A Thor-sized helping of Phase 2 is the best Marvel sequel so far.
Back in the summer, we wrote a glowing review of Iron Man 3, but since then our opinion has noticeably dulled. Disappointed at the lack of 'Iron Man moments' and still seething over the treatment of The Mandarin, we recently demoted it out of our top 10 list of 2013. It therefore shouldn't come as a shock that we were worried whether Marvel Studios had lost a bit of their mojo post-Avengers. Luckily, Thor: The Dark World relieves any anxiety, delivering a deeper, tonally darker production that is also funny at times while setting its sights clearly on a larger-scale Phase 2.
Set two years after Avengers, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been playing galactic police, quelling riots throughout The Nine Realms while his girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has moved to London to start a new life. Both are miserable, but events will soon bring them together courtesy of the Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who's bent on revenge against the Nine Realms and Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who defeated Malekith years before. He will use an ancient and hidden element called Aether, which can defeat god and man if used incorrectly. The revenge comes too swiftly for Asgard to handle, with tragedy befalling Thor and the newly-imprisoned Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Soon, one breaks out the other and together they embark on a mission of both vengeance and rescue, as Earth and the other realms will soon converge in an every-5,000-year-event, allowing Malekith to carry out his dangerous plan.
Dark World is really both a follow-up to the smaller origin story that introduced The God of Thunder in 2011 and a grander exposition about Marvel's plans for their expanding universe. Not content to rest on previous successes, Producer Kevin Feige hired the perfect man in Game of Thrones Director Alan Taylor to bring a darker tone to the movie, complete with real Asgardian sets and some incredible post-production effects. The script by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely adds greater complexity to both Loki and Thor but doesn't even feature them together for the first hour. But once that show gets started, we're treated to several excellent exchanges, including the best cameo of the entire Marvel series. In short, what could have resulted in a similar (and potentially less-impressive) follow-up has been re-invented, darkened, and prepped for a larger form of war. Hemsworth is Thor, as much as Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark; the Australian actor inhabits Thor completely, mixing charm, arrogance, and the power of Mjolnir to the role. He understands the emotional weight which Thor is being asked to bear, as Odin is actively seeking a new king to replace him. Similarly, Hiddleston delivers the dramatic goods as Loki, having been consumed by his lust for power in Avengers and now dealing with both his illegitimacy and the mistake of trying to best his brother.
The supporting cast also returns, but isn't used quite as well. Idris Elba - one of our favorite actors right now - shows up early and often in Acts 1 and 2, but disappears entirely in during the critical third. So does Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander) and The Warriors Three, all who enjoyed nice moments in the original but are minimized here to mere accessories to a crime. We're sure most of their storyline can be found on the cutting room floor, which leaves us with hope that an extended edition of the film will soon turn up. Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard show up just enough throughout the film to lay down some funny lines, but there's no S.H.I.E.L.D. around to help when Malekith unleashes the Aether, forcing Thor and his human friends to use science against the madman. Sadly, Eccleston doesn't separate himself from previous Marvel baddies, content to utter lines in a made-up language while flying around in elegant George Lucas-inspired spacecraft. Any real motive is hidden under emotional glances and missing dialogue, which could have made Malekith more a Kahn-like figure from Star Trek: Into Darkness than a shallow blood-thirsty murderer. Still, there are many bright spots: Hopkins is always a treasure to watch, and we were happy to see him portray Odin as an aging and tired leader who will probably see his world turned upside down in a future flick. The finale is exciting and funny, leading Londoners on a path of carnage while our heroes and Mjolnir fly through spacial anomalies created by the Aether, looking for Thor as he passes between them.
Thor: The Dark World brings all the fun of the first film while creating a deeper, richer story missing from Iron Man 3. Stick around for the two end-credits scenes, one of which could be the most important to Marvel's long-range plans. With the studio clearly having their eyes set on the future, Hemsworth, Hiddleston, and Elba represent some of the best new talent to arrive in Hollywood in years, with Taylor using these assets quite well. Does it have flaws? Sure it does - as most things do - but with such a fun story, those become minor potholes in a world so rich as this. Skip the 3D and pay for XD or RPX or whatever you've got - your ears will love you later for it. Thor: The Dark World is rated PG-13 for violence and has a runtime of 112 minutes.
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