kent

Temperament is a big part of empathy. Two important parts of temperament are how strongly you react to your environment and how long it takes you to calm down. Children who can control their emotions are more empathetic and experience more sympathy. Think about the last time you were really angry – being clouded by very strong feelings probably made it very hard to even think about what other people around you were feeling. While genetics heavily influence your temperament, the environment in which you grow up also plays a major role.

A healthy temperament is important to the origin of all superheroes. Clark Kent's adopted parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, taught him the importance of patience, emotional control, diligence, and encouraged him to help others. Superman had the power to hurt others as a child, but he didn't because his genes and his parents helped him develop a calm temperament.

Compare that with the budding supervillian from Looper – the Rainmaker. He was overwhelmed by his emotions, acted immediately without thinking, and couldn't develop empathy for anyone outside of his caregivers. Combine this type of temperament with extraordinary telekinetic powers and you've got a very dangerous situation.

The Developing Teenage Brain

Clark, Jonathan, Martha Kent. 

As adolescence begins, parents play an increasingly important role in shaping the temperament of their children because teenage brains are rapidly changing

After puberty, the teen brain becomes wired to overestimate rewards. As a result, teens respond very quickly to new information in their environment. That's why we learn so quickly as teens and why teens are vulnerable to becoming addicted to drugs, video games, and other pleasurable stuff. At the same time, the region responsible for planning, understanding consequences, and controlling emotions is still being built (and isn't complete until our 20s). This explains why teens do stupid things - their brains are wired to have an accelerator but no brake. Too much acceleration, too little braking, and you don’t get much concern for others.

While this type of development helped humans become the smartest species on the planet, it requires supportive parenting during the adolescent years. Teens need opportunities for real-life successes and failures under the protection and supervision of adults. Otherwise, teens never learn how to apply the brake. 

To see how Clark learned to regulate himself and avoided becoming a delinquent, check out the TV show Smallville. I’m not a fan of the monster of the week storylines, but I loved how the Kents epitomize the type of parents teenagers need. They listened to Clark, encouraged him to explore his Kryptonian identity, placed appropriate limits on his powers, implemented consequences when he broke the rules, and expressed their love and concern for him. This helped Clark master his superpowers (accelerator) without getting himself into too much trouble (brake). 

To see what happens when parents of teens with superpowers are too strict, absent, or permissive, check out last year’s Chronicle. This fantastic film accurately depicts the tension between rewards and consequences in teenage brains. The teens became addicted to developing their powers (accelerator) but were grossly underprepared to deal with the repercussions of their actions (brake). I won't ruin the story for you, but let's just say things don't end well. You can't completely blame their moms and dads, but you gotta wonder what would have happened to them if their parents were more like the Kents.

Connection to Humanity

Superman and Lois Lane flying scene.  

One of the biggest criticisms of Superman is that he's too unrealistic, a boring do-gooder with no real personality depth or failures.

Critics point to Watchman's Dr. Manhattan as a more realistic god-like "super-man". Dr. Manhattan has almost no humanity, no empathy, and doesn't worry about killing humans or letting people die. He can manipulate matter (including his own body), has a non-linear perspective of time, sees parallel universes, and is almost devoid of emotions. He doesn't look human, think like a human, and has developed a “callous-unemotional” personality. He's described as "[knowing] how everything in this world fits together except people."

And that's exactly why the comparison doesn't work. Superman spent his whole life developing a connection to humanity. Unlike Dr. Manhattan, Superman looks like one of us (the more something looks like us, the more empathy we have for it). He thinks, feels, and acts like humans. He lost his biological parents because their planet was destroyed and he spends each day of his life ensuring the same thing doesn't happen to the people of Earth. That’s a lot of sympathy!    

Yes, Superman's almost too perfect, but he gives us something to aspire to – the idea that anyone who develops a connection to their community is capable of incredible acts of heroism. 

This is what I'm hoping to see in Man of Steel - a film that recaptures our connection to the Superman (something the past three films failed to do). If the story focuses on Clark’s loneliness as the last son of Krypton, the humanity of Jonathan and Martha Kent, and Superman’s sympathy for humans, it’ll be successful in rekindling our empathy for this superhero.

