I confess that my initial response to news of Thor: The Dark World was something along the lines of another Thor movie? Really? An extraterrestrial Viking demigod with a magic hammer is not, after all, the most obvious subject for a mass-market film. Marvel Studios had already beaten the odds by introducing the character in the impressively guffaw-free Thor and then integrating him into the broader Marvel-verse in The Avengers. Why tempt fate?
But fate has been tempted, and remarkably it has once again been overcome. Though hardly a must-see, Thor: The Dark World is, if anything, better than the original: a looser, loopier hybrid of science fiction and fantasy powered by a pair of magnetic performances and leavened with a number of truly witty moments. Yes, the movie spends too much time in Asgard, which is (even by comic-book standards) an exceedingly silly place. But for fans of the superhero genre, the film is nonetheless a likable diversion.
The story begins thousands of years ago, when Odin’s father (that is to say, Thor’s grandfather) led the forces of Asgard in a war against the Dark Elves, who, as their name suggests, were not nice folks. Their leader, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), had created a superweapon—an otherworldly floating goo called “the Aether”—but he was defeated before he could deploy it. The Asgardians, unable to destroy the Aether, decided instead to “bury it deep where no one can find it.” You can probably guess how well that worked out.
Flash forward to the present. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has returned to Asgard, leaving his astrophysicist love-interest, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), behind on Earth. While searching for a way to contact her interstellar hunk, Jane stumbles into an alternate dimension, where—what are the odds?—she comes in contact with the Aether, which enters her body and refuses to leave. Malekith and his crew, who unbeknownst to all have been in suspended animation on their starship lo these many years, are awakened and come looking for the Aether, which they plan to use to destroy the universe (or, as the Asgardians like to put it, the “nine realms”) and usher in a new age of darkness.
If this all sounds pretty ridiculous, well, it is. And if it sounds an awful lot like the premise of The Lord of the Rings, well, it’s that too. Thor: The Dark World often plays like a peculiar mashup of Tolkien and Star Trek—a Balrog here, a Romulan Bird of Prey there—with hints of Alien and Hellboy thrown in for good measure. This kind of magical past/technological future crossover is not an easy thing to pull off, but director Alan Taylor (a veteran of Game of Thrones) takes the challenge head on. And while I won’t go so far as to say that he succeeds—I’m not sure that “success” is a meaningful concept when it comes to Asgardian starfighters that are shaped like Viking longships—the execution is about as good as one could reasonably hope for.
The secondhand plot and daft visuals are not, in any case, the movie’s main selling points. Rather, Thor: The Dark World gets by thanks to its heady pace and good-natured charm. It’s a considerably funnier movie than its predecessor, thanks in large part to Kat Dennings (who returns as Jane’s intern), the always-amiable Chris O’Dowd (who shows up as a decidedly underpowered rival for Jane’s affections), and a sneaky-good cameo by Chris Evans, a.k.a. Captain America. The rest of the supporting cast (including Stellan Skarsgard and Idris Elba) does fine as well, though Eccleston is given precious little to do other than snarl menacingly beneath layers of makeup and CGI, and Anthony Hopkins seems vaguely dyspeptic at the very thought of having to play Odin again.
It’s Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, however, who are the main draws here, as the titular thunder god and Loki, his deliciously malevolent adoptive brother. When Hemsworth burst upon the scene in the first Thor, it wasn’t clear whether or not he was the real deal. But following Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers, and especially Rush, his big-screen charisma is no longer in doubt. There’s good reason that he seems to have usurped the film career of his fellow Aussie action actor Sam Worthington (or, as I like to think of him, the modern-day George Lazenby).
As for Hiddleston, it is only a modest exaggeration to declare him the genuine star of the franchise. When he derides Thor as “a witless oaf” or asks him whether he’s sure he wouldn’t rather “punch his way out” of a difficult situation, there’s more than a kernel of truth to the jibe. So clever and conflicted that he seems barely able to tolerate himself, Hiddleston’s Loki is a hero for the antiheroic age of Don Draper and Walter White. (Perhaps the movie’s best moment is when Thor commands Loki, “no more illusions,” and the latter reveals himself completely.) In this installment, Thor and Loki join forces in the battle against Malekith, though the alliance is, inevitably, an uneasy one. “I wish I could trust you,” laments Thor. Trust, schmust: Love him for what he is, like the rest of us do.