Freed at last from the prison of a crummy New Mexico movie town, Thor finally flies high in Thor: The Dark World, a film whose main problem is that it has too much going on and moves too fast in order to fit in all the action, mythology and madness.
Once again opening on an ancient battle, Thor: The Dark World finds all Nine Realms under assault by Malekith, a Dark Elf older than the universe. A total blank page of a character, Malekith’s undersold motivation is actually cool: our universe supplanted his, and he wants to destroy us all for it. To pull that off he has acquired the Aether, a potent bit of phlebotinum that will wipe everything out - but only once every 5000 years, when all of the Nine Realms are in perfect alignment. Guess what’s happening at the beginning of this film?
Thor and Jane Foster reunite when Jane, investigating rips in reality, ends up dosed with the Aether, which had been hidden by the Asgardian gods millenia ago; the substance is slowly killing her but also makes her impossible to be attacked. Thor takes her to Asgard, where the finest Asgardian healers (and their Soulforge!) can’t save her. But no matter: Malekith shows up in Asgard, sensing the Aether, and wages an attack with devastating results. Thor and Odin have a disagreement on how to handle Malekith, who is briefly repulsed from the floating home of the gods, and Thor must commit treason - with the aid of Loki - to smuggle Jane out of Asgard and attempt to defeat Malekith once and for all.
The story spans a number of the Nine Realms, with very little time spent on Earth (hereafter known as Midgard out of respect to the film), and that’s just a bit of the scope this film has that was missing so terribly from Thor. Here, finally, is the double splash page sweep of the universe only hinted at in previous Marvel movies. The designs this time successfully demolish the line between fantasy and science fiction, something that would have made Jack Kirby proud. Asgard looks not just like a place, but a place that is actually populated. And it’s a place set amidst a cosmos, a huge and visually exciting environment. A weird, environment, if we’re being honest - this is Marvel’s weirdest and most defiantly cosmic effort yet, a real step towards a Marvel Cinematic Universe that easily houses everything from ninjas to Sorcerors Supreme.
The film’s action - which comes much more often than previous Marvel movies - is wonderfully inventive, especially a finale action sequence that uses Portal-like physics to turn what could have been a boring slugfest into a continuously surprising mix of violence and comedy. There will be some - those who want their superheroes dark and dour and grounded in a boring, incomplete understanding of action - who will pick apart some of the elements of the finale, but it’s their loss. What’s important about the end of Thor: The Dark World isn’t how well-defined the workings of the Aether is, it’s how the characters respond to it, and each character in Thor’s MIdgardian supporting cast gets their own unique moment.
While the movie moves at a clip, everybody gets their turn to shine. Thor’s big plan to smuggle Jane out of Asgard requires the aid of all his friends, and so each god buddy - from Heimdall to Fandral - gets a defining scene motivated completely by who they are. Darcy (who is miraculously not annoying this time) and Dr. Selvig (who is a bit more annoying, having been reduced to comic relief post-The Avengers) have their parts to play. And Odin has a bigger role this time around, giving Thor a concept of kingliness against which to rebel.
If only Anthony Hopkins had given a shit. While everyone else is wonderful (reports that Natalie Portman wasn’t psyched about returning as Jane Foster be damned, she’s really doing a great job here in a role that could be fainting damsel in distress but transcends that), Hopkins is sort of grumpily stumbling through the movie. He’s made to look worse by the fact that everybody else is so alive, especially Chris Hemsworth, who has so fully inhabited the role of Thor that he’s defined it for generations to come, and Tom Hiddleston, who has so fully defined the role of Loki he’ll be defined by it for generations to come. These two are living the most positive side of movie franchises, where good actors actually get the space to explore their characters. Thor in this movie is grown from the first, and this time around we get a very different side of Loki. Hiddleston gets to sink his teeth into the character’s layers, even if he gets much less screentime this go-round.
It’s almost amazing that anybody gets a chance to sink their teeth into any character work, because Thor: The Dark World is flat out breathless. While the first Thor was an airy bore, this one moves at double speed; I would have liked to see more quiet, character moments, especially when Jane Foster is in Asgard. The film's speed shortchanges not just Malekith but also Thor's moral quandary surrounding assuming the throne of Asgard. There’s also a big emotional scene in the second act that gets done in montage, which feels like a weird choice, almost as if director Alan Taylor was worried he was going to lose the audience if he slowed the movie down for small scale contemplation and mourning.
Taylor killed it in this film, by the way. Coming from television he knows how to give scale to what would, in the hands of other directors, be cheap. He knows how to place figures in the frame to give a sense of scope, he knows how to make a dozen extras look like a hundred, and he knows how to keep things busy in the background to suggest constant life. It’s something as simple as having a spray of dirt when a character is thrown across screen - he understands how to make it all feel much bigger than it is.
Is there a better cut of Thor: The Dark World out there? It feels like there could be, but this cut is pretty damn fun on its own. As someone who truly dislikes the first Thor (I recently tried to rewatch the Blu and had to turn it off after 45 minutes because I was so irritated and bored), Thor: The Dark World kept me smiling and - more than once - cheering. Obviously much of the groundwork that made those reactions possible came from the first Thor, but Thor: The Dark World is a movie that understands why we like these characters, how they work and how to best bounce them off each other. It could have been ten minutes longer (it’s already clocking in at an hour and fifty minutes, to be fair), but I’ll forgive the overclocked pacing because the movie swept me so perfectly into a big, weird world. A big, weird world I’m excited to revisit in theaters.