As we’ve mentioned before, among all of the current Marvel properties — at least those that fall within the current, Avengers-centric universe — Thor is perhaps the toughest sell. Instead of super soldiers and robots and powered suits, we have gods and monsters and magical realms, all somehow wrapped within the framework of our existing, reality-based superhero pantheon. As a result, Kenneth Brannagh probably made a wise choice by focusing on Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) presence on Earth and his burgeoning relationship with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) in the 2011 entry.
Indeed, the first film’s weakest moments were those that took place in his homeworld of Asgard, in no small part because Asgard never felt real. It’s not that audiences can’t buy a fantasy setting, even one juxtaposed with our existing world. It’s that Asgard simply felt poorly rendered, like a clumsy aping of Rivendell during an acid trip. Coupled with the fact that the Asgardian dialogue was often a bit clunky (Tony Stark’s “Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” line was a bit too close to home), and it’s no surprise that the scenes in New Mexico were the better ones. However, in Thor: The Dark World, Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor now has the advantage of the scene being set and of audiences accepting the peculiarities of these pseudo-gods, and can therefore take that ball and run.
The new film is focused heavily on Asgard, and thanks to some terrific set design and visual effects, it’s actually quite stunning this time around, a sparkling, lush, substantial-seeming world that has far more life breathed into it than before. In this second go-around, Jane Foster stumbles upon a millennia-old substance known as the Aether, capable of all sorts of terrible things. The Aether is being sought by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), a dark elf who has been around since the dawn of time, who seeks to use it to bring eternal darkness to all of the universe’s realms, thanks to a moment in time when all the worlds will be closest to each other, called “The Convergence.” Yes, this is all utter gobbledygook, and no, watching it doesn’t actually help it make more sense. It’s preposterous, fantastically comic booky, science fiction/fantasy foofery, and by god, do they sell it hard. Thor: The Dark World is filled to bursting with weird wordplay and stern, solemn proclamations of magical silliness, so much so that it occasionally drives itself off the rails. And yet, when you add up its parts, it works — and works well — far more often than it fails.
This is in no small part due to the game efforts of Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins as the effortlessly noble Odin, and the earthbound contingent of Portman’s Jane, as well as her sidekick and surprisingly effective comic relief, Kat Dennings as Darcy. The chemistry between Hemsworth and Portman is solid, now with the added wrinkle of the fact that a) she has been brought to Asgard and b) she’s in some ways the reason all of this chaos has come into play. Hemsworth is still a giant, charming lug of a fellow, who after three films now seamlessly portrays the spectacularly powerful god of thunder with aplomb and surprising wry humor that nicely compliments his newfound maturity. The supporting players are all enjoyable as well, including an all-too-brief turn by Rene Russo as Thor’s mother, Frigga and a strong, understated (and that’s saying something considering he plays a golden-armored magical gatekeeper) performance by Idris Elba as Heimdall. Sadly, once again the parts of Sif (Jaime Alexander) and the Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson as Volstagg, Tadanobu Asano as Hogun, and newcomer Zachary Levi taking over as Fandral) are underused yet again, but it’s a crowded scene in there.
If there’s a weak spot, it’s the villain. Eccleston, an extremely charismatic and versatile actor, is utterly wasted as Malekith. Buried under prosthetics and with his voice mangled by effects, any possibility of nuance or creativity is utterly stifled. Instead, he’s simply evil for the sake of evil, a marble-mouthed, emotionless automaton who is never even remotely compelling or even particularly fearsome. Thankfully, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is there to pick up the slack. This time around, Loki has been imprisoned after his destructive efforts in The Avengers, and he’s freed by Thor to help him trap Malekith. Hiddleston slides into the role of Loki like he’s been doing it all his life, and he is evil, malicious, complex, tragic, and utterly spectacular. He’s easily the best part of the film, between his viciously sarcastic barbs to his amazingly expressive face, to his ability to squeeze every last drop of conniving cleverness out of the role while still giving it remarkable depth. In the hands of a lesser talent, Loki would be reduced to a scenery-chewing buffoon or a one-note menace. In Hiddleston’s, he’s a multi-layered lunatic, and I could watch him all day.
Woven into this weird, occasionally confusing/ridiculous story and these mostly delightful performances is a thoroughly enjoyable, breathlessly paced film. The first film suffered from a bit of lag, as much time was spent on exposition and world-building. With those things already established, The Dark World is able to move at a much faster clip, and it basically explodes right off the blocks. It’s a far more action-packed epic, with much of the storytelling being done on the fly or woven deftly into the major action pieces. The action itself is mostly excellent, particularly a stunningly rendered assault on Asgard itself, and a wild, mind-warping and often-hilarious battle between Thor and Malekith and his forces that involves London, a spaceship, and frequent bouts of random, accidental interdimensional teleportation. It has to be seen to be believed, but while the film isn’t always making a ton of sense, it’s never boring. Best of all, the action is well-designed and clearly and cleverly thought out. There’s excellent use of space and perspective and you can actually see what’s happening, without it being edited into oblivion.
Thor: The Dark World occasionally suffers from a needlessly complex and wacky story, and a villain that fails to resonate or be even remotely memorable. But by god, it is fun. Taylor has directed a massive, wildly ambitious entry into this universe, and he’s done a bangup job. Much like Iron Man 3, it’s essentially a standalone entry, with little more than passing references to the other films (with one glorious exception that I refuse to spoil). However, the stakes are vast and the characters are all suitably overwhelmed and willing to go the distance to stop the threat. Everyone is playing their part enthusiastically, the action is often flat-out bananas, and every second of Tom Hiddleston is wonderfully wicked joy. For those reasons alone it beats out its predecessor and is absolutely worth a couple of hours of your life.
p.s.: There is both a mid- and post-credits scene, both worth sticking around for, though the first will be utterly baffling to many.
p.p.s.: Don’t bother with the 3D. It added very little.