I've already started to see the lists, and they seem rather pointless. I have no interest is comparing the new THOR film to any of the IRON MAN movies, the CAPTAIN AMERICA or collective AVENGERS outings, or the Incredible Hulk either. The only film you should maybe compare THOR: THE DARK WORLD to is the original Thor film, and on that more or less level plane, THE DARK WORLD is miles better. (And yes, I accept that THE AVENGERS is kind of a THOR movie, since its follows up on the tag featured in that film and features Loki as its primary villain; I just choose not to.)
But since I'm not much of a fan of comparing sequels to their previous chapters and choose instead to judge it as a stand-alone film (as much as one can in the Marvel cinematic universe), I'm going to try and stick to that plan. You notice almost immediately how much more lived-in things in Asgard feel. They're still incredibly majestic and polished, but something about the way director Alan Taylor approaches this material makes things feel warm blooded.
The combat sequences, in particular, seem more brutal as he opts for hand-to-hand combat and familiar weapons at the ready rather than just beams of light emitting from scepters and such. Yes, there is the presence of what appear to be spaceships being piloted by the film's primary villainous force, the Dark Elves and their leader Malekith (the great Christopher Eccleston), a creature from before recorded history that has returned to claim a strange fluid energy called the Aether, which threatens to throw the known universe, including Earth, into total darkness. I will admit, there is something refreshing about Malekith's approach to revenge—he simply comes into a room, says "I hate you and your kind" to Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and starts kicking their ass. It's a streamlined way of dealing with your enemy that you have to admire.
A lot of smart people are going to offer up their ideas about what THOR: THE DARK WORLD is really about. Some will say it's a love story couched in an action movie, and there's certainly some of that in there. I'm still not sure I get the attraction between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), especially when her baggage includes the most annoying creature in all of the Nine Realms, Kat Dennings. Of course, the far more interesting love story is of the unrequited kind, between Thor and Sif (Jaimie Alexander), who would seem to be his natural companion and certainly seems to be drawn to Thor. There are a couple of really nice, quiet moments between them here that feel like they're leading to something, maybe good, maybe bad.
If my timelines are correct, THE DARK WORLD takes place on the heels of the events in The Avengers. Loki is still in chains and being brought to "trial" before his father, Odin, and mother Frigga (Rene Russo), who sentence him to the dungeons for the rest of his life. And this relates back to my comment about what the film is really about. This is the story of Thor and Loki trying to find stable ground where they can trust each other again; this is a film about brothers looking out for each other. Without giving anything away, there comes a point in the story where Thor must release Loki so that he may show his brother a secret way out of Asgard and back to Earth, and in the process, the two find themselves fighting side by side against the Dark Elves. It's one of the highlights of the film watching the Thor's brute strength weaved together with Loki's sneaky tactics.
What's most exciting about THOR: THE DARK WORLD is that, with all of that pesky establishing material out of the way in the first film, all of the characters seem to have more to do here. Sadly, some characters the filmmakers couldn't find much to do with, especially poor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), who is reduced to a pants-less clown, suffering from the ill effects of having Loki in his head for too long. Very few of the earthlings set aside for comic relief (and little else) are particularly funny or interesting. And outside of a climactic battle sequence that jumps from dimension to dimension, very little that happens on Earth is significant either, which is how it should be. Asgard is a far more interesting place, in case you didn't notice, and setting so much of the film there and in other equally fascinating and mysterious realms was the right decision.
Perhaps the element of the film that has improved the most in the last two-and-a-half years is Thor himself. Hemsworth has found exactly the right balance of pompous, thoughtful, light-hearted, humorous and heroic, and I don't remember enjoying him quite this much in Thor or The Avengers. And then there's the glorious Tom Hiddleston, who likely wouldn't play Loki again and again unless he was the most interesting character in the Marvel universe. Even in the various ways he wears his hair, there's a story hiding behind everything he does. He shows a vulnerability that we haven't seen prior, but he's also got a plan a-brewin' that we likely won't find out about until the third Thor movie.
THOR: THE DARK WORLD is more than just a placeholder to get us from one film to another (as the first one felt to me). This is its own, action-oriented ride that also bothers not to short-change us on character development (with a few exceptions). That alone is cause for celebration in the world of comic book movies. Needless to say, don't leave until the final credit has rolled; there's double the end credits fun in this one. The film is fun for those who love that it's part of a bigger world and set of story lines, and it works for those of us who just plain love action-fantasy-science fiction fare. Keep 'em coming, Marvel.