In "Thor: The Dark World," the sequel to 2011's "Thor" and a follow-up of sorts to last year's "The Avengers," the towering hunk of a man is brought back to Earth when his girlfriend, plucky scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is infected with evil cosmic sludge.
As the trailers for "Thor: The Dark World" have promised, Thor has to make an uneasy alliance with his genocidal brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), to bring down an evil dark elf (Christopher Eccleston), who is hell bent on revenge. It's pretty nuts.
Of course, is this a satisfying, standalone installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (like this year's shockingly solid "Iron Man 3"), or is it a case of rudderless position holding, while bigger pieces of the puzzle fall into place? Read on to find out!
1. Like "Iron Man 3," It's a Pseudo-Sequel to "The Avengers"
This summer's "Iron Man 3" is arguably the greatest entry thus far in what is very seriously being called the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In that film, the events of last year's "The Avengers" were dealt with, or at least explicitly alluded to, which gave the movie a feeling of being a pseudo-sequel to one of the most profitable films of all time (even if there was just a couple of superheroes in it instead of a whole team. "Thor: The Dark World" is set in the same time frame and with a same reverence for what happened in "The Avengers," with Thor dragging Loki back to Asgardian jail and the world still very much turned upside down by the events of watching a bunch of mythological and superhuman characters duke it out in the streets of modern-day New York.
2. The First Hour Moves Slower Than an Endless Sea of Frost Giants
The first "Thor" can't exactly be applauded for its graceful storytelling, especially when it comes to the expositional shoe leather that has to be dealt with in order to introduce a Norse god into a universe populated by guys in robotic suits and skin-tight American flag onesies. But the opening of "Thor: The Dark World," which has to establish the mythological stakes of the narrative, plus update us on what all of the characters have been up to and how that fits in with the post-"Avengers" world, is a slog.
3. It's Pretty Hard to Understand What's Going On
Part of that first hour of "Thor: The Dark World" is spent running down the plot, with endless talk of dark elves and a mysterious, seemingly sentient liquid (sort of like the black goo in "Prometheus") that can shut down all light in the universe. And it all ends up being pretty incomprehensible. Trying to run down the plot in any succinct way will undoubtedly lead you to question your own sanity, as the movie's many tangential storylines and subplots make it virtually impossible to figure out. Add to that the parts of the movie that are dependent on coincidence and the giant-sized plot holes, and you've got a movie as difficult to understand as it is visually wondrous.
4. Chris O'Dowd Is in It!
For some reason, I had either never heard or pointedly forgotten that Chris O'Dowd, the charming Irishman from "Bridesmaids" and HBO's "Family Tree," who at least one ex-girlfriend has compared me to, has a brief role in "Thor: The Dark World." But he's here! And he's really funny! He plays a potential suitor to Natalie Portman's Jane... a mere mortal that can't live up to Thor's Olympian physique.
5. Fish-Out-of-Water Thor Is Still the Best Thor
One of the primary charms of the first "Thor" was that it was essentially the Marvel version of "Splash," with Thor maximizing his fish-out-of-water status as a god displaced on planet Earth. Predictably, all of the most memorable moments in "Thor: The Dark World" don't come from sequences with elaborate special effects or computer generated creatures, but from Thor bumbling around in modern society (this still works, even after "The Avengers," since his time on Earth in that movie was mostly spent aboard S.H.I.E.L.D.'s floating airship and an alien-ravaged New York). Sure, punches are thrown and monstrous beasts attack, but none of that made the same impression as Thor getting onto a crowded London subway car. It should also be noted that Kat Dennings, as Portman's scientist-in-crime, is super-hilarious, and her interactions with Thor are priceless.
6. Loki Steals the Show (Again)...
Without question, the breakout star of these "Thor" movies (and "The Avengers") isn't Hemsworth, who is sturdy and handsome and has some serious sex appeal, but rather Tom Hiddleston, the nimble British actor who plays Loki, Thor's villainous half brother. That doesn't change in "Thor: The Dark World." As an imprisoned persona non grata in Asgard, Loki gets to play the role with wounded pride and bristling anger. When he finally teams up with Thor, he really gets to showcase why he's the God of Mischief. There are a ton of gags too good to give away here, but the relationship between him and Thor serves as the movie's backbone, and it's given a surprising amount of narrative and thematic weight. Hiddleston is an absolute scene-stealer, and he remains the brightest star in the twinkling galaxy that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
7. ... But He Does Have Some Bad-Guy Competition
Of course, if Loki was the bad guy again (for the third time!), things would be a little bit dull. Thankfully, we have Christopher Eccleston around as Malekith, the ruler of the dark elves, who wants to cast all nine realms into a state of eternal blackness. Malekith is all business, the unadorned equivalent to Loki's embellished grandiosity. He looks like some kind of creepy reptile, with scaly skin and a giant burn on one side of his face (courtesy of Thor's lightning-slinging powers), and he wreaks all kinds of havoc on a myriad of planets and dimensions. In short: he's a bad dude.
8. Some Serious World-Building Is Going On
To an extent, the Marvel movies shouldn't be reviewed like normal movies. Because they aren't really movies; they're tiny cogs in a giant machine that includes video games and animated series and breakfast cereal (and, of course, other movies). Sometimes, these movies feel like a fully fleshed out creative endeavor. Sometimes... not. With "Thor: The Dark World," you can feel that it was built for the specific purposes of world-building, and, boy, can you see the scaffolding and ladders. If you're wondering why there are crazy, "Star Wars"-ish spaceships zooming around the largely medieval land of Asgard (and, trust me, I was too), it seems that it's in an effort to establish more of the "cosmic" landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which will get a more robust workout next summer in "Guardians of the Galaxy." Hidden within "Thor: The Dark World," too, are shout-outs to "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and the forthcoming "Captain America" sequel, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."
9. There Is One Super Incredible Action Sequence
Most of the action in "Thor: The Dark World" isn't all that memorable. But there is one wonderful sequence where Thor faces off against Malekith, when a kind of super-string portal, linking all nine realms, is open. So they fight against a whole myriad of planets and dimensions. And it's really, exceptionally cool. It's clearly hard to describe, but just know, when the fight starts in London... Hold on tight. It's a wild ride. Especially if you see it in 3D.
10. Stay for the Credits
Since this a Marvel movie, as a helpful publicist made a note of as the movie started, it's probably a good idea to stick around through the credits. And this time there are TWO credits cookies: one about halfway through and another after the credits have wrapped up. Both are as essential as an Asgardian hammer.