In the past, all superheroes had to do was catch the bad guy, save the world and occasionally get the girl.
Now they have to be funny too. No pressure then, super guys.
Ever since Joss Whedon unleashed his laugh-out-loud action-comedy The Avengers, filmgoers’ expectations of the comic-book hero have changed. We are starting to expect as much ‘comic’ as ‘hero’.
It’s easy to combine action and humour with a lead character possessing the charisma and comedy timing of Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man’s “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” stole the show in the 2012 ensemble superhero romp.
But when The Avengers’ indirect follow-up, Thor: The Dark World, hit cinema screens, some wondered if it would follow the blueprint by attempting to matching big bangs with belly laughs. And if so, who would deliver the gags in the absence of quick-quipping Tony Stark? Can the action-comedy formula excel without such a talent?
While Chris Hemsworth’s Thor character provided some comedy moments as ‘straight man’ to Downey Jr in The Avengers – “No hard feelings, Point Break” – could he carry a funny movie without his super pals?
Let’s be frank, the original Thor had about as much humour as a dentist’s waiting room. Hemsworth played the character so righteously the first time around, you may well have found yourself wanting to beat him with his own hammer. But in this, his third outing as the god of thunder, not only does he accept a stooge role in a comedy double act, he relishes in it.
His foil in The Dark World is quickly becoming one of the most popular movie baddies of our time. Thor’s duplicitous brother Loki is both charming and mischievous. Tom Hiddleston’s villain, with a wide smile befitting The Grinch, is key to some delightful and believable chemistry with his on-screen big brother. Watching the pair team up, those with a sibling of a different age will understand the two-way resentment when the older is forced to accept the younger tagging along.
The gags in this space-trekking adventure take place on Earth – aside from a superb visual joke featuring Captain America. This proves the right choice; we could never find humour in mythical Asgard, with its impossible grandeur and stiff characters, in the same way we relate to the comparatively buffoon-like earthlings
Filling these roles, ditzy Darcy, the assistant to Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster, and bumbling intern Ian provide plenty of laughs without ever seeming too out-of-place amid the action. And there is a fairly prominent supporting role for comedy actor Chris O’Dowd, recreating his Bridesmaids role as an unlucky-in-love suitor for Ms Portman.
The film is far from perfect. The usually engaging Christopher Eccleston’s is one-dimensional as Malekith the dark elf, and the narrative is occasionally uneven. But Thor 2 proves that good action and comedy – as opposed to comic relief – can not only coexist, but complement each other.
Up next in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Can Chris Evans’ equally stuffy Cap channel his inner stand-up? Without Whedon (who helped with notable script rewrites on Thor, they say), will the writers even try to recreate the previous riotous rides? After the past two moves, they don’t have a choice.
The dark, brooding comic characters from the era of Christopher Nolan’s Batman may be gone forever, replaced with grumpy, clumsy, flawed and riotous superheroes of the new Marvel era.
Faster than a speeding bullet? Superheroes for the moment are funnier than a flying camel. Here’s hoping they stay that way.