Thor is not the most popular of the Marvel movies. Were it not for the fairly mediocre The Incredible Hulk, it would probably be the least popular. This is wrong. Thor is a triumph of science fantasy, hitting just the right balance of comic book geekery, superheroics, sci-fi technobabble, magic, mythology and handsome men with big arms. Thor: The Dark World is pretty much just as good, and while it inevitably lacks the spark of the first Thor film as a new and exciting variant of the superhero blockbuster, it really is a damned fine popcorn movie.
The Dark World ties in just enough to the overall franchise, acknowledging the events of the Avengers movie and otherwise restricting itself to the Thor mythology. Well, with the exception of the mid-credits scene and an unexpected cameo by Captain America (not unexpected for being there, but for the manner in which it occurs). Following the rebuilding of the Bifrost, Thor has spent the last two years battling to restore peace throughout the Nine Realms. We get to see a great deal more of Thor's universe in this film, particularly Asgard, which takes on a more physical, but no less spectacular look this time round.
In a nice touch, The Dark World relocated events from America to England, with events taking place throughout Greater London. As well as obviously being a nice touch for a Brit like me, it gives the film a different flavour to its predecessors, and finally makes the Marvel movie events seem a little more global. There are a lot of unexpected elements thrown in that set this film apart from the previous instalment. It's bizarre, but very effective, to see Chris O'Dowd in a movie like this, adding a little everyman charm to a world filled with gods and monsters. His Hollywood career might be taking off big time right now, but he's still Roy from The IT Crowd to me. (I like to think this huge movie star career is just one of Roy's schemes that's got out of hand.) Little moments, like Thor taking the Tube in the middle of the battle for the fate of the universe, really make this film. Even amongst all the huge, climactic events, it never loses its light-handed humour.
The plot is pretty straightforward, resting on the kind of enormously unlikely coincidence films like this thrive on. Sure, it makes perfect sense that Jane Foster is searching for spatial anomalies as part of her research following the events of Thor, and sure, she ends up stumbling through one, briefly arriving on another world. It takes a bit more to swallow the fact that she immediately happens upon the central macguffin of this quest, becoming infused with it, and setting off the entire sequence of events that drive the film. It works though, like the best of these movies, by keeping the pace up and never letting the viewer dwell on how silly it all is.
The macguffin in question, the Aether, is another of the primordial power sources that litter the Marvel Universe. Unlike the Tesseract/Cosmic Cube, the Aether is a twirling blob of fluid/gas/energy/something-or-other that can be absorbed, granting enormous power to the user. Having accidentally swallowed it, Jane is imbued with enormous power, but thankfully the movie doesn't go down a super-powered Dr Foster route. Instead, the Aether, Bad Wolf-like, threatens to burn her out. When Heimdall informs Thor that he has lost sight of Jane, something which should be impossible, Thor abandons his duties and rushes to Earth – handily, just after Jane reappears.
Both Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman are excellent as the two leads. Hemsworth does slip into Aussie on a couple of occasions, but he still handles well dialogue that could be cringeworthy under a weaker actor. There seems to be a little more chemistry between them this time, making the love story a little more believable than the first time round. Taking Jane to Asgard is a nice touch, reversing the set-up of the first film, although the opportunity to have Jane in the fish-out-of-water role is missed. She handles herself brilliantly though, identifying various cod-mythical Asgardian devices by their scientific principles. It's a nice touch in a film that continually walks the blurry line between fantasy and science fiction.
The villain of the piece is a perfect example of this. Malekith the Accursed, Lord of the Dark Elves, wakes from stasis when the Nine Realms come into alignment. This event not only breaks down the borders between worlds but will also allow whomever wields the Aether to destroy the universe and remake it in his image, or something. Frankly, Malekith is a very generic baddie, and Christopher Eccleston is wasted in the role. However, he oozes gravitas and makes Malekith into a more memorable villain than he has any right to be. He and his elvish cohorts are well designed, but nothing compared to their spacecraft, huge vessels seemingly hewn from rock that scythe through the sky. The film's most climactic scenes involve what can only be described as alien invasions, first of Asgard, then of Earth, with mighty starships full of elves descending on the world.
