*This review contains only minor spoilers – merely a short recap of the film’s beginning to establish context.
Thor and Asgard offer Marvel it’s biggest cinematic challenge (likely until Guardians of the Galaxy) in terms of story and characters. It’s a mystical world filled aliens, realms, and strange beasts. It’s a difficult process to establish the story, and Thor: The Dark World begins like Thor did, begins with a detailed story narrated by Odin (Anthony Hopkins). It establishes our villain, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and his motivations. It establishes the plot device – MacGuffin – in the Aether, a powerful fluid that can cast complete darkness across whatever it touches. It’s in fact more complicated than that, but the setting is placed.
As for our remaining cast, the story takes places immediately after the events in The Avengers. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is marched in chains to stand before Odin for judgement. Loki’s hate for Odin is as strong as ever, although his love for his mother Frigga (Rene Russo) is still strong. Thor on the other hand is busy fixing Loki’s mess across the realms. Eventually, we’ll see that Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is discovering strange events related to The Convergence, an aligning of the nine realms. This is how Jane and Thor’s lives will overlap.
I only detail the story this far as an example of how complicated the story is to setup the remaining events of the film. It’s not too complicated that you get lost, but it demonstrates that Marvel has a daunting task with the mystical elements of their cinematic universe. It’s a task that they and director Alan Taylor (a few Game of Thrones episodes) handle extremely well. Taylor steers us through an expanded look at the realms, the depths of Asgard and the technologies of the Dark Elves (Malekith and his army). It’s also an appropriately dark film, thematically. Lots of people die, there’s limb severing, stabbing, slaying and plenty of war battles. Despite that, Marvel never loses it’s way and ensures that the writers and Taylor balance that with easily the funniest scenes from any Marvel movie to date.*
Malekith is a real threat to Asgard and all of the realms. He isn’t easily beaten, his army is supernaturally strong and determined. He and his minions beat Thor and Asgardian troops into submission plenty of times. If there’s any complaint with his character is that he’s given less screen time than he deserves. His ever-present threat is what drives the film primarily.
Chris Hemsworth continues his good performances as Thor, but as usual, Tom Hiddleston steals the film as Loki. It’s clear that Hiddleston loves this role and he pours everything he’s got into it. Thankfully, more time is given to just Loki and Thor together and they’re some of the best scenes of the movie. Hopkins is in ultra-enunciation mode, but it works just fine to establish his role as king. Rene Russo is a real surprise and treat as her role is expanded to give a glimpse of why she’s queen and that she can just as easily stand at the ranks of the warriors in her family. Natalie Portman gives a nice performance as well as a few wonderful scenes with Stellan Skarsgård.
Visually, Thor: The Dark World is beautiful. The graphics are impressive, but the sets are just as intricate as Thor, so it’s a world that feels real and authentic. Lots of care is given to make the world and story stand on their own and not feel like the strange, mythical world that awkwardly fits into the Earth-centric stories of Captain America and Iron Man. It’s a fun, hilarious and yet serious film that moves all of our characters forward on their ultimate journey leading to The Avengers: Age of Ultron and beyond.
*[ A scene between Loki and Thor walking together will go down as many people’s favorite in the movie, and possibly their favorite scene to date in this Marvel universe.]