The Marvel films are on a constant learning curve. Thor: The Dark World avoids many of the usual sequel pitfalls because, frankly, Marvel has fallen into them before. This is a surprisingly lean, dark and very funny follow-up to a film which has benefited from the most hysterical fan reaction of the studio’s stable.
With Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in Asgard’s dungeons, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is in the process of restoring peace to the Nine Realms. However, his heart is back on Earth with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and when Jane encounters a dangerous force called the Aether he returns to help her. Unbeknownst to them, this discovery has awoken the Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who is determined to use this power to bring darkness to the universe. Thor must turn to his brother if they are going to have any hope of surviving.
One of the best things about this sequel is realising how strong an identity the Thor universe has of its own. While Iron Man 3 was so weighed down by the events of Avengers Assemble that Tony Stark couldn’t stop having panic attacks, the Asgardians have their own concerns.
The events of New York are dealt with in the opening minutes and are not often referred to again. There’s no need to laboriously tie the film into the greater franchise, or to flood it with a wealth of new heroes and villains. More time spent in Asgard with Idris Elba’s Heimdall, Rene Russo’s Frigga or Jaimie Alexander’s Lady Sif (still in need of more development) is time well spent, and Portman continues to spark wonderfully off Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård when she’s not struggling to adjust to Asgard.
What’s more, with a running time of just under two hours, the film moves very quickly, and once Thor and Jane are reunited it doesn’t really stop for breath. We wondered if Alan Taylor would be able to deliver a similar level of humour as well as the promised bigger, better battles. Well, the bigger, better battles are certainly in place and, while Thor is less of a figure of fun this time, Taylor understands the need to acknowledge the silliness inherent in a Norse god getting around London, and gives Hiddleston free reign to tear up the scenery.
This is still Thor’s film and journey, but it’s hardly a surprise that Hiddleston steals the show right out from under him. The actor has the villainous sneers and swagger nailed, but he also gets the opportunity to show Loki’s petulance and weak spots and hint at some potential growth. For all the hammer throwing, fish-out-of-water jokes and universe-threatening forces, the backbone of the Thor films continues to be the family drama.
Watching Hemsworth and Hiddleston bicker, snarl and wade into battle together is a joy.
There are problems, however. The fact that it clocks in at less than two hours is a relief after the bloated running times of the summer, but it does feel a bit rushed and light on plot. Eccleston’s Malekith suffers the most, which is less to do with the actor and more to do with the fact that he’s just not given that much screen time. The comedy/drama balance may also be a problem for fans of po-faced DC movies, with slapstick humour extending right the way into the final action sequences.
That being said, Taylor shows a good sense of when to go for a laugh and when to tug on heartstrings. That ‘Dark’ in the title isn’t there by accident, and both Thor and Loki are put through the wringer as we’re reminded that Asgardians are not immortal. It might be hurried and it might occasionally be a bit silly, but there is a real emotional core to it and an ever-strengthening identity and mythology of its own. Finally, with a good sense of humour, strong action set pieces and Hiddleston and Hemsworth on top form, it’s just great fun.