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Thor clearly learned a thing or two while hanging out with his fellow Avengers.
After a disappointing solo launch in 2011's Thor, the God of Thunder returns in Thor: The Dark World, a way funnier, lighter, and quicker-to-the-punch sequel that bests its predecessor in almost every way.
The Dark World has The Avengers' writer-director Joss Whedon's imprints all over it, though the credits suggests otherwise.
The latest Marvel superhero romp picks up two years after The Avengers, with astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) pining over her absent Asgard demigod, who has been away on a mission to bring order to the Nine Realms.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is equally despondent without his lady fair by his side, but his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of Asgard, won't hear of his son's love for a human. Something about the difficulties of a demigod being involved with a mortal.
Directed by Alan Taylor.
Screenplay by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely.
A Marvel Studios release, playing at Cinemark Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons.
Rated PG-13 for intense sci-action and violence and adult themes.
Running time: 111 minutes.
Critic’s Rating ★★★½
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard.
★★★★★ Outstanding; ★★★★ Very Good; ★★★ Good; ★★ Fair; ★ Poor
This "can they be together?" romantic subplot is the substitute to the first film's thorny family drama between Odin, Thor, and stepbrother-turned supervillain Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who's now locked away in a dungeon for thousands of years.
Dark World director Alan Taylor, an award-winning TV director for shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones, drops most of the heavy drama from the first Thor and it's never missed. Neither is its director Kenneth Branagh, who was originally slated to direct this sequel. Branagh brought his Shakespearean sensibility to Thor, but the burdensome tragedy of sibling rivalries and daddy issues sank what should have been a fun popcorn film. His name is Thor, not Hamlet.
Dark World's villain is a reflection of the film's lighter approach: Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), ruler of the Dark Elves, beings that existed before the universe and for reasons the film never fully explains want to destroy it and turn everything dark again. Yes, the universe is in jeopardy, but it's of the comic-book variety, which never seems dire no matter the stakes.
And because a villain is always lacking that one key ingredient/weapon/something before he can enact his plan, Malekith seeks a mysterious substance even older than he is, Aether.
Malekith went after the One Ring, er, Aether, once before. As we learn in the film's opening battle sequence/history lesson, which is more or less stolen from Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Rings opening, thousands of years ago the Dark Elf leader and his pointy-eared army fought Thor's grandfather and his Asgard warriors for possession of the Aether. The Dark Elves lost, Malekith vanished, and the Asgardians hid the doomsday material were no one could find it.
Until Jane does.
So Malekith goes after Jane, who is transported by Thor to Asgard for safekeeping after she's infected by the Aether. The Dark Elves appear and destroy much of Asgard trying to steal her away, and so a desperate Thor turns to the traitorous Loki for help. Defying his father, the son who wouldn't be king embarks on a risky plan to destroy Malekith and his army, bottle up the Aether for good, and save Jane and the universe.
It's all in a day's work for Thor and his thunder hammer — or, more precisely, 112 minutes.
Thor: The Dark World is a collaborative script that returns none of the original's screenwriters. That's a good thing. The sequel is more lively and focused than Thor, with some surprises and nods to comic-book geeks throughout.
Even better are the performances by Hemsworth and Hiddleston, who, in their third major film as Thor and Loki, are fully comfortable as demigods. They're also considerably more deft with the put-downs and physical gags. A funnier script and Taylor's light touch behind the camera no doubt help as well. Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård, who return as Jane's intern Darcy Lewis and the brilliant scientist Erik Selvig, make for good comic relief, while Portman dons her "I'm really not bored by any of this. Honestly!" face. Maybe she didn't get the Marvel memo that called for less drama, more laughs.
Naturally, Thor: The Dark World teases its next installment. This is a comic-book movie, which means there is no finality.
Given the impressive turnaround in the Thor franchise, a third God of Thunder film no longer looms as cruel and unusual punishment for moviegoers.
And Whedon is to thank for this. Even if the credits don't.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.