MARVEL studios is smack-dab in the middle of Phase 2, the "aftermath" of sequels following the now-legendary team-up that was THE AVENGERS. That movie that was almost an end in and of itself considering the amount of legwork that went into getting there, establishing (in some cases RE-establishing) four high-profile comic characters in their own film worlds before bringing them together, along with an ever-growing shared supporting cast.
But now what? How do you go back to the farm after having seen Paris?
Easy - you don't, you go to space. MAGIC space.
With the AVENGERS sequel still years away, MARVEL has made it their business to delve into how their separate heroes are dealing with the fallout of the world changing events that happened in New York. IRON MAN 3 leveraged considerable personal drama from this, but THOR: THE DARK WORLD uses it both as a jumping off point both to show how the title character has grown and to expand the world of the God of Thunder. More than anything, the mission statement of this film seems to be to go big in a way that a mid-budget introductory film (from an infamously miserly studio) just couldn't. And while I quite enjoyed the original THOR (it doesn't hold up great in a post-AVENGERS world, but Kenneth Branagh hit a great balance in tone and design), THE DARK WORLD is very much the movie that its predecessor wanted to be.
At both at the end of his debut film and THE AVENGERS, Thor was somewhat at loose ends, struggling to live the changes that his time on Earth had inspired in him and shoulder his duties to Asgard, even as he desired to pursue the spark that was ignited between himself and astro-physicist Jane Foster during his time with her. The Nine Realms were thrown into chaos after the destruction of the Bifrost, and after fighting for a hard-won peace across the Nine Realms, Thor comes home to a victory he finds no joy in celebrating. Now the son of Odin is tasked with choosing to follow his heart or take his place on Asgard's throne.
However, before Thor can fulfill his father's wishes of succession, Jane stumbles across an ancient force of destruction once sought by Malekith, leader of the Dark Elves of Svartalvheim, which makes her and those around her a target for the ancient evil. When Malekith's attempts to capture her strike unexpectedly close to home, Thor is forced to join forces with the man he once called brother: Loki, God of Mischief.
If any of this sounds confusing, that's because MARVEL has really doubled down on their film-to-film continuity, not just between direct sequels, but across all their franchises. THE DARK WORLD is not only the sequel to THOR, but it follows almost immediately the events of THE AVENGERS (and reveals that the Chitauri invasion of New York was but one of many conflicts raging in the Nine Realms around this time). Viewers who haven't been keeping up with the other MARVEL movies are likely to be somewhat lost as the movie breezes through lore and hangs important character beats on established relationships. At the same time, the film is planting seeds for even crazier cosmic outings in other franchises to come (there's some obvious groundwork laid for GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY in the post-credits stinger).
At the same time, the movie is continuing to establish its own identity among the genres of MARVEL's other comic book movies. If CAPTAIN AMERICA was pulp adventure and IRON MAN was techno spy-thriller, THOR has embraced its roots as cosmic fantasy. The original film plays out very much like someone was tasked with making "MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, only good," while the sequel operates more along the lines of FLASH GORDON under the same parameters. Asgard still looks like it jumped out of Jack Kirby's wildest dreams, but it's been given a bit more texture and differentiation, growing more into a world of its own rather than just another fantastical location. And the film finally gets a chance to flex its muscles in terms of space fantasy ideas blended with ridiculous set pieces.
With all this going on, it's rather amazing that the film itself manages to hang together as a story on its own, especially considering how breathlessly it's paced. Not only does THE DARK WORLD feature substantially more action than its predecessor, but its packed with so much narrative and character work that there's barely time to get through it all before bouncing to the next scene. It's a credit to the actors that they can sell so much in so little time. Hemsworth and Hiddleston as the sons of Odin are particularly great here (Loki has cemented himself as MARVEL's best antagonist), but there's unexpected fire from the female cast as well. Jane Foster could easily have been confined to "damsel in distress" territory, but instead plays a key active role in the film's hilariously inventive finale. Even Kat Dennings' Darcy The Intern finds some agency and story to go with her comic relief material.
Still, it feels as though there was a good chunk left on the cutting room floor. This isn't remotely like a KINGDOM OF HEAVEN situation (unlike the theatrical cut of that movie, this one still works), but Malekith in particular feels a truncated, coming off more as a supporting villain than the central threat his character's backstory commands, and there's some dramatic turns that would have benefited from a few extra scenes. With any luck we'll see more of that, and perhaps an extra beat or two with Sif and the Warriors Three show up on a Director's Cut of some sort.
On the upside, the film doesn't waste the audience's time. There are too many movies that have plentiful bloat and exhausting run times, and while THE DARK WORLD isn't shy about its own dense mythology and ever-expanding cast of characters, it's good about getting to the meat of the story rather than faffing about with pointless convolution and meaningless jargon that's never paid off. In many ways, this is a great example of a "light" MARVEL movie. It's not the ground-breaking culmination that was THE AVENGERS or the genre deconstruction and subversion of IRON MAN 3, but it does enough to shake up the status quo that it's not just wheel-spinning, and a few surprises left me wondering at a couple characters' fates.
It's also continuing the series trend of being the most "kid-friendly" superhero franchise, and is just an all-around blast to watch. The tone remains relatively light with plentiful humor, all the actors seem to be having a great time but also put in some real work, and the movie never shies away from its origins. In a time when so many franchises seem ashamed of their heroes (once again, I'm looking at you MAN OF STEEL. . . and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN for that matter), it's refreshing that there are movies that embrace the inherent ridiculousness of these properties.
Which, considering THOR: THE DARK WORLD is a movie is about MAGIC SPACE VIKINGS, was probably the only way to go.