I appreciate how Marvel sets up its dominoes. They have no fear in tripping over themselves and ruining the whole thing, if it comes to it. It's delicate work, building a universe as meticulously as Marvel seems to be doing. They aren't just telling comic book stories - Marvel is trying to duplicate that feeling that every young kid who reads comics chases when they sit down to one of their books - that feeling of something larger than the reader, of a shared world of heroes and adventure. In that aspect, THOR: THE DARK WORLD delivers. It's exciting and builds on the Marvel films before it, yet keeps its own individuality and sense of itself.
Even so, there are moments where THOR: THE DARK WORLD threatens to drop the ball, especially in the film's beginning, where the audience is dumped right in the middle of the story with little pretense. This is a post-AVENGERS world, after all, and at this point, if you're seeing one of these movies, you're expected to keep up. This makes THOR: THE DARK WORLD less of a sequel and more of a new chapter in the ongoing story, and the many plot twists can be overwhelming. But once THOR: THE DARK WORLD settles into its pacings, it becomes as entertaining as we now expect these movies to be.
Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) wants to destroy the universe as we know it. Once, millennia ago, Malekith and his race threatened to return the universe to darkness during a convergence of the Nine Realms, but Bor, Odin's (Anthony Hopkins) father, stopped him. Malekith wielded a weapon known as the Aether, a powerful source of energy that could, if left unchecked, consume everything. But Bor defeated Malekith, and banished all the Dark Elves to eternal slumber, while hiding the Aether away.
Now, in modern day, the Nine Realms will converge again, making the boundaries between all of them weak and malleable. These anomalies come to the attention of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her intern Darcy (Kat Dennings), along with Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) who while recuperating from the events of THE AVENGERS seems to have lost his mind entirely. During her investigations, Foster accidentally comes in contact with the Aether, absorbing it, causing Malekith and his kin to awaken from their slumber. When the Dark Elves attack Asgard, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must stop them, allying himself with his now imprisoned brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to save Jane from the Aether and Malekith's intentions to use her to destroy the universe.
As Marvel plots go, THOR: THE DARK WORLD is full-on fantasy, with a little science fiction thrown in to keep it balanced. This tonally conflicts with most of the other Marvel movies (even the first THOR, which went out of its way to explain itself in relation to the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the time) as we explore many new worlds and new powers. THOR: THE DARK WORLD ups the ante quite a bit - it's a much wider universe than we've seen before in these movies, and Alan Taylor is painting on a much bigger canvas.
That's not to say that the movie goes too big - it manages to stay grounded (as grounded as these movies can be, anyway), and keeps its own verisimilitude, and THOR: THE DARK WORLD fits itself nicely into the MCU thus far. What this means for the scale of Marvel movies to come we can't tell yet, but it certainly leaves room for stories like DOCTOR STRANGE (which feels almost a certainty now) or GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. What will be interesting to see is how Marvel balances the cosmic with the everyday - from the vast gods above, to the street-level heroes like Daredevil or Luke Cage.
How is THOR: THE DARK WORLD as a movie? If you're hoping for a standalone story, forget it. They're all required viewing at this point, especially THE AVENGERS, and the Loki/Thor relationship in particular. The movie really shines when both Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston share the screen - they seem to have an even better chemistry together than Hemsworth and Natalie Portman do. I still don't buy Thor and Jane Foster's relationship as a deep, abiding love. But Portman has more to do this time, and the movie is better for it - Jane Foster is a more active participant in the story. Hemsworth plays Thor even better here than in his previous two films with the character, and he makes for a great hero.
But it's Tom Hiddleston who steals every scene he's in. Loki is the MCU's best villain, and I don't see that changing any time soon. You root for Loki, because he seems to have a legitimate beef, and when the film ends you know a reckoning will be coming, if there's a THOR 3 (and who are we kidding, of course there will be). If not for Hiddleston, I'm not sure how much of THOR: THE DARK WORLD would even work. His commitment to Loki is infectious and brings up everyone's game. Hiddleston's the MVP of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Unfortunately, Malekith is a bore. There's nothing for it, really - Christopher Eccleston has little apparent motivation except to hiss and be a baddie, and he's barely more than a plot point. Asgard is served better, with good turns by Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Jaimie Alexander, Ray Stevenson, and Zachary Levi. The script, by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely (with story work by the late Don Payne and Robert Rodat), gets the job done, and Loki gets all the best lines, appropriately. Sadly, at times THOR: THE DARK WORLD feels directed by committee, but Alan Taylor delivers on the action front, with some terrific setpieces and a really fun, energetic climax.
Where does THOR: THE DARK WORLD rank in regards to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies? Squarely in the middle. It's more enjoyable than its predecessor, and loads more fun than IRON MAN 2 or THE INCREDIBLE HULK. But as a keystone to where these films are headed next, it's an essential addition, especially if the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes as big as I think it will in the next few years. Obviously, I shouldn't have to tell you to stay through all the credits (and keep an eye for a terrific couple of cameos). Those hoping for a more intimate story will do best to wait until CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, and that one won't be all that intimate. So get ready, because it only gets bigger from here.