There will be SPOILERS…
It’s been said many times (and considering Marvel’s output over the next few years, will be said many more times to come), but I still quite can’t comprehend that we live in a world where we have not only one, but two Thor films, and they are both mega-successes. It’s a little weird that the biggest superheroes on the planet are now Iron Man, Thor and Captain America - three of my favorites as a kid, but even then it would have been a courtesy to say they were B-list at best. But through sheer force of will, Marvel Studios have taken each and every one of their characters and made them superstars. The first batch of Marvel films - which the studio now calls “Phase 1” - had some rocky moments, most notably the first Thor. But if Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World are any indication, any and all kinks in the machinery have been ironed out for Phase 2, resulting in some rollicking good entertainment with the characters we’ve grown to love.
Thor: The Dark World continues hot on the heels of Thor and The Avengers, as Thor is busy cleaning up the Nine Realms as a result of his half-brother Loki’s actions. Meanwhile on Earth, Jane Foster is trying desperately to reconnect with her godly boyfriend, and stumbles upon some strange metaphysical phenomena in London. She becomes infected with the Aether, an ancient god-weapon with the power to annihilate of reality itself, and formerly in the hands of Malekith the Accursed, the ruler of the Dark Elves of Svartelfheim who was defeated eons ago by Odin’s father Bor. Malekith and the remaining Dark Elves make it their mission to get the Aether back in their hands, as Thor and his companions race not only to save Jane’s life, but all of the Nine Realms as well.
Improving upon its predecessor in nearly every conceivable way, the biggest and best fix in this new Thor is the redefining of the world. The first film had a polish to it that was charming in its own right, but still completely and totally fake. The armor was shiny and plastic-looking, the sets obvious soundstages dressed to look like other worlds - even the New Mexico town on Earth looked inherently fake. Incoming director Alan Taylor takes the Star Wars route, filling the world with lived-in detail: Asgard has replaced its sheen with a far more rich and earth-y look, and the film as a whole finally feels as if the camera were dropped onto another planet instead of a soundstage. The film also cleverly blends classic Norse mythology with science fiction accoutrements - the Dark Elves use all manner of ray-guns, spaceships and black-hole generating grenades, adding a different flavor to the much-improved action scenes that would make Jack Kirby lose his fool mind.
The look and feel of the film are miles better than Branagh’s, but credit where credit is due: Branagh cast the hell out of his original film, most of whom return for this installment. Chris Hemsworth returns as Thor, having learned his lesson of humility in the previous installment and settling into a far more heroic and quietly noble role. Thor goes through maybe not as engaging an arc as he did previously, but is far more successful this time out. The biggest problems of the first film were the half-hearted attempts at Thor learning humility and the forced attraction with Jane Foster. The Dark World fixes this tactly, as Natalie Portman is given much more to do. Finally we see why Thor is attracted to this otherwise ordinary mortal woman, who is equally intelligent and witty and able to hold her own against Thor’s godly family.
Also returning is Tom Hiddleston as Loki, who although takes a backseat for much of the action, still pretty much steals the movie right out from under everyone’s noses. The filmmakers are careful in their use of Loki this go-round: having been such a big part of Thor and The Avengers means the character could very easily overstay his welcome, but Hiddleston is so magnetic in the role it would be a crime to leave him out entirely. So the character is taken really in the only direction he has left: teaming up with the good guys. It’s a great set-up, and watching Hiddleston straddle the line and bicker with his brother is a joy to watch. Even better, the film ends with an interesting twist to the character, setting the ball in motion for Thor 3.
Really the biggest problem with all the Marvel movies is their overstuffed nature, especially in regards to the cast. They always assemble some truly amazing performers, but only so much screen-time can be given to each - and considering each new movie needs even more characters, the problem is only exacerbated. The returning cast all do a fine job here (I especially liked the swashbuckling flair Zachary Levi brought to Fandral), although most barely get more than a few lines of dialogue or an action beat or two. Especially thankless is Rene Russo as Frigga, who although does a wonderful job in many scenes, is still ultimately in the movie solely so she can die and add “weight” to the proceedings.
The new cast fares about as well, with Christopher Eccleston as Malekith and Adewale Akinnouye Agbaje as his right hand man Algrim/Kurse. Both are suitably menacing, but their motivation is lacking - there’s nothing wrong with revenge, but not enough time is devoted to either to really get a gist for what’s going on with either.
There’s a lot of wasted potential throughout the film, as several fascinating ideas are brought up but dropped almost immediately. Superhero stories are at their best when dealing with ordinary human emotions, only blown up to outrageous proportions, so the idea of Thor bringing home Jane to meet his family provides ample set-up, which the film barely pays lip-service to. There’s also a wasted opportunity to set up a love triangle between Thor, Jane and Lady Sif, but ultimately nothing comes out of it (which also means Jaime Alexander is unfortunately sidelined). And finally, the film’s strongest material comes from Thor realizing being a king comes with its own limitations, as he finds out his father isn’t so different from Malekith himself, but that’s really only explored in a single conversation between the two.
The film’s constant rush to get to the “good stuff” ultimately hamper it in the end, but said good stuff is remarkably well done. I guess the film will have to settle for being pretty good instead of truly great.