In episode two of the Marvel adventures this year we are given the extended look at what was easily the riskiest piece of completing The Avengers. Thor is by and large a fantasy character with a fair amount of fun to offer and fortunately director Kenneth Branagh was able to elicit those shining qualities the first time around to assemble a Thor film that while not necessarily overly impressive offered a fine enough preliminary set-up for the Norse God that was able to find just the right tone to make him credible rather than the goofy, over-indulgent mess it could have easily turned into. I credited much of the success of things being done the best way they could on 2011's Thor to director Branagh and a cast that was more than capable of delivering lines about bifrösts and frost giants with Shakespearean prestige. All of this is still in tact in the much grander, more expensive and thankfully more ambitious sequel, but Branagh has been replaced by Game of Thrones-helmer Alan Taylor and there is a new threat in the world that will of course make cause for our titular hero to jump back into action. While I am completely enthralled with seeing films overlap and build on one another we have now reached a point in our culture where we are taking in these films with such rapid consumption that we don't give them the individual focus they sometimes deserve. We are excited to see Iron Man or Thor back on screen again, but more than that we are looking forward to what will come next that the current film might hint at. I touched on this briefly in my Ender's Game review, but it is all the more relevant in the Marvel universe. The reason this has become a problem is that while these are still trying to be individual stories there isn't enough of a connection from film to film besides short mentions or familiar character pop-ups here and there. That and the fact these films aren't willing to commit to any tragedy they allow the audience to assume has occurred. Director Taylor and his film are not to blame for this issue as Thor: The Dark World is a more than worthy sequel and is generally a lot of fun to watch, but it also doesn't do much more than add evidence to the pile that Marvel is content with quantity over quality.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has a little heart to heart with his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins).
As with most of the Marvel films, Thor: The Dark World begins by allowing us the courtesy of a little backstory that will inform the consequences our characters will be placed in throughout the rest of the film and the actions they will likely have to take to change them. This time around it is Odin (Anthony Hopkins) explaining the history of the dark elves who came out of the darkness that was present before the creation of the universe. Their leader, Malekith (Chris Eccleston), for one reason or another that is never really explained wanted to turn the universe into one of eternal night and he had the ability to do this through something called the Aether that we are told is an ancient force of infinite destruction. The catch is, he can only use this power when the nine realms align and converge which only happens every five thousand-years which just so happens to be coming around again and is causing some kind of wormhole that allows transport from one planet to the next rather easily. Thor's grandfather was able to defeat Malekith and his armies to recover the Aether and place it under protection the previous time the realms converged, but thanks to Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and the timing of the convergence the Aether is brought out from hiding (or its "dark world") and awakens the remaining dark elves bringing down a threat upon Earth, Asgard, and the rest of the universe. It's a lot to take in and try to iron out in terms of the semantics and rules of a world we are still fairly unfamiliar with. Still, the film is able to feel brisk and avoids being weighed down by all of this exposition by sticking to the core ideas the series has come to stand out for. Whether that be keeping Loki (the ever charming Tom Hiddleston) in on the mix, playing off the Old English speaking patterns for humor, or avoiding the typical template of what super hero films are expected to be. We are given an explanation as to what punishment Loki will suffer after his actions on Earth and as Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is trying to bring peace to the nine realms after the destruction of the bifröst he is also torn between his destiny and his desires. Lucky for him, the screenwriters find a way to merge all of these issues into the script while only leaving a handful of questions at the end and just a few less plot holes.

These lingering questions bring me back around to the topic of both not integrating these films more intricately with one another, but not giving them a proper amount of breathing room either. It is an admittedly tough line to walk, but the reason for these questions are more because of the plot holes we wonder about and only hope Kevin Fiege plans on answering at some point in the future. The best way to illustrate this conflict is probably to say what I enjoyed most about Iron Man 3 in the fact it didn't seem to care to play by any set of rules. It was still very much a super hero movie and had all the facets needed to provide a (mostly) satisfactory experience, but it also had an attitude all its own. It is not high art, but it had style and a ton of entertainment value. The Dark World has the entertainment value down, but it is that individualistic sense that is missing. This film feels completely complacent in what it is despite the fact it seems to have such epic ambition. There are storylines here spanning worlds and large-scale Coruscant-themed aerial battles with Thor stylishly swinging his hammer and defeating armies while attempting to put the pieces together of a fractured heart and a birthright that may or may not work in his favor when it is made clear what is truly important to him. Hemsworth's main character has a legitimate personal conflict on a truly large scale, but we never dig into this as much as it deserves because the film is too busy trying to catch us up on how these other-worldly things are happening and what needs to be done to stop them from destroying everything in their path. Eccleston's villain has no real presence as their is no honest justification for his actions. We have no idea why he wants to destroy the universe other than the fact he has been assigned the bad guy role and is used for nothing more than an excuse to usher in one of the infinity stones. Again, Loki is seen more as the baddie and no doubt shortens the influence Malekith has on the plotline. The relationship between Jane and Thor is strained, but has a few moments that shine through as Portman and Hemsworth are both capable at conveying the giddiness of a new relationship. I will say I was happy to see that Portman served a critical aspect of the story and that her character was not relegated to a cameo as well as having Rene Russo's Frigga and Idris Elba's Heimdall get in on the action this time around.

Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is not happy with Thor when he shows up out of the blue after being away for two years.
The upside to all of this, despite the poor execution of Eccleston's character, is that Marvel seems to have realized there must be more at stake in these films than our hero simply saving the world time and time again. In The Avengers that had to be the point, yes, but as Phase II has begun we've seen Tony Stark take on post traumatic-stress syndrome while Thor has been cursed with being the only one of the super friends with knowledge beyond his own stars. This leaves the burden to fall solely on him for not only protecting his planet, but all of those that exist in the millions of galaxies unknown to us. I appreciate this realization even if The Dark World is The Avengers on a larger scale with less costumed-heroes running around trying to save the day. That the film at least is a fine amount of fun and includes a good sense of humor about itself and strong performances not only from its main characters, but from a sprawling supporting cast that includes the likes of Rene Russo, Jaimie Alexander, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi replacing Josh Dallas as well as Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, and Chris O'Dowd providing some legitimately humorous moments is a bonus. Marvel movies generally have a rhythmic sense of humor to them, but this may very well be the most intentionally funny super hero movie I've seen from them. Hemsworth absolutely owns the role and he plays up these humorous moments through the smug and arrogant facade Thor has begun to put on more for show than actually representing what's been pulling on his conscience. It is through this performance we begin to see the layers of someone deemed a God and inherently mightier than we puny humans, which is nice but if his own movie isn't willing to spend the time to explore this and deliver a more satisfactory sense of the character, I doubt Age of Ultron has any intention of doing so. These rather large complaints aside (and they truly do have more to do with the direction of the Marvel universe than this film specifically) The Dark World serves as a completely competent film that does everything it is supposed to do and in certain scenes (mainly those containing Hiddleston's Loki) even does them with a level of exception. We are never roped into the drama enough to forget we are dealing with Gods and fables and we are never so wowed by the explosions and battle sequences that we differentiate them from anything we've seen before, but it is what it is and it at least contributes to the ongoing story if not in major ways, with some pleasant nods that we will look back on and appreciate when the picture is complete. If that isn't enough for you, well, it also has Skarsgard running around in the nude and hanging out in his underwear so there's that too.


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