The latest instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: The Dark World sees the return of the hammer wielding Norse God of Thunder.
Chris Hemsworth reprises his role as the hero of the piece. Two years have passed since he left Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) on Earth following his showdown with the Frost Giants. In the meantime, he has fought his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in The Avengers and has kept an eye on his love while trying to fix all the property damage done in those other two films.
One year after the events of The Avengers, Thor also battles to save the Nine Realms from a mysterious enemy older than the universe itself.
A primeval elf race led by Malekith (a nearly unrecognizable Christopher Eccleston) mean to renew their quest to destroy the nine realms that Thor is sworn to protect (of which Earth is one) by way of a once-every-5000-year alignment of the worlds and a mystical energy source known as the Aether. The problem is that due to an accidental side effect of the coming cosmic convergence, the Aether has, rather unfortunately, taken residence in Jane’s body.
So, confronted by an enemy that even Odin and Asgard cannot overcome, Thor must reunite with Jane and join forces with Loki to stop the Aether destroying Jane, the Nine Realms and all existence.
Replacing Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair, TV-trained Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones, The Sopranos) adapts more gracefully to the Marvel style; for once, the action is cleanly and coherently staged, and Taylor brings some of the gravity and grandeur of Westeros to this universe. Though this means it starts off slow, the film builds at a good pace, warms up a treat and by the end surpasses the original Thor in terms of appeal.
The Dark World contains some of the most gorgeously rendered images in the Avengers films, from the grandeur of Thor's home in Asgard (a glittering starlit funeral over Asgardian waterfalls is sombre and beautiful) to the bleak and storm-swept landscapes of Svartalfheim, home to the Dark Elves that have returned after thousands of years in exile.
The fantasy elements of the Thor backstory are always slightly at odds with the sci-fi that drives the rest of the films in Marvel's cinematic universe. Al the others in the Avengers are humans with either heightened natural abilities or science-initiated mutations, while Thor's status as a godlike otherworldly alien blends cosmic science with plain old magical mysticism (it’s no surprise that Thor’s creator Stan Lee took inspiration from Tolkien).
The more important, and more effective, interactions are between Thor and Loki (banged up in an Asgardian cell after trying to induce armageddon in The Avengers). Hiddleston remains the single greatest asset at Marvel's disposal, a complicated baddie played by a fine actor with a blend of wounded malice and impish glee. He embraces the role with all four limbs. He gets both the funniest and most heart-breaking moments in the film.
Hemsworth continues to be charming and arrogant and the second film seems him beginning to realise his responsibilities both to Jane and as defender of the Nine Realms. His desire to rule that was so evident in the first film has diminished as he realises there is a dark side to being a warrior and a monarch.
While active in the goings on, Portman again has a thankless role and still seems an odd choice, but Kat Dennings (returning as Jane’s intern Darcy) makes up for this in her excellent supporting role.
The Thor films work because they have a little something for everyone: comedy, romance, crazy creatures, a colourful mythology and, of course, great action.
The final showdown between Thor and Malekith is gloriously entertaining and one of Marvel’s more genuinely rousing sequences. Set in London (with the ever-telegenic Greenwich coming to the fore again), it features two powerful foes knocking seven shades of snot out of each other. But this isn’t the city-smashing fascist violent event that ruined Man Of Steel. It’s an Inception-like, confusing multi-dimensional battle taking place simultaneously on the Nine Realms.
The sight of people, weaponry and other objects appearing and reappearing at hilariously inopportune moments constantly wrong-foots not just us the audience but its combatants to great and often genuinely hilarious, effect.
For a movie that has dark in its title, and which is darker (people die, Asgard is grimier), Thor: The Dark World is engaging and consistently amusing. The three biggest laughs in the film all come during the final epic sequence; a bold gamble when, ostensibly, the fate of the universe itself is at stake.
Review by Martin Barratt
Thor: The Dark World
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Director: Alan Taylor
Rating: M (violence)
Run time: 1 hour 52 mins