By Gary Dowell
With Phase Two of its master plan for pop culture domination now well under way, Marvel has put itself in a precarious position: The novelty value of seeing these characters on the big screen for the first time is spent, the afterglow of The Avengers has worn off, and loft fan expectation means coasting is not an option.
Fortunately for them, Thor: The Dark World is more fun than a sequel to a movie based on a 50-year-old comic book superhero with a back-story pilfered from Norse mythology has any right to be. The character is arguably the trickiest of the Big Three to elaborate upon, and the movie is content to deliver what it reasonably should and nothing more: a brisk, enjoyably silly, and visually impressive adventure spectacle.
The Dark World picks up from where Thor and The Avengers left off, with our Asgardian hero wrapping up a two-year campaign to restore order to the Nine Realms and clean up the mess his foster-brother/frenemy Loki (Tom Hiddleston) created after he sabotaged the kingdom’s interstellar highway and unleashed alien marauders on Earth. During that time, Thor has been pining for his long-distance girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who has apparently been sitting by the proverbial phone waiting for him to resurface.
Which he does, once Jane stumbles into one of the many holes in reality that have been popping up all over England of late, uncovering a weapon of massive mass destruction called the Aether, and in the process awakening the race of Dark Elves and their leader Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who want to — what else? — wipe out the universe and return it to its original state of primordial darkness. This puts Jane in imminent peril, and ultimately requires Thor to form a very uneasy alliance with his estranged brother in order to protect her and the universe. How’s that for boyfriend material?
Hemsworth is still charismatic as everyone’s favorite Asgardian, though he has to struggle with the same problem that has dogged every actor who has played Superman: that of being saddled with the thankless role of noble, upstanding hero. It’s a generic archetype that is only as engaging as the villain opposing it, though Hemsworth is thrown a bone of sorts thanks to Thor’s hot-headed and impulsive nature. As such, it’s when he’s butting heads with Loki that the movie really sizzles. Hiddleston really gets to flex his acting muscles this time around in what has quickly become a fan-favorite, signature role. Loki is played with more ambiguity this time around, and Hiddleston has us appropriately loving and hating the scheming little bastard in equal measure — sometimes simultaneously. Hiddleston has said in interviews that he is leery of Loki out-staying his welcome; he shouldn’t be concerned just yet.
On the flip side, Eccleston is fine as Malekith, delivering portentous lines in Elvish with such gusto that you’d think he studied at the Svartalfheim School of the Performing Arts, but as with Iron Man 3, the character is sadly underdeveloped and little more than a plot device, leaving the story with a poorly defined antagonist. To his credit, Eccleston at least makes him eccentric enough to be watchable.
Most of the supporting cast from the first installment return as well, though a few are pushed into the background a bit this time around. Anthony Hopkins still grounds the movie as Thor’s gruff, disapproving father Odin, and Rene Russo is given more to do as his mother, Frigga. Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård again provide a nice streak of comic relief as Jane’s astrophysicist colleagues, neatly off-setting the gloom and doom.
More than anything else, the movie benefits from the fact that it is free from the requirements of origin stories and franchise building, able to focus on telling a comic book action romp. Director Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones) has worked almost exclusively in television, but he transitions to the big screen smoothly, balancing the sprawling plot and technical demands of the ambitious effects and action sequences while avoiding the wretched excess that often bogged down Man of Steel and other recent blockbusters. More importantly, he and his cast and crew prove that there is life after The Avengers, and that the Marvel Age of Movies isn’t over yet.