Malekith's general, Algrim, gets to do most of the fisticuffs. He's a powerful presence, portrayed by Lost's Adawale Akkinnuoye-Agbaje, but soon becomes the less interesting, if suitably scary, being known as Kurse. The rest of the Asgardians all get a moment in the starlight, with Anthony Hopkins appearing far more engaged than we've seen him in years in his role as Odin. Rene Russo finally gets some decent material as his queen, Frigga, and absolutely owns any scene she's in. Jaimie Alexander and Idris Elba are impressive as Sif and Heimdall repsectively, although they both deserve more material. Of the Warriors Three, new Fandral replacement Zachary Levi gets the best material.
Of course, the real star of the Thor movies is Tom Hiddleston, and he doesn't disappoint.
Imprisoned for his crimes, Loki is just as capricious and manipulative as ever. It's a perfect performance by Hiddleston, slipping between cockiness, fear and a glimmer of madness with ease. You never know quite what's going on with him, whose side he's on at any given moment. With Thor taking the battle to Malekith against his father's wishes, he recruits Loki to show him the hidden ways out of Asgard. You're waiting for the inevitable betrayal throughout, and the filmmakers are canny enough to keep you on the wrong foot throughout. Prime trickster material.
Stellan Starsgard gets some of the funniest scenes as the troubled Erik Selvig, although Darcy and her “intern's intern” Ian come close. Jonathan Howard has been somewhat overlooked as the latter, but he gets to snog Kat Dennings, so I don't feel too sorry for him. Brief appearances by Alice Krige, Tallulah Riley and Clive Russell add to the star-studded cast, and yes, Stan Lee gets a cameo, which is like a law, or an old charter, or something.
The film hops between comedy, melodrama, action and high fantasy. There's so much thrown into the mix here, it should really be too much, but it works. There's a shocking death, leading to funeral sequence which feels both moving and genuinely mythic. The final climactic battle between Thor and Malekith is utterly, madly over the top, playing out across numerous worlds, levelling much of Greenwich in the process. (Meanwhile, I was wondering when UNIT were going to turn up. Surely they're affiliated with SHIELD?)
There's plenty that needs to be built on if we get a third film, the love triangle between Thor, Jane and the Lady Sif in particular. However, The Dark World leaves us with a Thor who has proven himself wiser than his father, if still liable to be tricked by his little brother. And the Marvel Universe gets bigger by the moment. Tremendous fun, never boring for a moment, and just a joy to sit through. Stay right to the end.
THE NINE REALMS
We visit a total of five of the nine realms in this film:
Midgard – the Earth
Asgard – home of the Asgardians, aka the Aesir, the higher gods.
Vanaheim – home of the Vanir, the lower gods (and apparently several monsters). Hogun of the Warriors Three is a Vanir. It's possible Heimdall is as well.
Jotunheim – home of the Jotnar, the Ice Giants, where Loki was found. One of the major settings of the first Thor.
Svartalfaheim – home of the dark or low elves, led by Malekith.
So that leaves four realms yet to be visited:
Alfheim – home of the light or high elves.
Nidavellir – home of the dwarfs.
Niflheim – primordial realm of ice and mist.
Muspellsheim – primordial realm of fire, and home to the fire giants. It looks like we see this through one of the portals during the alignment. A tenner says Surtr the fire giant is the baddie in the Thor 3.
Some versions of Norse cosmology have the dwarfs and dark elves both in Svartalfaheim, with Hel, or Helheim, the land of the dead, as the ninth world. Marvel usually favours a tweaked version, without Niflheim but with both Nidavellir and Muspellsheim. We'll have to wait and see how the Marvel Cinematic Universe runs. The various other planets of the universe seem to be entirely separate to the Nine Realms.