The intellectual part of me realizes that Thor: The Dark World, the latest product from the Marvel Studios brand, has problems as a movie – nearly two hours long and breathlessly paced, the film starts at a wind sprint and only gains speed as it moves along, leaving almost every character under-served by its plot. That said, the film is so ruthlessly entertaining, deftly balancing drama and humor without having the balance tip too far in either direction, that the pleasure center of my brain overrides the critical faculties and leaves me deeply appreciative of just how much of an improvement over the original Thor picture this is and also awed by the moves Marvel Studios are making in the wake of the massive financial success that was Marvel's The Avengers.
Although it doesn't seem that way any longer, Marvel made a huge gamble through their belief that the audience would follow them through five loosely connected films before combining all of the pieces together for a superhero smackdown writ large (starting with a tent pole franchise and spinning off solo adventures from its ensemble seemed the previously held wisdom). But thanks to immaculate casting (and as shown when they replaced Edward Norton with Mark Ruffalo, a willingness to correct any mistakes in that department) and a slowly developing in-house tone that carries from film to film and still allows for individual voices to be heard (Iron Man 3 from earlier this year is completely and wholly a Shane Black film, yet still feels like a part of a whole) they've slowly branded themselves into a spandex-clad Pixar-style behemoth that churns out supremely entertaining product without fail.
It wasn't always such a slam dunk; the original Thor was something of a mess, a cacophony of dutch angles and cheap sets that skated by on the massive charisma of its leads despite uninspired action and sloppily handled interweaving of previous Marvel films into its own narrative. This time out, the budget has been increased, with the other-worldly settings comprising the majority of the film's running time (whereas previously we established the world of the gods and then quickly settled for having the rest of the film set in a fake-looking New Mexico) looking lived in instead of Styrofoam-based. Part of the thanks can go to director Alan Taylor, who cut his teeth on numerous TV shows, none more important to this film's development than his numerous episodes of Game of Thrones. The action here is clear and precise, with a finale set in a war zone where the laws of physics are quickly disintegrating that blows anything from the previous film out of the water and feels like a worthy successor to the The Avengers' New York-set finale.
But even more importantly than that, the cast's charisma shines through yet again and here feels complimentary to a cohesive whole instead of bearing the weight of being the film's saving grace. Chris Hemsworth is perfectly cast as Thor, fitting the bill both physically and emotionally, with his noble lunkhead of a character continuing to have strong romantic chemistry with Natalie Portman's Jane Foster character (who is happily given her own decent arc this time out and makes some hay out of what could've been a simple damsel in distress-style character). Much as last time and in The Avengers, Tom Hiddleston's work as the trickster god Loki is delicious, lashing out at the world like a sullen teenager who believes deeply that the galaxy owes him but still remaining deeply charismatic and relatable despite his unsavory behavior. He's the perfect foil to Thor and the film gets lot of mileage out of pairing the two together this time out.
The film allows the majority of its supporting cast time to shine this time out as well, giving big hero moments to the majority of its bit players (Idris Elba and Rene Russo get big moments to shine this time out, and Kat Dennings actually proves funny in her comic relief role this time around) but giving woefully short thrift to its main villain Malekith, played by Christopher Eccleston. It feels like whole parts of this character's arc were left on the cutting room floor, as his villainy is quickly established in a rushed prologue and brushed aside for much of the rest of the running time. He's a dark elf who has gained control of some sort of primordial evil power and is looking to destroy the universe and rebuild it in his own image, a boiler plate sort of comic villainy that would've been better served by a little more depth. And even though his performance borders on drowsy dinner theater at some points, Anthony Hopkins brings the necessary gravitas to his performance as Odin.
Speaking as a massive nerd, this feels like the final piece of 'the geeks shall inherit the earth' scenario that has played out over the last decade or so. Yes, The Lord of the Rings trilogy nearly completing an Oscar sweep and the highest rated program in cable television's history being set in a zombie apocalypse suggest this has long been the case, but Marvel's success proves that comics had it right all along - there is immense pleasure to be had in the interlocking narratives of comic book fiction, where seeds are planted in one story that fully spring to life further down the road, rewarding viewers for their loyalty by forging deeper and longer narrative connections. That said, there's also immense pleasure to be had in watching an iron-clad god tackling a cloaked spaceship in midair and taking it to the ground and Marvel understands that as well.