"Thor: The Dark World" Yet Another Winner For Marvel

Marvel has done it again with “Thor: The Dark World,” an astoundingly sleek sequel that delivers a steady stream of both rousing action and substantial laughs. Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” was a major step for Marvel, coming on the heels of another tepidly received “Hulk” film and the disappointment that was “Iron Man 2.” But more importantly, it was tasked with introducing major fantasy elements into Marvel’s cinematic universe. “Thor” was a blast. Branagh wonderfully tethered the earthly to the supernatural, while Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Tom Hiddleston (Loki) emerged as genuine stars in the making.

Cut to 2013, in which Marvel is dutifully churning out “Avengers” follow-ups. That film was such a smash that both new and old properties have been fast-tracked for the big screen. It’s a good thing then that the rush hasn’t seemed to cause a decline in quality, with the delightful “Iron Man 3” and now “Thor: The Dark World” marking new high points in the Marvel canon.

Gone are Branagh are his writers, replaced by director Alan Taylor (“Game Of Thrones”) and three new scribes – Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely. With an all-new creative team, it’s a little surprising that “The Dark World” is just as punchy as the original, but Marvel’s track record is better than most.

Whereas “Thor” spent two-thirds of its time on Earth and one-third on the ethereal Asgard, “The Dark World” reverses that formula, bringing Thor’s earthly love interest, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) to his home world. The way in which Foster reunites with Thor – by accidentally finding a portal that links their two realms – is overly convenient, but Marvel has earned our suspension of disbelief. Any excuse to see this group of characters interact with each other is a welcome one.

No more so than finding a reason to bring Loki back into the fold. Imprisoned on Asgard for his war crimes on Earth, Loki is rotting away. Only an imminent threat to his home would be grounds for allowing him to unleash his powers. Enter Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), a leader of the Dark Elves intent on locating a mysterious force known as the Aether – the same force that took over Jane as she opened the portal between realms.

On paper this can be read as exceedingly contrived. And that all the players from the first film are back – Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Idris Elba as Heimdall, Rene Russo as Frigga, Kat Dennings as Darcy, Jaimie Alexander as Sif, and Stellan Skarsgård as Erik Selvig – renders the cast entirely overcrowded. But the picture’s ostensible shortcomings only make its undeniable entertainment factor that much more impressive. Juggling so many different story elements – many of which read as incongruous – and making them into something so palatable is nothing short of a magic trick, one that Alan Taylor and crew make look easy.

While the thrill of discovery is gone – the curse of all sequels – “The Dark World” uses every trick in the book to assuage predictability. No, the anything-can-happen finale doesn’t make logical sense, but it operates within the rules of the film’s universe, and it’s incredible to watch so many moving parts working in frenzied concert. If anything, the film looks too good, its setpieces too sleek, that its instances of dramatic heavy lifting don’t seem earned. As a result, it’s a dramatic featherweight, sacrificing subtext for old school thrills.

But as far as blockbusters go, it’s a good one – nearly as enjoyable as “Iron Man 3” and just as tightly paced. Some will find the villain underwhelming – he is – while others will complain that “The Dark World” doesn’t take any risks – a perfectly valid complaint. It doesn’t. But it doesn’t have to. The film is but a piece of a larger tapestry, and that each Marvel film has been different from its predecessor is a wonderful quality in a series. Having a group of films in which “Captain America” can more closely adhere to real world issues while “Thor” gets a downier treatment is a great thing – made even greater by the fact that they can share the screen without a hint of incongruity. Highly recommended for fans of the genre.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 8, 2013
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Director: Alan Taylor
Screenwriter: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content)