Thor: The Dark World is a vast improvement over Thor. It's deeply engaging and zealously paced, with action set pieces that actually drive the audience to pay attention and care. I often find it too easy to tune out during bloated action sequences, just biding my time until the dialogue and character work starts up again, and that probably says a lot about why I find it hard to care about many superhero movies. I cared about Thor 2. I was invested, occasionally even riveted. There are a lot of reasons that's the case: it's a very funny film that looks cool, it has an original and compelling mythology, the performances are almost entirely great.
And it has interesting female characters with their own agendas. Holy shit, right?
The Bechdel Test is such a weird way to discuss films. The bar is so low for it, you know?
It feels like a ridiculous method for judging movies. It's so reductive...until you take into account how few films pass the Bechdel Test, and then you realize how important it is. The point is this: if a movie passes the Bechdel Test, that hardly makes it some sterling example of female-forward narrative. There are plenty of films that pass this test that should never be held as a paragon of anything.
But the fact that we still have to seek out movies that offer the rare dynamic of two women talking to each other about anything other than a man is crazy. Alison Bechdel wrote the above comic strip in 1985, for chrissakes. Things have scarcely improved, even now that the Bechdel Test has become a common part of the cultural vernacular (and this week four Swedish cinemas actually added a Bechdel rating). We talk about it a lot, but we're still not doing it. I would love for the Bechdel Test to become an obsolete metric for evaluating films, but until more films pass it than not, it still matters.
So while I wish I could say it's no big deal that Thor 2 passes the Bechdel Test, it is a big deal. And while that film and so many others could do a much better job of offering complex female characters with agency and independent motivations, the bar is still so low that all we can do is acknowledge and appreciate the films that at least make the attempt.
I'm really damning this thing with faint praise, aren't I? I don't mean to. Thor: The Dark World certainly tries harder than most tent-poles, particularly big superhero projects. Marvel has always done a better job of this than DC, to be sure, but I think Thor 2 might be their most admirable effort to date on that score. Here we have four interesting women who show complexity and strength and personality. Yes, personality! They're smart and funny, they have presence. They take risks. They're each a memorable part of a movie filled with memorable stuff. None of them is reduced to pretty window dressing.
(slight spoilers below)
Natalie Portman is really great as Jane Foster. She has so much energy and ease in the role, standing surprisingly dynamic next to Hemsworth's Thor. Obviously it's very cool that Foster is a brilliant astrophysicist, but she isn't defined by that one thing. She's wry and quick-thinking and very funny, very human. She comes across as an actual person, and that is rarer than it should be. She's also incredibly brave - not fearless, but courageous. There's a wonderfully touching moment near the end of the film where Jane throws herself over Thor's body to protect him, as if her tiny frame could shelter Thor's acreage of muscles. It doesn't matter that she wouldn't actually be able to protect him - she's just a mortal, and he's a demigod - she's just not about to stand back and do nothing. Foster spends very little time in the film doing nothing. She is a character of purpose and action, and that's important.
Rene Russo's Frigga actually has something to do in this movie! (My husband didn't even remember that she was in the first one.) It's a small but stately role and she inhabits it with grace. While much of her import is assigned to the ways that she inspires Odin and especially Thor and Loki, there is one too-fleeting scene in which we're given a glimpse of Frigga's fire. She protects Jane during a skirmish, showing immediate enterprise and strength as the danger escalates. She tells Jane that she must do what Frigga says, with no questions asked, in order to remain safe, and Jane answers quickly, "Yes ma'am." I loved that moment, that "yes ma'am." Jane recognizes that Frigga is a leader, a powerful woman with Jane's best interests at heart, and Jane - no shrinking violet herself - trusts and defers to her. Later, Thor tells Odin that he hears Frigga behind every decision Odin makes, and while I wish we could have seen more of it, the script certainly allows for all of the ways the matriarch of this powerful family has shaped and guided these ruling men.
I also wish we could have seen more of Jaimie Alexander as Sif. We know that she's a fierce warrior, but in The Dark World we also learn that she's a loyal and brave friend. She goes to great risks to protect Asgard and support Thor in his efforts to do the same. She threatens to kill Loki if he betrays Thor, and we (and he) know she'll do it. She also fights to defend Jane, and the two share a brief moment where they seem to size each other up, and then grant respect to one another.
In fact, I most appreciate the ways that these women interact and support each other. I found Darcy mildly exhausting in Thor, even though I quite like Kat Dennings, but in Thor 2 she's grown into a real character. She's still very funny and dry, but she's also brave and trustworthy. She backs up Jane's play, whatever it is. There's a brief period when Darcy is left to handle the impending Convergence crisis without the help of Jane or Erik (Stellan Skarsgård), and she doesn't hesitate. She has her own story here, a brief one as The Dark World is already packed with action, but one that doesn't feel like an afterthought.
Here's the thing: Thor: The Dark World is still a movie about a man, and the people (including some women) who surround him. If the film does as well at the box office as it's projected to do, no one will say it's because there are valid and provocative female characters - it'll just be one more hot white dude carrying a film. But I'm going to go back and see it again, and I know why I'll be buying that ticket. I suspect I won't be alone, either. All we can do is continue to try and shift the conversation, looking forward to the day that we won't need the Bechdel Test anymore.