Marvel Studios' two 2013 releases each represented an interesting challenge for the studio. Following 2012's intimidatingly successful "The Avengers," Disney and Marvel had to make sure its subsequent solo sequels could compel audiences who just saw a bunch of superheroes for the price of one movie.
"Iron Man 3" was a pretty safe bet, though. Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark has proven to be the main Marvel movie draw, and the Shane Black-directed film ended up grossing more than a billion dollars worldwide earlier this year, second only to "Avengers" in the Marvel Studios canon (and fifth on the all-time list). "Thor: The Dark World" is a trickier proposition -- lead actor Chris Hemsworth isn't yet a draw at RDJ's level, and the 2011 original was a somewhat modest victory by Marvel movie standards ($181 million domestic).
While "Iron Man 3" responded to "Avengers" with a smaller-scale, more personal film (if you can agree a movie that climaxes with dozens of flying robot suits saving the president from a rampant heat monster is, relatively speaking, "smaller-scale") "Thor: The Dark World" ventures in the opposite direction. There's a lot more of almost everything -- more fantasy, more Asgard, more of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and the rest of the supporting cast, and a villain looking to wipe out pretty much all of existence.
That villain, the Dark Elf ruler Malekith -- played here by the Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, and introduced in Marvel Comics during Walt Simonson's legendary "Thor" run -- drives much of "The Dark World," using mystical MacGuffin the "Aether" in an attempt to restore the Nine Realms into a state of total darkness. It's such a broad, sweeping goal that it ultimately feels abstract, which is not helped by the fact that Malekith is a difficult villain to truly grasp. Eccleston's performance is solid -- he's got the kind of commanding voice that makes wacky alien languages sound cool -- but between communicating mostly in Elvish and generally murky motivations, there never seems to be an actual threat behind the makeup.
This is, of course, in stark contrast to Tom Hiddleston's Loki, the primary villain of "Avengers" and the first "Thor," and a major supporting player here. One of the greatest pairings of character and actor in recent genre filmmaking, Hiddleston has a reduced role in "The Dark World," but still an important one. He's imprisoned as a result of his rather severe "Avengers" crimes, and unsurprisingly unrepentant -- though circumstances cause him to display further depth than seen in his prior two appearances.
Part of the promise of "Thor: The Dark World" from the very first trailers was watching what movie audiences -- and tumblr users -- have been hoping to see since the first "Thor": Thor and Loki teaming up as adopted brothers in arms, due to Malekith's actions leaving the Asgardian heroes, to quote Nick Fury, "very desperate." While these sequences definitely leave the viewers wanting more, what's on screen delivers, and truly propels the film after a meandering first arc. For a chiseled God of Thunder (the obligatory shirtless scene happens rather early in the film), Hemsworth is adept at imbuing Thor with a believable vulnerability -- despite Loki's numerous misdeeds, Thor still believes there's a spark of good left in his brother, and it's heartbreaking every time he's proven wrong -- and accordingly uplifting when it seems just maybe he might be right.
Alan Taylor, best known for his work on acclaimed television series including "Mad Men" and "Game of Thrones," directed "The Dark World," replacing original "Thor" director Kenneth Branagh. A key quality in directing a movie like this is balancing both the otherworldly scenes with the Earthbound ones, and taking them both seriously. Taylor handles each venue commendably as the film travels the Nine Realms, with the high fantasy at a scale not quite seen in previous Marvel Studios productions, and the more grounded material appropriately down-to-Earth. Turns out, there's still plenty of humor left to be mined in the juxtaposition of the two, as well, with a few quality fish-out-of-water gags from Thor's time in London.
Yet Taylor also has a lot to balance in the film, which has a screenplay credited to Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Marvel Comics mainstay Christopher Yost. There are a lot of characters in the movie, both on Midgard and abroad, and while there's admirably an effort made to at least try and give them all something to do, the end result feels a bit overstuffed. (Poor Tadanobu Asano, Hogun of The Warriors Three, is written out of the film almost immediately due to a mission on Vanaheim.)
Which is not the fault of who's on screen -- while every Marvel Studios movie boasts impressive casting, it's at its most evident in the "Thor" films. Having an actor with the considerable talent of Idris Elba in a role like Heimdall -- he's got a bigger role in this than the first, but it's still only a few scenes -- is both a little puzzling and also a testament to the standard of quality that Kevin Feige and his team are looking to bring to these pictures.
Natalie Portman has much more of a piece of the action in "The Dark World," placed into the main plot in a very direct way. Kat Dennings again provides legitimately comedic comic relief, and also has a little more to do (she now has her own intern, played by Jonathan Howard, in perhaps not totally necessary further comic relief). "Chuck" star Zachary Levi, nearly unrecognizably blonde, joins the cast as Fandral, replacing "Once Upon A Time" actor Joshua Dallas, though, like the first film, The Warriors Three and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) are mostly background players.
"Thor: The Dark World" aims high, and while the visuals are exciting and the characterization (including a character death that affects much of the main cast) remains sharp, the film doesn't quite reach its true potential due to a villain who never truly feels like much more than an amorphous bad guy. It's still plenty of fun -- Marvel Studios appear to have "fun" down to a very precise science at this point, especially with Tom Hiddleston involved -- with a lot to like, but given its ambition, the end result feels like a mildly missed opportunity.
And, yes -- there are two post-credits scenes (one mid-credits, one after everything rolls), so, as you should know by now, stick around until the very end. Note to comic book fans: If you had to explain the Thanos cameo in "Avengers" to your non-Marvel literate friends, be prepared for those same folks to be even more confused by who shows up in the mid-credits stinger of "The Dark World."
"Thor: The Dark World" releases November 8.