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Film Review: 'Thor: The Dark World'

Michael Chasin |
November 8, 2013 | 10:40 p.m. PST


Thor is back in action. (Marvel)
Thor is back in action. (Marvel)
The first "Thor" might be the most often maligned film of Marvel Studios' initial phase leading up to "The Avengers," and unfairly so. Perhaps it was a bit clunky, exposition-heavy, and smaller in scale than befit its lead character, but remember that it held the unenviable task of introducing the Norse pantheon (along with magic and other dimensions) to a fictional world that, up until this point, was strictly science-based in its depiction of suited up billionaires and a one-time Hulked-out Ed Norton.

On this level, at least, it proved a success, doing a decent enough job of selling audiences on the idea of a race of alien immortals that just so happen to be the same folks the vikings worshipped. Not an easy task. But by accomplishing that feat, "Thor" paved the way for tesseracts, Chitauri, and plenty more cosmic strangeness that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is poised to embrace in the coming years (if you've not by this point heard of "Guardians of the Galaxy," then you're really not ready for "Guardians of the Galaxy").

But with that burden plus the usual origin tale restrictions out of the way, this sequel presented the chance to explore Asgard and the other eight realms without worrying that we'd find it all too weird. In fact, due to the scope of Thor's world, Marvel Studios' challenge this time around lay not in proving we still cared about the solo adventures of their heroes after watching them all team up (as "Iron Man 3" needed to show), but in delivering a film on par with the massive opportunities afforded a Thor story, even with the rest of the Avengers minding their own business on Midgard (that'd be Earth to you mortal types).

And deliver it does.

"Thor: The Dark World" is one of those pleasant superhero sequels that knows just how to expand upon the promise of its predecessor; it retains and builds upon what already worked without merely retreading old territory.

Case in point, Thor as a fish-out-of-water was entertaining, but it felt stifling to have so much of the original take place in a small New Mexico town. Here the dynamic is reversed: After she encounters an ancient and deadly force known as the Aether, Natalie Portman's Jane Foster is taken to Asgard for medical treatment, where she's the one failing to understand the customs. Foster was almost a perfunctory love interest the first time around, but here she's a charming highlight, essential to the film's events and exhibiting perfect chemistry with Chris Hemsworth's God of Thunder.

And Jane's displacement isn't the only franchise reversal. From the minor (characters learn backstory from an Asgardian book of fairy tales in place of that illustrated Norse mythology text) to the major (the previous finale hinged upon severing the connection between the Nine Realms, whereas here the key lies in breaching dimensional barriers) Dark World revels in playing with expectations.

One of the biggest? Despite what the subtitle might have you believe, it's absolutely hilarious. From Portman to Hemsworth to Chris O'Dowd (a brief but brilliant appearance) to a certain God of Mischief, everyone brings their comedic A game. Sure, they nearly overexpose Kat Dennings, but that's nothing compared to the literal overexposure of Stellan Skarsgard. Like most Marvel productions, this is a damn fun time.

SEE ALSO: Review: Chris Hemsworth In 'Thor: The Dark World'

Even so it never loses sight of the stakes, which this time are bigger than ever. The main baddie is the leader of the Dark Elves, Malekith, who intends to use the once-every-few-millenia alignment of the Nine Realms in conjunction with the Aether (think a redder, gooier, way more unstable version of the tesseract from "Captain America" and "Avengers") to obliterate the known Universe. It's a simple enough set-up, but one the film hammers (don't even) home far more than necessary in a sometimes distracting overreliance on exposition.

The Dark Elves aren't the most fascinatingly motivated bunch of antagonists (more than capable former "Doctor Who" star Christopher Eccleston plays Malekith, though it might as well have been anyone under that make-up), but what they lack in pathos they make up for in space ships and high-tech weaponry, serving as a nice reminder that these films aren't technically fantasy: Asgardian science is just so advanced that it seems like magic. Yet iconic villains, they are not.

Which brings us to the Lie-Smith.

After practically stealing the show in "The Avengers," Tom Hiddleston's Loki finds himself a prisoner in the dungeons of Asgard. As if he's going to stay there for long. Devious, tragic, wickedly funny, and always a step ahead of everyone else, Loki absolutely dominates every second he's on screen. "Dark World" provides a fresh dynamic for him and his hammer-wielding brother that feels like the culmination of both of their character arcs up until now. Full of humor, emotion, and genuine surprise, the Thor/Loki relationship is the highlight of the film: A mythic backbone that elevates this from a perfectly fine blockbuster to one of Marvel Studios' best efforts to date.

Of course in order to be a perfectly fine blockbuster in the first place it needs the requisite action, and in that regard "Dark World" also succeeds. There might not be as many huge set pieces as you would expect, but each one of them finds its mark. Special praise goes to the final battle, an imaginative and unexpected bit of orchestrated chaos that's thrilling, energetic, and maintains a refreshing sense of fun even as it approaches the brink of interdimensional apocalypse. Always nice when the finale alone is worth the price of admission.

But perhaps the most notable point of praise, especially compared to the first "Thor," is the realization of Asgard. Director and "Game of Thrones" veteran Alan Taylor (go ahead and try ignoring the parallels to season 3) brings Thor's home world to life in a way that stays true to the previous film's vision while improving upon it in every way, creating a believable, lived-in aesthetic on par with any fantasy adventure one might care to name. Some of the Nine Realms on display here might be a little barren, but that hardly matters when the crucial one is rendered perfectly.

"Thor: The Dark World" marks another check in the win column for Marvel's Phase 2, which only looks to be getting stronger with each film (as per usual, be sure and stay through the credits for a hint of things to come). It stands confidently on its own while leaving the door open for a sequel in the best way possible, and proves that even the least human of the Avengers still works splendidly outside of the team dynamic.

With every announcement of some new project, Marvel Studios expands their horizons and the power they have over the blockbuster landscape.

Good thing they're still more than worthy of wielding it.

Check out the trailer for "Thor: The Dark World" below:

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