The rollout of the “true Marvel” movies during the last five years—of films made under the creative auspices of the company that spawned them—has been a pretty exciting time for comic book fans. (The billions in box office suggest it’s been pretty fun for the regular movie-going public, as well.) It’s tempting to conclude the people in charge of preserving and defining these characters actually know what they are doing.
Still, we’re a wary lot. The scars of Fantastic Fours bungled and Hulks Ang Lee’d fade slowly. As does the memory of good (or at least decent) franchises faltering, be they about mutants or a boy and his radioactive spider. Phase One of Marvel Studios’ master plan went swimmingly. Phase Two got off to a roaring start with Iron Man 3, but one could argue the real proof of the pudding will be found in the second installments featuring Marvel’s non-Downey Jr.-powered protagonists: Thor and Captain America. (Though in Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last pudding.)
In comic books, the Thor series has long been among the most otherworldly of Marvel titles. After all, its protagonist is a Norse god, basically immortal and mostly invulnerable. While so many of the other heroes of the Lee, Ditko and Kirby era were compelling in the way they mixed in the mundane and angsty with the heroic—the Fantastic Four bickered, Peter Parker struggled to pay rent, the X-Men just wanted to belong!—Thor always outshone his lame alter ego, Donald Blake. In Thor: The Dark World director Alan Taylor and Marvel Studios embrace the extra-dimensional grandeur of it all. The result is an Asgardian space opera the enjoyment of which is consistently buoyed by its grade A cast—and occasionally dragged down by “plot incidentals” best ignored by the viewer.
The Dark World opens with a big load of threat prefacing. (Dark Elves bad. Super weapon bad. I sure hope they don’t resurface!) Meanwhile, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is hammering around cleaning up pesky uprisings made possible by events of the first film and pining for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). He gets updates on his favorite human from Heimdall (Idris Elba), the patron god of stalkers. (He sees you when you’re sleeping. He sees when you’re awake. He sees you.)
Never fear, all you proponents of god/human romance—a pretty contrived turn of events (even for space opera and comics) soon provides a reason to reunite the two, and bring a newly revived Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and his dark elf posse into conflict with Asgard and … all life in the universe. (The dark elves know how to pick a fight.) More importantly, these events return Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to center stage as both conspirator and (anti-)hero.
If the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man has proven a grand slam, then the casting of Hiddleston as Loki has been almost as great a coup (a towering home run, at least). Hiddleston brings a sensitivity and complexity to the god of mischief that energizes every scene in which he appears. When Thor stares at Loki, searching for any sign of deceit but wanting to trust him, somehow, the viewer is right there, doing the same. In truth, the brilliance of Hiddleston’s Loki overshadows Hemsworth’s Thor, and that’s probably not fair. The schemers and deceivers, the villains and scoundrels, are naturally more appealing than the earnest good guys, yet Hemsworth effortlessly inhabits the title role, quietly upending one of Hollywood’s most established traditions—casting the muscles at the expense of the acting (or command of English). Hemsworth’s a hunk, and it remains to be seen how far his range stretches beyond the demands of Odin’s son, but his Thor is far more than a caricature.
Combined with a lushly realized production design, liberal doses of humor and a plot that doesn’t let the need for sustained coherence get too in the way, their performances prevent The Dark World from degenerating into merely a collection of bombastic action set pieces. Instead, it’s outlandish, occasionally silly and surprisingly fun.
Now, bring on the Winter Soldier.
Director: Alan Taylor
Writer: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (screenplay); Don Payne, Robert Rodat (story); Stan Lee, Larry Lieber (comic book); Jack Kirby
Starring: Chris Hemsworth
Natalie Portman Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgård, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Jaimie Alexander
Release Date: Nov. 8, 2013