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Thor is still ultimately about these two fellas.

A little over two years ago, I wrote a positive review for Thor fueled mostly by very pleasant surprise that they dared so much, let alone accomplished anything by it. Thor is probably one of the weaker stand-alone Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films, but it was elevated by one of the better casts and a functional emotional story of a type for which I have a confirmed soft spot. What held it back was its smallness, its breeziness, and a certain lack of conviction that kept it from fully owning its cosmic scale.

Thor: The Dark World succeeds its predecessor in every way it faltered. Not only a bigger and better film in terms of spectacle, it maintains the emotional narrative and strong sense of familial drama that drove the first film and has helped make Loki (Tom Hiddleston) the best Marvel villain and one of the greatest film baddies of this era. Rather than breaking from its lesser roots, The Dark World returns to them and builds on them, crafting a science-fiction fantasy film that is the envy of all other science fiction fantasy films (though there aren’t many of them) since probably the last good Star Wars. It is so audaciously, apologetically a movie of ridiculously huge ideas and creatures and characters, that anyone who grew up on Final Fantasy and Masters of the Universe, let alone the comics, will feel like it was made for them.

There’s also that it’s one of the funniest, funnest movies of 2013. Thor: The Dark World in no way felt like a movie that should be as out-and-out entertaining as it is, going in, but I laughed my ass off. It may even be funnier than The Avengers. One might have fairly expected a greater degree of verisimilitude with Alan Taylor directing (he did a lot with limited resources on Game of Thrones) but I don’t know that anyone expected him to have such a sharp ear for the comedic inside the dramatic, or the cosmic. I would not have envied the job of trying to make some of the stuff in The Dark World work on the straight, let alone trying to make it amusing without undermining it. Here, that is the accomplishment. It also paves the way for the crazier, bigger world of the MCU’s next phase of development, a world wherein we’ll be connecting the grounded (ish) realities of the Phase 1 films and The Avengers with things like talking trees, Space Jim Jarmusch, and fucking Rocket Raccoon. Because yes, sportsfans, part of Thor: The Dark World‘s purpose is to prepare audiences for that big step upward and outward, to a place where we can receive Guardians of the Galaxy with only the good kind of head-scratching.

The Marvel films make it an exciting time for moviegoers and superhero fans. Thor: The Dark World makes it an exciting time for fantasy fans, and even the ones who don’t care about Thor or Marvel should really give this a look.

thor-the-dark-world-movie-trailer-screenshot-dark-elvesThe Dark Elf design is just great.

In eons past, the Dark Elves ruled over a universe that was different. They wanted it to go back to the way it was. Led by Malekith (Chris Eccleston), they created a living energy weapon called the Aether and prepared to use the Covergence (a time when the Nine Realms intersect) to unleash it everywhere at once. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) wasn’t around back then, the way he was with the Jotun, so it was his own father who gated his armies to Svartalfheim (realm of the Dark Elves) for a battle royale. The Aether was successfully sealed away, but it’s been 5000 years and Convergence approaches again. Malekith, who survived the destruction of his world and people, is ready to come out of hiding and get on with his diabolical plans.

On Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) accidentally discovers the Aether whilst investigating anomalies in London. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) hasn’t seen her in two years, and with the Bifrost only recently repaired, he’s been spending all his time getting the Nine Realms back in order after the absence of Asgard left it all to go to Hel. We rejoin Thor in Vanaheim, as he and his friends fight a final battle to liberate it. With the Nine Realms again at peace and Loki locked away, Odin is prepared to actually, for real, step down this time and let Thor rule the Realms. Only problem is that Thor has changed and has begun to solidify an identity for himself, as a warden and protector on the ground rather than as the judge and king of everything. Partially this comes down to Thor’s reluctance to make genocidal decisions, a qualm that Odin and his own father did/do not really seem to have.

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The little battle on Vanaheim is fun, but the place kinda feels like a Stargate: SG1 set.

Thor basically wants the freedom to make his own way in life. While the first film was a fish out of water story, The Dark World shows us Thor in his own element, treating his friends and people and place in the world with more care and respect than he was capable of before. But he still wants to be out there, with people, and free to pick up his romance with Jane Foster where he left it, if she’ll have him. Loki mocks this, because their lifespans are so long, and Odin disapproves. Only Frigga (Rene Russo), who is really the glue holding the family together (and that comes across very well in this film with Frigga having a small but key role this time), understands any of them enough to understand why they’re really quarreling. She even makes time for Loki, and she’s the only one who does. We learn that Loki’s penchant for illusion and misdirection are tricks that she taught him, and that he still loves her in spite of himself.

Only Frigga’s death at the hands of Malekith, who chases Jane to Asgard when Thor brings her there (the excuse he needed finally arriving) for protection, can make Loki and Thor risk joining forces again. Odin, meanwhile, sort of loses it and tries to barricade everything and everyone in Asgard while Malekith hides in plain sight.

screen-shot-2013-11-08-at-1-40-54-pm-1Frigga’s scenes really elevate the film.

