You know a franchise is a keeper when its films start becoming comfortable in their own skins, self-assured and confident with every grand — and I mean GRAND — gesture they make (visual and otherwise). Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World is total proof of this. Right from the start, it absorbs us with an aura of much needed familiarity, but evolves its mythology by expanding our knowledge of the very regal and downright stunning kingdom of Asgard, as well as the nine realms it rules over in the name of peace. A well-thought-out premise raises the stakes for everyone’s favorite God of Thunder, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and, you know, the universe itself. Unlike its slightly cautious and sometimes unbalanced predecessor, Thor: The Dark World walks forward without ever looking back or second-guessing any decision it makes. Its charmingly cocky tone makes sense when considering its two lovable and arrogant main characters at the epicenter of the tale: heroic bad-ass Thor and his stupendously conniving adoptive brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Bigger, badder, funnier, and more visually spectacular than can be imagined, Thor: The Dark World is sequel superiority at its finest.
Our story begins with a narrated retelling of events from long ago that will have a detrimental impact on the present state of the universe. Several millennia ago, the father of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Borr, fought and defeated a race of dark elves on their home planet Svartalfheim, now referred to as “The Dark World.” The leader of the Dark Elves, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), was about to unleash an ancient weapon known as the Aether, a liquid substance that would shroud the nine realms in darkness forever. In order for the Aether to execute its intended destruction, the realms must first align in what’s known as a “convergence” (think of it as one enormous eclipse). But Malekith was defeated before he could utilize the full power of the Aether, and barely escaped with his life. Malekith, along with his lieutenant Algrim (Adewale Akkinouye-Agbaje) and several other Dark Elves who survived annihilation, took refuge in their monolithic space vessel, biding their time in hibernation until the “convergence” was upon the universe again and the Aether was released from captivity (the Asgardians sealed it in a statue deep below Svartalfheim’s surface).
Jump to present day, and we find that a gravitational anomaly in London has attracted the attention of the beautiful and intelligent Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), an astrophysicist who is trying to get over her runaway lover Thor but just can’t seem to shake his grip on her heart. Jane is accompanied by her goofy intern Darcy Lewis (Kat Denning) and her intern, Ian (Jonathan Howard). The two scientist interns — who, by the way, know nothing about science — provide so much well-earned comic relief that I personally want them replacing the obnoxious scientist duo in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. So what if they suck at their jobs? At least their endearing personalities will make the show that much better and funnier.
Moving back to Thor: The Dark World, Foster and her team stumble upon an ancient portal that transports objects to and from some unknown location, making them reappear from the sky when first directed to the ground. Jane splits off to investigate but lands herself in serious danger when she enters a portal that takes her to Svartalfheim. Coincidentally, she lands right in front of the ancient statue imprisoning the Aether. With no time to waste now that the “convergence” is almost upon the universe once more, the Aether inserts itself into Foster, feeding off of her life force and using her body as a host. This chain of events reawakens Malekith and the rest of the Dark Elves, who immediately begin planning their invasion of Asgard once they discover that the Aether host is on their way to that same realm. You see, when Jane’s body was invaded by the Aether, her life force disappeared from the eyesight of Asgard’s loyal protector Heimdall (Idris Elba), a man with eyes trained on every being in the universe. After he notifies Thor, the God of Thunder brings Foster back to Asgard in an attempt to remove the Aether from her body, but soon all hell breaks loose, including everyone’s favorite baddie — now prisoner — Loki.
What ensues is pure chaos that constantly engages, where the fun never ends and the cliffhangers only get more staggering. Director Alan Taylor, who has done exceptional work on several critically acclaimed shows (The Sopranos, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, etc.), never puts his own artistic ego ahead of the story. He is fully invested in sharing this cosmic playground with us, allowing us to revel in the beautiful wonder of every world, every character, and every laugh-out-loud moment. The stunning aerial dogfight sequences and tight-knit camaraderie between the characters foreshadow the greatness that could come from Disney’s upcoming Star Wars: Episode 7. The Disney team is already demonstrating a knack for finding the appropriate tone that made the original Star Wars films work so well. Thor: The Dark World never takes itself too seriously but inserts several dramatic twists that could have lasting effects in future films. The best sequels also sacrifice major characters in order to demonstrate that this fun-filled adventure isn’t without serious danger, and Thor: The Dark World is no exception. The move also results in serious character development for several key players in the film, which is a great thing since these super-beings can’t just be these robotic bad-asses with little to no depth.
Also of note is that much of Thor: The Dark World stands on its own without having to rely on The Avengers or even the scene-stealing Loki (who is utilized brilliantly here but thankfully doesn’t turn the film into Thor: Redux). The legend of the Aether and its possible devastation on the universe if fallen into the wrong hands is an intriguing one that expands the scope of the franchise’s reach. Malekith is a memorable archvillain, scary and menacing enough to shatter the lives of those that have just recuperated from the Battle of New York. Overall, Thor: The Dark World proves that there’s no letting up after The Avengers. The stakes will continue to be raised and the dangers our heroes face will be consecutively greater than the ones before. This, my friends, is how you spin a successful franchise.
The acting is top notch in this Marvel outing, in case you were wondering. Sure, Natalie Portman may hit her comedic cues better than her dramatic ones, but that’s probably for the best considering how humor-fueled Thor: The Dark World is. Chris Hemsworth continues to dig deeper into Thor. He’s not this beefy jock without a brain. In fact, much of the strategies employed to combat the Dark Elves come from Thor. It’s nice to see stereotypes shattered for a change, especially in a robust blockbuster like this. By the way, Zachary Levi joins the cast as the chivalrous Fandral, one of Asgard’s greatest warriors and protectors. Levi disappears into the role and completely owns the character’s bravado and deep sense of honor. I am looking forward to seeing what else Levi brings to the table in future Thor films. Returning cast members Jaimie Alexander and Ray Stevenson continue to do solid work as Asgard warriors Sif and Volstagg, respectively. I am beyond grateful to the film’s screenwriters for not penning Twilight-esque love triangle scenes involving Sif, Thor and Jane. That would have been far too distracting and unnecessary. Besides, Jaimie Alexander already does a good enough job subtlety demonstrating her dissatisfaction with Thor’s rejection of her love. And finally, Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo deliver even stronger performances as the royal rulers of Asgard. Russo, especially, churns out her best on-screen work since 1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair.
Oh yes, what about Loki, you ask? I don’t want to say too much other than I wish I could shower Tom Hiddleston with a multitude of Oscars for creating the best franchise villain of the 21st century. With every film he’s in, my affection for Loki and his mischievous ways grows more and more. You learn in Thor: The Dark World that he’s so much more than your typical mustache twirling supervillain. The fact that Hiddleston can unearth likable traits from a character who, on paper, is nothing but deplorable, speaks volumes to his gifts as an actor. More cheers came from the appearance of Loki than Thor in the screening I attended, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is mirrored in every theater across the globe. Loki, as fully envisioned by Hiddleston, is a creature of unending intrigue and entertainment value.
Disney’s spectacular Thor: The Dark World hits theaters nationwide this Friday, November 8th. Do not miss it! And please be sure to check out the film’s trailer below: