Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) survey "The Dark World."
Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) survey “The Dark World.”

Directed by Alan Taylor. Screenplay by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeeley. Story by Don Payne, Robert Rodat. Based upon characters created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby and published by Marvel Comics. Produced by Kevin Feige. Music by Bryan Tyler. Photographed by Kramer Morgenthau. Edited by Dan Lebental, Wyatt Smith. Production designed by Charles Wood. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Jaimie Alexander, Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård, Alice Krige.

Thor: The Dark World is as improved a sequel as one could hope for starring the blonde-haired, Norse mythology-inspired Marvel superhero. It’s not that I hated the original Thor, which introduced the character to movie audiences and prepped him and his villainous brother for their featured roles in The Avengers. But I did feel the first film was timid in its convictions and schizophrenic in its approach, toggling between an intergalactic effects extravaganza with Shakespearean pretentions and dim-witted Earthbound comedy. This entry, no doubt spurred by Avengers‘ success, is a go-for-broke full-bodied sci-fi adventure film that solidifies Thor’s place in the Marvel movie cannon. And it’s also plenty of fun.

Like many superhero films, Thor 2 breaks free from the shackles the first movie had of setting up the characters, establishing the mythos, etc. Instead, it runs full-bore into telling an epic story befitting the character, whom you may recall is a boisterous brawler who hails from Asgard, where Norse mythology still lives. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who wields a powerful hammer and can summon lightning, was doubly heartbroken last time when he was separated from his Earthly love Jane (Natalie Portman) and learned of the depths of resentful treachery held by his adopted brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Dragging Loki back to Asgard after the events of Avengers, Thor is now dedicated to settling the chaos that Loki created, while the rat sits in a magic dungeon overseen by their parents the Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Frigga (Rene Russo).

But all is not well in the nine realms. In a battle-drenched prologue once again narrated by Hopkins,  we meet the newest addition of Marvel’s growing stable of super villains: the dark elves, crater-faced nasties who pilot enormous warships and honestly think that the universe was better off when it was shrouded in darkness. Thanks to a “celestial convergence” 5,000 years ago and a mythic superweapon called the Aether, they came dangerously close to wiping out all of creation, and now they’re back to finish the job. Jane, an astrophysicist, is drawn to a disturbance in London that puts her in touch with the secret hiding place of the Aether. Her emotional reunion with Thor is overshadowed when the Aether infects her and makes her a target for the elves’ colossal war machine. Even when given sanctuary in the sacred land of Asgard, she is not nearly as safe as she may think. Further complicating things is Loki, who is given good reason to strike an uneasy alliance with Thor on his mission to stop the elves.

The action is grandiose and well-staged by director Alan Taylor (an HBO helmer making his first feature). Branagh, despite successfully establishing much of the franchise’s tone, always seemed a little uncomfortable, and Taylor steps in with supreme confidence. Asgard glitters just as mightily this time around, but it feels more lived-in, more real; and the larger-than-life crashes and thunks feel like they’re occupying actual space. Better still are the attempts at humor, which feel more organic to the story and are actually funny, and not just limited to Kat Dennings’ sarcastic companion for Jane, Darcy (although she does get some wicked asides). The film balances the cosmic, comedy and character development much better this time around, which is a crucial mix in order to entertain both the Marvel/Thor faithful as well as the agnostics. Bonus points, by the way, for giving Idris Elba as the imposing gatekeeper Heimdall more to do this time.

Indeed, it’s the characters and their relationships that give Thor 2 the fire that it needs. Portman’s a pluckier heroine this time around, and her chemistry is more persuasive with the charismatic Hemsworth. The two brothers Thor and Loki get a lot of screentime with this one, as Marvel now realizes what a good thing they have with Hiddleston’s Loki, giving his character room this time to make some surprising turns, even as universes are being threatened and monsters are falling in and out of time-space portals with dizzying abandon. For fans of this ever-evolving franchise (and I speak broadly here of the entire Marvel universe), Thor 2‘s third act delivers some of the same well-orchestrated Top this! No, top this! sci-fi action nuttiness that drove Avengers. But rather than settle for being a rehash, The Dark World stakes out some new territory, especially in its closing scenes, proving once again this is a franchise eager to go in unexpected directions. And why not? There’s a media empire to build here, one that at its best can be as dazzling as all the glitter of Asgard.

GRADE: B+

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