Tony Stark may be brilliant, but Thor of Asgard earns his rightful status as Marvel’s mightiest Avenger by smashing through the Shakespearean stuffiness of Kenneth Branagh’s misguided origin story to deliver a genuinely satisfying sequel. Sweeping, smartly paced, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, Thor: The Dark World feels much more in tune with the playful tone of The Avengers than its own predecessor, thanks in large part to dedicated performances by a supremely talented cast and director Alan Taylor’s talent for seamlessly blending awe-inspiring action with lighthearted comedy.
Having recently defended Earth from a massive interdimensional threat as part of the Avengers, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns home to restore the balance of peace to the Nine Realms as his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is sentenced to an eternity in an Asgard prison. Meanwhile in London, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is doing her best to move on when her eager assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) discovers an anomaly that defies the laws of physics. Upon further investigation, Jane is transported to the place where Odin’s father Bor had once hidden a powerful, formless weapon — known as the Aether — after defeating the Dark Elves and preventing their malevolent leader Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) from using it to spread darkness throughout the universe.
Now infected with the Aether, Jane soon reunites with Thor, who transports her back to Asgard in the hope of healing her. But he’s already too late, because Malekith has awoken from his centuries-long slumber and knows that Jane is the key to his plot.
With an important cosmic event known as the Convergence drawing near, Malekith wants to use the Aether to accomplish what Bor had once prevented. Using his evil assistant Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) to gain access to Asgard, Malekith launches an all-out invasion of the kingdom in a determined bid to recover his weapon. But Thor has other plans, and with the help of his allies on Asgard and Earth, he must destroy the Aether and make sure that Malekith is defeated once and for all.
In 2011’s Thor, Kenneth Branagh endeavored to instill an air of nobility in a film genre typically known for featuring chiseled heroes in spandex suits. But despite his best efforts, the movie suffered from lackluster action, a muddled script, and awkward attempts at comic relief. Two short years and one wildly popular blockbuster (The Avengers) later, however, prolific television director Alan Taylor (Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Deadwood) and screenwriters Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely prove that you can teach an old god new tricks with a crowd-pleaser that succeeds at widening the scope of the first film while simultaneously giving the sibling-rivalry subplot real gravity. Somewhat unexpectedly, the massive melee that kicks off Thor: The Dark World feels more like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy than anything out of the Marvel universe. It’s a smart move that not only plunges the audience right into the action, but also offers Taylor the chance to immediately display his comfort working on a larger canvas. And as the movie returns to Asgard, the writers shift their focus to the seismic tensions between Thor and his renegade sibling Loki, allowing the charismatic Hiddleston to once again steal virtually every scene he appears in.
If the writers can be accused of making any misstep, it’s the fact that they once again fall back on the tiresome world-destroying-weapon-and-the-villain-who-covets-it scenario. Although, to be fair, Eccleston is genuinely chilling in the role of Malekith, and Taylor keeps the action moving at a satisfying pace that distracts from the comic-book clichés of the plot. His efforts are perfectly complimented by top-notch costume design by Wendy Partridge (Blade II, Hellboy), who outfits the Dark Elves in some eerily unsettling armor, and a rousing score by Brian Tyler, whose compositions summon an appropriate sense of majesty without ever growing overbearing.
From Anthony Hopkins to Zachary Levi, the cast of Thor: The Dark World all perform admirably in their roles, nailing the jokes and heroics with equal conviction (special mention goes to Stellan Skarsgård and his tighty whiteys for providing the film with some of its best comic beats). It all adds up to one of the rare sequels that surpasses the original in just about every way imaginable.