In the current onslaught of superhero movies, we get a lot of Terrible, some very occasional Excellent and a decent amount of Entertaining Enough.
“Thor: The Dark World” falls squarely into Entertaining Enough, with plenty of excitement and panache to make it lots more fun than the first one. This time around, we get no ticky-tacky small-town sets, and director Alan Taylor (an HBO vet whose “Game of Thrones” credentials no doubt got him this gig) strikes just the right balance.
This sequel also doles out its supporting players in acceptable doses, so we don’t get too much of Kat Dennings’ snarky science assistant or Anthony Hopkins‘ overblown Odin. The latter does provide one of the film’s sillier moments, when he fulminates at the villainous Loki (Tom Hiddleston), “Your only BIRTHRIGHT-AH! Was to DIE-YEE!”
While Loki returns to Asgard in chains for his misdeeds in the previous movie (and in “The Avengers,” of course), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his cohorts are traversing the universe undoing Loki’s damage and bringing order to the nine realms. It’s hard work that’s kept him away from Earth, where scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is still trying to track down Thor.
It’s in that pursuit that she stumbles upon, and winds up absorbing, a lethal force known as the Aether, which dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) tried to use 5,000 years earlier to plunge the entire universe into darkness when the nine realms aligned perfectly. Wouldn’t you know it, alignment time is coming up, and a newly-revived Malekith chases Jane and the Aether to Asgard and beyond in the hopes of finally accomplishing his sinister plan.
So while the story is pretty basic superhero stuff, “Thor: The Dark World” uses this familiar backdrop as a springboard for some interesting character moments. Screenwriters Christopher L. Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely give us less of Thor’s lieutenants this time around, but that allows for some witty asides from gatekeeper Heimdall (Idris Elba) and a show of backbone (and swordsmanship) from Asgardian queen Frigga (Rene Russo).
There’s even room for some rope-a-dope and reversal from characters from whom we’d least expect it; disappointingly, however, one of the film’s best twists gets undone in the film’s final moments, for reasons that seem more corporate-driven than dramatic. (And when I say “final moments,” I mean of the film proper, not counting the two servings of post-credits “shwarma” for which audiences should definitely stick around.)
Unlike so many of the current crop of big-screen heroes, Thor doesn’t really get to have much of a sense of humor or of self-doubt, but Hemsworth manages to make this old-school, square-jawed titan fun and relatable. Whether he’s reuniting with Jane (after having been pining for her since the last movie) or tumbling through and atop some of London’s oldest and newest edifices, this is a guy who knows how to hold our attention.
Portman (with the help of the writers) is smart enough to make Jane integral and intelligent and not just The Girl, and while Hiddleston never full-on chews the scenery in his third go-round as the treacherous Loki, he’s not above giving it a nibble or two. Best of all, Chris O'Dowd pops in for two hilarious scenes as a would-be suitor of Jane’s without ever throwing off the film’s epic tone.
“Thor: The Dark World” delivers the goods — action, otherworldly grandiosity, romance, humor — above and beyond its predecessor. That doesn’t necessarily launch it into the pantheon of greatness, but it’s at least a reassuring sign that the Marvel juggernaut is remaining firmly on the rails. Or the Rainbow Bridge. Whatever.