War has provided cinema with fodder for both entertainment and terror, but never the twain shall meet -- except this weekend, when both "Thor: The Dark World" and "How I Live Now" hit theaters (as well as digital platforms, in the case of "How I Live Now"). On the surface, the two movies have little in common: The sequel to 2011's "Thor" is the latest edition to Disney's vast commercial enterprise as it continues to beef up its expansive translation of Marvel comics to the big screen; "How I Live Now" is director Kevin Macdonald's quiet, stirring adaptation of Meg Rosoff's acclaimed novel about a group of young people struggling to survive in the English countryside after the outbreak of World War III. Yet the timing of their releases leads to an intriguing contrast between radically different approaches to exploring collective fears through the same medium.
In "How I Live Now," 15-year-old moody teen Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) travels from New York to the United Kingdom and moves in with her distant cousins in attempt to flee her stepmother. Once there, she's initially resistant to her affable relatives Isaac (Tom Holland) and Piper (Harley Bird), both several years younger than her, but quickly -- maybe just a little too quickly -- falls under the spell of the kindly stud Edmond (George MacKay), a hunk willing to romantically suck the blood from her wounded finger as the two make their way through the lush countryside and, before long, lock lips.
As their situation grows dire -- with the family's sole adult presence out of town as nukes hit London, leaving the kids to their own devices in an untempered war zone -- Edmond is the story's mythical centerpiece: An almost comically brawny source of comfort for the unstable heroine, he's her only source of potential salvation. When he drops out of the picture as the group gets pulled apart by militant forces halfway through, he becomes a symbolic goal that gives Daisy a reason to fight through incarceration at a work camp and find her way back to their tranquil farm away from the chaos afflicting the rest of the country. The device is effectively ambiguous: It's never entirely clear until the closing moments whether Daisy's constant dreams of Edmond beckoning to her mean she's on the right track or if she's simply lost in an impossible scenario with no hope of a happy ending. It's as if she's constructed her very own superhero: He's her personal Thor. No matter how cheesy their romance (and, yes, it does get distractingly cheesy in parts), her vision as Edmond as the key to her salvation makes "How I Live Now" not so much a form of escapism as an ode to its powers.
And that's certainly, to a far simpler degree, what "Thor" does, too. At the end of "The Avengers," Thor (Chris Hemsworth) himself has vanished from our world to take his scheming, war-mongering brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) back to Asgard for imprisonment, in the process leaving behind his own hardened damsel in distress: Researcher Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor's main partner in crime during the first movie and his tentative romantic interest. After a lengthy prologue too heavily steeped in mythological babble to merit much description here, it's established that Thor has been tied down in his homeland battling off evil forces from one of the evil realms attempting to overthrow Asgard. Needless to say, when Thor eventually materializes in our universe to greet Jane, she accepts his excuse with an amusingly defeatist response. How can you argue with this dreamy, valiant, impossibly muscular god among men?
Jane's unhurried acceptance of Thor's absence marks one of a few enjoyably self-aware moments in this generally agreeable CGI-fest, which has been competently directed by Alan Taylor, although one could argue at this point that none of these intertwined blockbusters bear the mark of any single filmmaker aside from Joss Whedon. Like Whedon's whip-smart "Avengers" screenplay, "Thor: The Dark World" manages to acknowledge the inherently silly nature of its premise while compellingly asserting that, hey, sometimes it's fun to suspend your disbelief when the results look this good. Just go with it and the latest "Thor," like its precedents, manages to make the ominous threat of a menacing inter-dimensional warlord pretty enjoyable, if equally forgettable.
To some degree, that's all one can expect at this point: "Thor: The Dark World" has been engineered to be yet another hole-filler in the hulking "Avengers" franchise, and expertly designed to keep multiple storylines in flux at once (including one tagged to the current "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" television series and another that looks ahead to the upcoming "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie) while instigating a massive drumroll for Whedon's "Avengers" sequel. But what's interesting about this universe is that, by virtue of the multiple narratives in play, it manages to reference countless story ingredients without fully explaining them. It's entirely acceptable for everyone in "Thor: The Dark World" to still discuss the wounds of the New York City showdown that concluded "The Avengers," which was released a year after "Thor." Even in the context of this utterly absurd slice of mass produced spectacle, "Thor: The Dark World" manages to convey the notion of people living in the shadows of a conflict far larger than a single movie has the power to contain.
"How I Live Now" also involves a handful of characters swept up in the aftermath of an attack (albeit one far more devastating and believable) that, save for a fleeting news report, remains entirely off-screen. Though it aims for realism where "Thor" and its ilk fly magnificently off the rails, "How I Live Now" similarly hints at a bigger world without fleshing out all the details. What matters is the way a handful of frantic individuals react to the impact of a global catastrophe for their specific needs. Even if the rather basic set of events creates the sense of an unfinished scenario, it's that same quality that makes it feel hauntingly credible.
The through-line between "Thor" and "How I Live Now" suggests that both movies reflect a specific breed of post-9/11 paranoia in which the plight of the individual has become swept up by far greater circumstances. Marvel's superheroes are the response we can only dream about when contemplating mass destruction from monolithic forces of evil. But "How I Live Now" explores the ramifications of what happens when nobody comes to the rescue, and the victims' only prospects for survival remain their own feeble devices. Hearing whispering voices in her head as she traipses through the forest, evading gun-toting militants and rapists alike, Daisy eventually transforms into a self-made heroine empowered by her perseverance. In that regard, like "Thor," Macdonald's movie is a kind of fairy tale. While in the Marvel franchises, the good guys always win, "The House I Live In" explores the far more tangible process of simply remaining alive at all costs -- and finding, against impossible odds, justification for living through another day.
"How I Live Now": B+
"Thor: The Dark World": B
HOW WILL THEY PLAY? While "Thor" is poised to win the box office this weekend, "The House I Live In" should do reasonably well on VOD due to its enticing premise and Ronan's appeal. However, its box office chances during the crowded fall season are fairly limited.