Thor has always been the red-headed stepchild of the core Avengers staff. His abilities aren’t the result of human scientific advancement (Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk) or, erm, rigorous circus training (Hawkeye); rather, he’s a god-like alien with Viking swagger and a neat hammer. I think, whether you’re a comics fan or not, we can all agree that Thor is an exceptionally goofy character—goofiness, mind you, does not preclude charm and badassery—and easily the toughest to pull off on the big screen.
Kudos, then, to Kenneth Branagh for lending the character and his extended family a theatrical heft in 2011 with Thor’s first stand-alone film, and kudos to television director Alan Taylor for embracing the property’s silliness and having a lot of fun with it in Thor: The Dark World. The problems Branagh encountered are still here—most notably, there aren’t many sparks between Chris Hemsworth’s Harlequin-cover demigod and his human love interest, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman)—but whatever the film lacks in romantic chemistry and narrative logic, it more than makes up for with visual spectacle, punchy humor, and wall-to-wall battiness.
The story picks up a little while after Thor and his colleagues kicked a lot of Chitauri ass and took zero names in The Avengers. Thor’s rakish brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is locked away in an Asgardian prison, and Thor is flitting from realm to realm, quelling uprisings and smiting monsters. Jane Foster, meanwhile, is in London on an astrophysics business trip of some sort.
If you found the preceding paragraph confusing, please avoid The Dark World. It plunges fist-first into the glittering sphincter of some of Marvel’s weirdest pseudo-mythology, and keeps going until its fingers brush the tonsils of James Gunn’s upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy. Obscure references and Easter eggs lie around every corner; it just might be Marvel’s nerdiest cinematic excursion so far. How nerdy is it, you wonder? It is exactly this nerdy: Its funniest joke is “Mjönir!” and if it doesn’t make you laugh, you’re in the wrong auditorium. It’s very nerdy indeed.
And that is not a bad thing. Taylor and his gaggle of screenwriters, which includes an uncredited Joss Whedon, don’t seem to have invested much time in The Dark World’s plot—it involves a race of dark elves and a powerful, volatile substance known as the Aether, which is actually an Infinity Gem. (If that means anything to you, you’re probably immune to spoilers at this point.) There is some interdimensional drama, dark elves invade Asgard, Loki soon finds himself on Thor-supervised parole, and there is much chaos, moderate shenanigans, and even some occasional tomfoolery. There are infinite realms—okay, nine—and they’re all about to align for the first time in a few thousand years. When they do, a dark elf named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) will have an unobstructed shot at universal destruction. It all culminates in a rowdy London showdown that I’m pretty sure doesn’t actually make any sense at all, but is very fun.
And that’s The Dark World in a space-Viking nutshell: It’s ridiculous, and ridiculously entertaining. Thor’s mythos has always been at odds with the rest of the Marvel universe; it’s high fantasy versus science fiction, and Taylor does a great job of making that dichotomy work in his favor. The imagery in The Dark World is stunning. Much of the film is set in Thor’s hometown of Asgard, which Taylor renders as a spiffy cross between Wizard of Oz grandeur and Game of Thrones grunge. (The director has helmed several episodes of that show). A nighttime Asgardian funeral might be the most beautifully rendered digital image I’ve seen this year, and there are some wonderfully creepy, surreal scenes of Portman wrestling with the Aether in a crimson-skied interdimensional way station. It doesn’t make any more sense in context, but it certainly looks neat. You can argue that it’s essentially a Vikinged-up version of Star Wars, but you’ll never convince me that’s a bad thing.
From a narrative perspective, The Dark World might be the sketchiest entry in the Marvel canon so far. It doesn’t become obvious until its final moments that it does, in fact, lay considerable groundwork for the next round of Marvel movies—the company has a tentative slate mapped out through 2021—but it’s a solid, satisfying entry in a great franchise. It’s far better than we have any reason to expect for a Thor movie, let alone a Thor sequel.