The imaginary line separating stoic fantasy epics like Game of Thrones from campy regional Renaissance fairs isn’t as pronounced as you might assume.
I realized that repeatedly during Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World. An effects-driven extension of Marvel’s expanding Cinematic Universe, this traditional sequel sidesteps the inherent Shakespearean tragedies that are supposed to sustain the franchise, and instead embraces the relatively weightless comic-book roots of the main character and his universes … for better and for worse. The result is alternately silly and spectacular, fun yet frivolous – a placeholder in an evolving superhero story that will continue to be told in subsequent Marvel movies. Buy your tickets now.
By this point, Marvel assumes you are up to date not only with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the denizens of his celestial realms, but with the blockbusters that built up to The Dark World (most notably Joss Whedon’s The Avengers). After a brief prologue that establishes Thor’s eventual antagonist, The Dark World begins with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) on trial in Asgard for his malevolent actions in New York City. As punishment, the demigod’s surrogate father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins, sleepwalking), banishes Loki to Asgard’s sleek, stark prison for the remainder of his days. The heroic Thor isn’t able to immediately ascend to Asgard’s throne, however. Order must be restored to the Nine Realms, meaning Hemsworth and his sword-wielding sidekicks can travel on the repaired bifrost bridge to engage in conventionally choreographed battles in mystical lands like Vanaheim or Svartalfheim. They look a little like Iceland.
Thor establishes peace, though it doesn’t last long. Back on Earth, in an effort to restore communication with her galaxy-hopping lover, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) quite literally stumbles on the hiding spot of an ancient dark force known as the Aether. She’s immediately infected, morphed into a vessel for the demonic fluid (or gas, or something … it’s hard to really tell what the Aether is, or what it can do). Jane’s unleashing of the Aether creates a much bigger problem for Thor and Asgard. The release of the dark force awakens Malekith the Accursed (Christopher Eccleston), leader of the Dark Elves, who once tried to use the Aether to poison the universe. Now that the Aether is free, he’s going to try again.
You can assume Marvel Studios hired Taylor because of his experience helming episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones, and he brings a weathered, lived-in approach that enhances the authenticity of The Dark World by dwelling in unexpected corners of Asgard. Thor fans who criticized Kenneth Branagh’s origin film for being too cold, small and digital will appreciate the larger scope of Taylor’s battles, and the quieter moments in well-constructed Asgard sets representing the jail cells, throne rooms and taverns of this mystical comic realm.
Taylor’s background as an established television director also benefits the episodic nature of The Dark World and its place in the Marvel tapestry, in general. Because Thor takes place in the midst of Marvel’s Phase Two, it’s difficult for the film to ever succeed as a pure standalone story. Individual sequences deliver commendable comic book thrills. Thor and Loki’s escape from Asgard in a borrowed Dark Elves ship rises to a level Whedon established with The Avengers, and alone justifies the cost of a 3D ticket. But half of the action in The Dark World plays as a springboard for events that could mean more later, as when Loki deceives key characters or Thor makes deals with Odin that will direct his future relationship with Jane. (I apologize for keeping it vague, but spoilers have no place in a review.)
The nagging issue of Thor: The Dark World is that significant points in the screenplay (credited to Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) make no sense outside of the pages of a colorful comic book. Believe me, I understand it's a fool's errand nitpicking the logic of a comic book blockbuster. But Thor clumsily dances over solutions to problems that should derail the hero’s quest. Explanations exist, but they are rushed or, worse, ignored. Questions raised about the Aether, its powers, the presence of important characters and their actions waged in defense of our planet are met with head-scratching resolutions. (It's tough to elaborate without spoiling, but I believe these issues will be obvious as you watch The Dark World.)
Comic book logic covers a multitude of sins, and Thor entertains its significant fan base in assorted ways. Hiddleston continues to steal the show as Loki-- it’s hardly a coincidence that The Dark World is unshackled from a mild stasis when the villain is released from his prison cell. And Hemsworth remains engaged as the titular hero, though his supporting cast disengages because the script gives them precious little to do. The return trip to Asgard (and beyond) was appreciated, but The Dark World stops just shy of establishing itself as anything more than a stepping stone to the next Avengers movie, which can’t get here quick enough.