More than most films in the Marvel cinematic universe, Thor straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy. With movies like Iron Man and Captain America, and characters like the Hulk, science has always kept the films tethered to the real world. Thor, and especially the latest installment, Thor: The Dark World, allows for a certain broadening of horizons, bringing in magic and mythology, while still keeping a distinct sci-fi edge.
This is a big part of what makes The Dark World a lot of fun, that relatively little of the action takes place on Earth. You start with an ancient battle between dudes with overly large beards and creepy blank faced Dark Elves, led by the nefarious Malekith (Doctor Who‘s Christopher Eccleston). He’s developed Aether, a weapon of mass destruction capable of destroying the entire universe, but only when all nine realms are lined up, which only happens every 5000 years. Odin’s father defeats the malicious, not-so-little elf, and buries the Aether where no one will ever find it. We all know how that goes in comic books. Malekith retreats to the deepest reaches of space to lick his wounds and bide his time, and eventually Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) accidentally discovers, and becomes infested by, the Aether, while investigating rifts in time and space.
Thor was better than I ever expected it to be. Though they have a literary aesthetic to them, the comics always came across as cheesy, and serious to the point of silliness. Thus far, both movies have embraced that fact to great effect, crafting a self-effacing sense of humor. As Thor (Chris Hemsworth) pounds various mystical creatures with his trusty hammer—there is so much running and jumping and pounding—he drops one-liners that, on their own, shouldn’t be funny, but in context are hilarious.
This time around, the blond god-hunk is a lot more lovelorn. The events of The Avengers left the nine realms in chaos, and as a dutiful son, it’s his job to clean things up, a task that keeps him from his mortal sweetie. He does still find time every night to stop by Heimdall’s (Idris Elba) place to peek in on her, like an interdimensional peeping tom. When Jane runs afoul of the Aether, Thor brings her back to Asgard in hopes that his folk, what with their Soul Forges and magic, can fix her up.
The Asgard that director Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones) shows is a more scuffed up version of what’s in the first film. Visually the wide shots owe a great deal to Star Wars, especially the prequels, but instead of Kenneth Branagh’s crisp, clean, spotless city, this one looks like people have in fact lived there for thousands and thousands of years. It’s tidy, but lived in and authentic, you know, for being a totally made up magical place. As fanciful as The Dark World is, you remain grounded to a degree.
Malekith isn’t a particularly nuanced villain, nor is his plan all that complex. He’s all about simple black and white vengeance. The Asgardians defeated him and destroyed his universe, and now he’s out to destroy ours. The pace of The Dark World is quick enough that you don’t care too much about the lack of subtlety. The movie points him out, says, “this is the bad guy,” and he starts doing bad guy things, like trying to destroy the entire universe because he’s pissed off at Thor’s grandpa.
This lack of depth is biggest issue with The Dark World. Aside from the main players, no one has much of a chance to dig into their characters. Sif (Jaimie Alexander), Fandral (Zachary Levi), and Volstaag (Ray Stevenson) each have their one shining moment, but no more. Darcy (Kat Dennings) pops up from time to time, and while she brings her trademark sarcastic humor to the proceedings, there’s not much else there. Eric Selvig (Stellen Skarsgaard) is back, but mostly to wander around Stonehenge nude and spew crazy talk. Wingnut is a definite step down from brilliant scientist if you ask me. And you can’t help but walk out of The Dark World with the distinct impression that Anthony Hopkins just doesn’t give a shit. Out of all the supporting characters, Heimdall has the meatiest role, and Elba’s grim stoicism masks the deep inner conflict of someone torn between duty to a man and duty to a larger truth.
Never the most intricate character, Hemsworth falls back on the man pining for an out of reach love, and as a result, is a one trick pony. On the surface he’s torn between Jane and his obligations, but when you get down to it, there’s no real conflict, and he chooses her every time. Much like Thor and then The Avengers, the highlight of The Dark World is the barbed brotherly back and forth between Thor and Loki. Tom Hiddleston proves yet again that Loki is, if not the best character in the Marvel Universe, certainly the best villain they’ve come up with thus far. With his forked tongue and lust for power, he, yet again, commands all the attention in the relatively few scenes he appears in, but all his illusions and backstabbing belie a frailty and emotional complexity that no one else in this movie has. Portman is a nice surprise, as well, and has a great deal of fun in what could easily have been nothing more than a gasping, woman-in-danger, role. Instead of being a stereotypical damsel in distress, she’s actively part of the solution.
Though the bulk of the early portion of the movie is set up, that’s not to say there isn’t a fair amount of action, perhaps even more than most Marvel movies. Malekith’s attack on Asgard, complete with spaceships that resemble swinging blades, is brutal, and poor London, which has had a rough year of being completely leveled in movies, takes it in the face one more time. The Dark World builds up to climactic battle that uses the various rips in time and holes between realms to keep the whole shebang from turning into just another tough-guys-punching-each-other-in-the-face superhero movie action capper.
Thor: The Dark World may not the cream of the Marvel crop, but it is a slick, action-packed good time. It’s as least as much fun as the first film, and that alone makes it worth checking out. You’ll want to hold off on the 3D if possible. Not a deal breaker, Taylor didn’t know the film would be post-converted, and the extra dimension adds nothing to the film. And you know this already, but sci-fi fans should make extra sure to sit through the credits.