The short review: Upping the ante from the original in every way, Thor: The Dark World is a sprawling, tremendously charismatic film that delivers the cinematic thunder casual viewers and Marvel fans have been waiting for.
The long review: While it doesn’t ascend to the heights or the freewheeling fun of Iron Man 3, Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World is a massively enjoyable film that course-corrects the missteps of the original and delivers on big action, grittier subject matter, and a less pretentious take on the sometimes prohibitively dense Thor canon. One of the hardest parts of making a Thor film work is reigning in its sprawling mythology, a task for which director Alan Taylor was extremely well-suited, especially in light of his extensive work on Game of Thrones. While he lacks some of the tightness of his pristine small-screen work, he is clearly having a blast telling a grand story on such a large canvas.
To give you a sense of just what we’re dealing with, we rejoin our flaxen-haired hero (Chris Hemsworth) on Asgard, where he finds himself restless after the events of the Battle of New York in The Avengers and having done his duty as a chiseled fish out of water in Thor. His one-eyed all-father, Odin (the always delightful Anthony Hopkins), enlists his aid in a coming battle for the very fate of the universe itself. The Nine Realms are going to converge upon one another, which will allow the nefarious Dark Elves, lead by the perpetually pissed off Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), to destroy Asgard and plunge the universe into darkness. Quite a mouthful and that’s just the exposition.
Using an ancient, seemingly unlimited energy force known as the Aether (pronounced “ether”), which looks like fruit juice in zero gravity, is how Malekith and his constantly scowling army plan to take over the world(s). To make it personal, Thor’s go-to astrophysicist/love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) accidentally becomes the host organism for the Aether, which is slowly killing her and also makes her a constant target for Malekith’s goons. While I didn’t buy Portman as a) an astrophysicist and b) having a “life’s work” in the last film, she is more palatable this time around, perhaps because she’s given a bit more to do than just stand around looking surprised. Still, the film’s tendency to play up her simply pining away for Thor grew a bit stale by the end. Then again, I may just be a diehard member of Team Sif.
Where the film really shines is in its deepened exploration of the dynamic between Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki as a wounded sociopath who craves power and acceptance in equal measure has elevated the character beyond mere megalomaniac-of-the-week status. The God of Thunder has long had a contentious relationship with his half-giant half-brother, what with him trying to destroy Asgard and unleashing an alien invasion on New York City and all. Now, imprisoned in a cell beneath the Asgardian palace and increasingly restless, Loki is at his wits’ end, particularly when his actions during an Elven invasion lead to truly horrific and personal consequences. Unable to trust each other, but bound together by blood and fate, Loki and Thor must work together to save Jane Foster and the universe itself. Hiddleston and Hemsworth clearly have an excellent rapport and trust each other inherently, giving their scenes an easy charisma and a wonderful back-and-forth, especially during a certain hallway sequence.
Thor: The Dark World is slow to start and its initial blend of sci-fi and high fantasy is jarring (did Asgard always come off like Viking space aliens? Maybe I just didn’t remember), it quickly finds its footing and offers up sumptuous visuals, a sweeping story, and enough laughs to make this one of the better offerings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It sure as hell isn’t a perfect film, but it is a hell of a lot of fun, and when it comes to superhero flicks, that is just what Doctor Donald Blake ordered.
And this should go without mentioning given its pedigree, but do stay through the credits, because there are two scenes that you won’t want to miss.