Back on Earth, Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skaarsgard) has more or less lost his mind since Loki took it over. It’s all Darcy (Kat Dennings) can do to corral him and her intern (who gets a great moment toward the end of the film) to back Jane’s play when everything comes to a head.

The plotting of the film is pretty tight, as you can see by how long I’ve spent summarizing it. There’s a lot to cover, and many characters to serve. The film accomplishes this very well, and not even by slowing down to make the time. The Dark World is a movie with more shit going on than many others can manage in three hours, let alone the two it has. It’s a minor miracle that the film even works, that its tonal shifts feel earned, and that nothing ever feels undercooked or excised. For a recent comparison of a movie that should have been longer to better dole out its story, see Ender’s Game (review soon).

thor-the-dark-world-movie-trailer-screenshot-8The wonderful Viking funeral scene was one of the points where The Dark World really transcended itself and created something that felt special.

The Dark World is a fast mover, hurtling its way through the plot and punctuating every beat with strong, character-derived humor. By now we’re all familiar with these personalities, and we’re here to watch them bounce off each other once again. I can’t overstate how amazingly well the tonal balance of this movie works. There is some real weight to counterbalance the amusement, and The Dark World may do this even better than The Avengers did (granted, that film did not try to be as weighty). Scenes like Thor knowing that his brother is only pretending calm after their mother is killed, or the funeral scene, go beyond the affection for the characters or the excitement of this universe brought to such vivid life.

The one sacrifice to the pace and packedness of the film are the villains. Malekith may be better developed in the comics, but here he’s just a scary looking guy who wants to destroy the universe. He’s more elemental than someone like Loki, who is driven by understandable psychological and emotional motives. Kurse (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is little more than a very cool henchman. The fact that Loki is in the film and provides some degree of menace and duplicity throughout is pretty much the only thing that saves the villains from being cool looking shells. Loki’s fake death should have been a cheesy bit that Marvel had to know wasn’t going to go over, but Hiddleston and Hemsworth make this shit work by sheer acting. Loki’s fake death isn’t just left alone, either, it informs the stuttering apology he gives Thor and the interaction Odin (really Loki) has with Thor at the very end.

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I mean look at this guy.

The love story is better this time around, but still underserved. Hemsworth and Portman make it work, this paperthin thing, on the idea of “spark” alone. In the first film, it felt more like a spark, the potential of something, than the life-affirming and course-correcting event that had so much influence on Thor. This time, it’s played like the ultimate long distance could-be, with Jane dating (awesome cameo, Chris O’Dowd!) sort of, and Thor being forced to put work first and coaxed to look around at local prospects (Sifffff).

When they finally meet again, the question is whether or not the spark is still there. Of course it is, but only after Jane slaps some fools around. In The Dark World, we have grown to know these characters a bit better (especially Thor) and it is far easier to understand their attraction to each other. They’re simply good for each other. Thor is confident, which Jane admires. Jane has strong convictions, which Thor admires. They are both curious and have a strong sense of wonder. This stuff comes across better in The Dark World but it’s still kind of a bummer that they never get to consummate their relationship.

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And don’t give me that “no sex, kids movie” stuff. Have you seen any of the Iron Man films?

In spite of her alleged distancing from her role in the MCU, Portman gives a great performance that front-ends the room that The Dark World makes for its female characters. Her work keeps Jane from being a damsel, and provides small but rewarding moments with the other women in the film.

This only bears mentioning because it is so rare, not necessarily in Marvel’s films (though they have miles to go yet), but in genre films as a whole. Not only are there some great performances and rich roles for women in these movies, but The Dark World even passes the Bechdel Test (where two women talk to each other in a film about something other than men). Frigga, Darcy, Sif, and especially Jane are all heroic and awesome by their own lights, and not defined by the men they have around. Jane tries to protect Thor, even though she is not superhuman. Frigga is the glue that held her family together, especially Odin (who comes a bit undone when she’s gone). Maybe it’s Portman’s influence that made this happen, and if so then good for Marvel for at least attempting to back up what is a sorely lacking element in their brand.

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More lightning all the time.

The best things about Thor: The Dark World aren’t just the stunning visuals and awesome design work. That stuff is there, of course, but this film also features a final battle heavily reminiscent of the video game Portal, making it even more of a love letter to the geek audience than high-tech vikings fighting high-tech dark elves with laser swords and flying longboats.

But really, what makes this shit work is the narrative depth that Marvel has managed to infuse into these films. They don’t need much to skate by on and still make crazy money. By casting these films with good, likable actors who manage to fully inhabit the roles, Marvel has created a unique franchise that generates narrative from character, creating icons that will have just as much influence and staying power as their comicbook counterparts.

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