It’s incredible that we’re already up to the eighth film in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and the second sequel to 2012’s all-conquering “Avengers Assemble”. It really is a golden age for superhero movies, and Marvel Studios are showing no signs of playing it safe or taking their foot off the gas pedal any time soon.
The first thing “Thor: The Dark World” really does is succinctly and satisfying explain where Thor was during the events of “Iron Man 3”. We learn that following the Bifröst’s destruction, the nine realms were plunged into chaos and Thor has been leading the Asgardian forces in bringing peace and order back to the universe while Loki languishes in prison.
But no sooner is peace restored than an ancient evil rises, revived by the accidental discovery of a terrible, primordial force called the Aether, a writhing mass of smoky energy tendrils which was hidden by the Asgardian’s a generation ago. If the set-up sounds a lot like 2011’s “Green Lantern”, rest assured, the execution is anything but. This is how epic, planet-hopping superhero adventure should be done and, with their confidence soaring, Marvel seize the opportunity to expand their Cinematic Universe to, well, universal proportions. The story is still anchored to Earth by Jane Foster and the presence of the Aether but with the Bifröst rebuilt, we get to visit a few of the other realms and get a much better insight into the cosmological structure Marvel is putting into place. Also, like its 2013 stable mate “Iron Man 3”, “Thor: The Dark World” isn’t content to put all the toys neatly back in their box at the end. Some permanent changes are made to Thor’s world and some intriguing threads are deliberately left dangling for a potential (probable) third Thor film.
In their phase one, Marvel used “Iron Man 2” to do the heavy lifting but it felt awkward and intrusive. Here, “Thor: The Dark World” is doing a similar job but with a great deal more skill and you may not be aware of the pieces being moved into place for future films. There are, admittedly, a few clunky expositional moments in the story – Jane Foster’s involvement in the adventure relies on a huge narrative coincidence – but the rest is so, so good that these minor gripes fade into irrelevance.
For his third outing, Hemsworth has honed his performance as the Norse God/ Avenger to perfection and almost glows with good-natured charisma while still retaining that olde worlde formality that makes Thor such a compelling character. There’s even a gratuitous topless Thor scene which perhaps makes up for a more questionable leather poncho/ wrap number he wears later in the film. If Asgard has a bitchy fashion programme, you can bet the Asgardian Joan Rivers wouldn’t let that one slide. Purists will also complain that Thor doesn’t wear his helmet at all in this film.
Once Thor is forced to reluctantly ally with Loki, the film kicks into high gear and we get a great new ‘mismatched buddy’ pairing, almost a sword and sorcery version of “48 hours” but with less sass and more dry wit. Freed of the responsibility of being the villain, Tom Hiddleston revels in the mercurial mischievousness of Loki, keeping the audience guessing as to his true loyalties and intentions as he and Thor embark on a desperate quest to save Jane and destroy the Aether.
The rest of the returning cast all perform well, although again Sif and The Warriors Three are criminally underused but Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo get more to do this time around. Idris Elba’s Heimdall impresses once more as he leaves his overly-shouty “Pacific Rim” performance behind and brings real gravitas and subtlety to his role as Asgard’s sentinel. Christopher Ecclestone and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje are perfectly adequate as main villains Malekith and Algrim/ Kurse but they’re obscured under so much prosthetic make-up that there’s little they can do to truly shine. My only concern going into this film was that Ecclestone would be as awkward here as he was in “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising” and “GI Joe: The Rise Of Cobra” but I needn’t have worried and he makes a decent, if unspectacular, foe for the Asgardians to battle.
Director Alan Taylor brings his experience helming “Game of Thrones” to bear, particularly on the Asgard scenes and our reward is a richer, grittier home of the gods than we saw in “Thor”. Gone is the fairy-tale, operatic grandeur and in its place is a grimier, lived in sense of history, tradition and military power. Taylor also shows his skill in the pacing and while the adventure unfolds at a brisk pace, he is not afraid to slow the whole thing down to allow more reflective moments to play out with minimal dialogue, such as the moving mass funeral following Malekith’s 9/11-evoking attack on Asgard itself. The finale, played out across the Naval Academy in Greenwich and, thanks to a Swiss cheese-like maze of portals, dozens of other locations as well neatly brings together the disparate plot elements into a rousing and satisfying, if overly special effects laden, climax.
Despite the darkness of the title, the villainous elves and the battle scarred Asgard, this is not a film that takes itself too seriously and the proceedings are lightened by a zany comedic turn by Stellan Skarsgård, as a slightly unhinged Dr Erik Selvig and a just-this-side-of-annoying wisecracking appearance by Kat Dennings as Darcy Lewis. While some further comedy nuggets are mined from the ‘fish out of water’ scenario (Thor on the tube! LOL), much of the best humour comes from or involves Loki. His name may not headline the film, but he’s certainly the go-to character when the writers need to deliver a punch line. I’m quite bored of the dour superhero approach epitomised by Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy so I appreciated the strong thread of humour running through “Thor: The Dark World” and while it’s not quite as out there as “Iron Man 3”, I’ve seen some complaints that it’s not serious enough. Each to their own, but it felt well balanced to me.
This being a Marvel movie there is – of course – a mid-credits scene which teases a future Marvel movie (and, if you know your comics, teases a bit further than that) as well as an end of credits scene but look out for the delightfully unexpected Marvel ‘Easter Egg’ right in the middle of the movie.
“Thor: The Dark World” is a warning shot across the bows of Warner Brothers and DC. As they scramble to catch up with the Avengers by shoving Batman and Superman into the same movie, Marvel has just raised the bar. Again.