Thor: The Dark World (2013) Dir. Alan Taylor 3.5 out of 5 For a project as ambitious as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, sometimes it makes sense to play it safe. That was certainly the case in the build-up toThe Avengers, which only became the third highest-grossing film of all time. But post-windfall, Marvel seems to be warming up to the more outré elements of its creative catalog, both in upcoming films (the wacky-sounding Guardians of the Galaxy, Edgar Wright’s sure-to-be-madcapAnt-Man) and recent hits (handing the reins ofIron Man 3 to cult quipster Shane Black).
This is just a long-winded way of saying that Thor: The Dark World feels a lot like the movie that 2011’s Thor would have been if it lacked any qualms about potentially alienating people who couldn’t tell Jotunheim from Mjolnir. Out goes the fish-out-of-water comedy of the hero Thor (Chris Hemsworth) struggling to adapt to human customs. In comes more complex space-Viking mythology and sumptuous quasi-Shakepearean pomp. Goodbye to director Kenneth Branagh. Hello to new helmer Alan Taylor, a TV veteran with high profile credits on Game of Thrones - a show that’s not shy about tossing viewers into the deep end of its dense mythos.
The Dark World actually begins a lot like Thor, with a fearsome enemy threatening to use a dreadful weapon to transform the nine realms of the known universe. This time it’s the Dark Elves, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), and a gelatinous goo called the Aether that has the power to plunge all worlds into eternal darkness. Thwarted years ago by Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) father, Malekith reawakens as the nine realms approach a perfect celestial alignment, blurring the boundaries between separate realities. Astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) stumbles upon one of these wormholes and inadvertently releases the Aether, trapping it inside her body. Cue the return of a concerned and love-struck Thor, who whisks Jane away to Asgard and defends his home against the invading elves bent on recovering their doomsday device.
Taylor brings his Thrones experience to bear as the story jumps from location to location, checking in with several cliques of characters and spinning these plates until it’s time to gather everyone for the big finish. The Dark World also has a thing for regal females, giving Thor’s mother Frigga (a dignified Rene Russo) a brighter spotlight and teasing Jane’s romantic rivalry with warrior Sif (Jaimie Alexander). Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to Jane’s earthbound assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings), a grating presence in a comic relief subplot that establishes her as the Scrappy Doo of the Marvel universe.
If the Thor movies have a true character weakness, though, it’s Thor himself. Even the simple arc of the first film - Thor goes from arrogant Nordic fratboy to mature future leader - is meatier than what Hemsworth is asked to do in the sequel. The Dark World finds Thor contemplating treason, but it feels without consequence due to his well-defined moral rectitude. How can you question the actions of a god, let alone relate to him? He’s not nearly as entertaining as his wild card half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who steals the movie with his live wire energy when he reluctantly teams up with Thor in a last ditch effort to defeat their common enemies.
Though we get an obligatory climax involving the threat of destruction for a major city on Earth (at least the United States is spared after the The Avengers and Iron Man 3 ravaged the nation), Thor: The Dark World is commendable for spending the majority of its time on Asgard, opening up so many wonderfully weird and alien avenues for the imagination - and future Marvel movies. After a half-dozen movies putting our own planet in peril, it’s about time we had more stories exploring different corners of this vast, uncanny universe.