It’s safe to say at this point Marvel is on a roll with their movies, and Thor: The Dark World is no exception. The second solo outing for the Mighty Avenger tells a great story, uninhibited by the small budget and need for S.H.I.E.L.D.-fronted world-building that made the first movie drag. There’s a lot more to love this time out, and I mean literally a LOT– the film does a great job of tying together multiple stories and a huge group of new and returning characters, giving each one a chance to shine while not slowing down the forward momentum.
What both Thor movies get right, more than anything else, is the casting. Once again, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston give character-defining performances as Thor and his sinister brother Loki. It’s uncanny how comfortable both these actors are in their super-powered skins, and rarely have we seen any actor embody the essence of a character so perfectly as this pair.
The rest of the cast is equally great, especially Natalie Portman, who brings such an energy and vibrance to Jane Foster that you can instantly understand why Thor would be so smitten with this mortal, while also proving she’s more than up for the challenge of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these Gods. Kat Dennings’ Darcy and Stellan Skarsgård’s Selvig are also back, adding some meat to their mostly comic relief roles. Jaimie Alexander shines in her brief turn as Lady Sif, proving she has more to her than some serious fighting skills, and the Warriors Three (including Zach Levi taking over as a much more dashing Fandral) appear more badass than ever, each getting their own cool character beat.
The plot this time is also improved, making great use of the increased production budget by setting as little of the story on Earth as possible. Gone are the Dutch angle shots of a CGI Asgard, replaced with great, otherworldly sets that make the realm of Odin look like a bustling place where people actually live. We also get glimpses of some of the other Nine Realms, as well as the desolate wasteland that was once the home of the Dark Elves, and each setting has a unique look and feel that remain very faithful to their fantastical comic book-y roots. There’s a simple thrill to seeing these really out-there, fantasy based elements in a comic book adaptation, showing just how far Marvel is willing to take their cinematic universe.
Adding to the fantasy appeal of The Dark World are a number of sci-fi tropes, from Star Wars-esque dogfights on Asgard, to singularity-generating grenades. They are great choices that serve Thor’s description of his home as being a world where science and magic co-exist, and they help to open up our expectations for the likelihood that next year’s Guardians of the Galaxy will be even less tied to reality (something the post-credits teaser only emphasizes).
The new villains, the afformentioned Dark Elves and their leader Malekith, pose a considerable threat, and while they are never really developed as full-on characters, their motivation (their world was destroyed, so they want to return the favor to the Nine Realms) is simple and menacing enough to keep the stakes high as the action builds.
And does it build! There is more action, and of a larger scale, than anything else we’ve seen in the Marvel cinematic universe in this film, and like The Avengers, the action still manages to remain doggedly informative of who these characters are. It all builds to one of the better end fights we’ve seen yet from Marvel Studios, an energetic, realm-tripping slugfest between Thor and Malekith, while pretty much everybody else works together to control the impact of that fight and prevent the apocalypse from destroying everything.
Everything in this movie is well shot and well crafted by new director Alan Taylor, feeling like a true step up from the flawed original movie. While I liked that first film quite a bit, a recent rewatch showed its obvious seams, once you get past the excellent performances of the leads. Thor: The Dark World feels like a movie worthy of actors and characters like these, and it’s a total blast watching both the smart, multi-layered plot rocket forward, and these great characters interact around it.
Marvel’s Phase Two is now officially two-for-two, and Thor: The Dark World continues the trend started in Iron-Man Three to serve as both a continuation of Thor’s solo story, AND a direct follow-up to The Avengers. I’ve known for a long time now that I am dying to know where The Avengers: Age of Ultron takes us, but after a movie this good– and intriguing, character-based reveals like those in The Dark World– I find myself just as excited to revisit Thor on another solo adventure as soon as possible.