Tony Stark Fuels His Own Anxiety in Iron Man 3 [Non-Spoiler Film Review]

Tony-Stark-Iron-Man-3.jpg

Since Iron Man 3 is the first step toward Avengers 2, I was itching to see the direction Marvel was taking its cinematic universe. While it wasn't the best Iron Man (first the best, second the worst), and it suffers from the same flaws as other Marvel Studios films, I really liked the central role of anxiety in the movie.

Tony Stark is his own worst enemy

iron-man-3-tony-stark.jpg

The movie begins with Stark saying, "We make our own demons." While in previous films Stark fights bad guys who have their own evil agendas, here he's dealing with the consequences of his own actions. A villain is pissed off because Stark was a dirt bag to him. Stark is stripped of his Iron Man suit because of his own mistakes. He’s also experiencing anxiety because of his own decisions. 

Avoidance Fuels Anxiety

Tony Stark is haunted by what happened in  Avengers .

Tony Stark is haunted by what happened in Avengers.

Why is Stark experiencing anxiety? Well he almost died in Avengers. For a guy who thinks he can engineer his way out of any danger (Stark did build his Mark I suit IN AN AFGHAN CAVE), coming so close to death could be a very traumatic thing.

While lots of things (biology, personal history, type of trauma) influence the development of PTSD, panic disorder, and other anxiety problems, there's only one thing that maintains anxiety - avoidance. Anxiety is a warning system that prepares our bodies for danger. This is a very good thing. Without anxiety, even if Loki was threatening us with an evil soliloquy and a mind altering glow stick, we'd just stand there twiddling our thumbs. The problem occurs when we try to avoid anxiety by restricting intrusive thoughts, numbing uncomfortable feelings, or running away from scary (but not life-threatening) situations. Avoidance doesn't reduce anxiety, it fuels it.

Iron Man 3 has some nice examples of this. Stark cuts off Pepper Potts when she talks about the dangers of being Iron Man. He avoids nightmares by staying up and tinkering with new inventions in his basement. When Rhodey Rhodes brings up the Avengers, Stark runs out of the room and flies away. He even develops new Iron Man technology to avoid being in the situation that caused his trauma. While we don’t see it, I bet he’s also numbing himself with alcohol (like he did in Iron Man 2). Stark tries to cope by shutting off anything that might trigger difficult memories. That's exactly how normal anxiety transforms into a clinical disorder. 

An Incomplete Arc 

Things go downhill once the climax begins. 

Things go downhill once the climax begins. 

The way to treat anxiety is by facing the thoughts, feelings, and situations that trigger it. Therapists do this through exposure therapy (a fast, highly effective way of becoming desensitized to anxiety). Through collaboration, therapists help people end patterns of avoidance and develop the courage to face feared situations.

We don't get to see any of that in the movie. No, I don't want to see Iron Man sitting in a therapy session, but I do want to see the resolution of his character arc. Instead, Iron Man 3's anxiety thread is dropped as soon as the climax begins. There's a resolution at the end of the film, but I have no idea how our hero achieved it. 

That's my beef with the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe - the films are inconsistent. The Asgard scenes in Thor were really cool, the Earth stuff not so much. I loved Captain America's origin story, but the action was boring. Hulk...well, both his movies just stunk. The only exceptions are Iron Man 1 (made before there were plans for a cinematic universe) and Avengers (yes it's full of plot holes, but the camaraderie made up for it). I don't need my comic book movies to be serious (like The Dark Knight), but I would prefer them to be complete (like X-Men 2).

I guess that's what happens when you're creating something as ambitious as the Marvel Cinematic Universe - films are rushed and details get neglected. Yes, Robert Downey Jr. is ridiculously amazing, the action is fun, the special effects are flawless, the script is always entertaining, and there's a fantastic canon-shattering reveal. I just wish we could have seen Stark fight back against his own personal demons, you know, like the film promised it would.

Rating: 7/10

For a more positive review, check out The Atlantic. Or if you prefer a stronger critique, read the AV Club