In his first movie, Thor's story was a simple one: stop being a jerk. Ego deflation is a common theme among fictional princes or aristocrats — before achieving greatness, you must obtain goodness (I think I stole that from Oz the Great and Powerful, which only furthers my point). Although it works as a narrative device, it also stands as, arguably, the least interesting of the arcs that face the subjects of the Avengers Initiative. Steve Rogers had an underdog story — the "little guy" becomes the hero (comic book fans are suckers for that kind of thing). Bruce Banner struggled with major psychological traumas and an existential crisis. Tony Stark... well, he also kind of had the "stop being a jerk/ego deflation" thing, but he was a lot funnier about it.
And then, the powers. Captain America is a mortal man imbued with superhuman might and spirit. The Hulk is a behemoth, nearly impenetrable monster, but one undone by his own inability to control himself. Iron Man is only as good as the gadgets he himself can invent and bring to life... and those gadgets, mind you, are immutably cool. And Thor... he's a bulky demigod, one who has never toed the line of true peril, with a gigantic hammer. Even here, he stands as the least interesting of the bunch.
As such, when filmmaker Kenneth Branagh delivered a clunky, distracted story in his Thor, there was far too little intrinsic value in the character to keep us optimistic. The principal merits of Branagh's movie were its stars: even with dumpy material, Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, and Stellan Skarsgard were charismatic enough for a few bits of fun. With a vastly improved script in Thor: The Dark World — which ups the ante on the stakes, the excitement, the cleverness, and the humor — the returning players can shine even brighter.
The followup feature, this time from television director Alan Taylor, is the second Marvel Universe film to release after The Avengers, and the second to really harness itself to this Whedonized vision for these characters. Like Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World makes its sense of humor a chief priority, allowing its story of intergalactic warfare and the apocalyptic threat of a Dark Elf's accumulation of mystical power feel quite intimate. Piercing through these grand, fantastical elements, which command our attention just enough to set up their narrative importance but then fade to the background of some great character work, is the relationship between Thor (Hemsworth) and Loki (Hiddleston) — brothers who, despite everything they've been through in these past two years, have not entirely abandoned their love for one another. Beside them, we have the team back home: scientist Jane (Portman), who has been trying to get her life back in order since her otherworldly beau high-tailed it back to Asgard. We pick up with Jane in the middle of a blind date with an affably nervous Chris O'Dowd (I hope he, somehow, stays in the Marvel canon), carting her into the action when her plucky sidekick Darcy (Kat Dennings) alerts her of a wormhole of sorts located in a London back-alley.
That's as scientific as I'm able to get, both because I got a C in physics and because Thor: The Dark World is never all that concerned with laying down the rules of quantum mechanics. Jane will begin to blather on about the nature of some space-time anomaly before the movie shuts her up, content (as is its audience) with employing suspension of disbelief. "Just accept that these things are happening," Thor 2 says, "because we need them to happen. Besides, they're no more ludicrous than anything else you've seen so far, right?" Maybe a little — The Dark World is beyond the biggest purpetrator of Marvel's reliance on some weirdo hocus pocus — but that's what we signed up for. Kooky magic. And with the Dark Elves, the hellish planets, the intergalatic portals, and the venemous smoke monsters, there's a lot more impressive wizardry to behold than in Hemsworth's previous installment.
But it's not any of the elements of Thor: The Dark World that are the problem. The plot works, the magic works, the comedy works (even when it feels like Joss Whedon's B reel), and the character material works in spades — Thor and Loki's arc will both thrill and surprise everyone who has stuck with them through Thor and The Avengers. The only thing holding us back from really latching onto Thor: The Dark World is Thor. Standing up against Iron Man and Captain America, it might simply be that Thor cannot prove himself worthy of our independent attention. With the competition of these two riveting heroes, he and his films can come off primarily as filler material — what we'll take until Captain America: The Winter Soldier, preparation for The Avengers: Age of Ultron. We might never feel as fulfilled with a Thor movie as we do with a Captain America or Iron Man standalone feature. But at the very least we can admire this one critically. If Thor: The Dark World was about a hero we could really care for, it'd be one hell of a movie.