In the two years that have passed since he was banished to the desert of New Mexico, and the year-and-change since he helped defend Manhattan from space invaders, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has grown from a cocky, impulsive warrior prince to a man worthy of the trusty hammer he carries into battle. That’s great news for Asgard, the magical space kingdom from which he hails, but less-than-great news for Thor: The Dark World, the second solo outing for this blond-locked, muscle-ripped deity. Pigheaded arrogance, on full display in the first Thor film and last summer’s crossover bonanza The Avengers, is one of the qualities that gave Hemsworth’s hero a spark of real personality. Without it, he seems faintly duller—more square-jawed and noble, a superman as pious as he is formidable. There’s nothing like maturity to ruin a good rogue.
Like its predecessor, The Dark World leaps back and forth between Earth and Asgard, though the fish-out-of-water comedy that enlivened the original has gone missing. Actually, that’s not entirely true: This time, it’s love interest Jane (Natalie Portman) who’s humorously out of her element, but seeing her nervously meet the parents (Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo) is less amusing than watching the Thunder God try to buy a horse at a pet store. How does a human end up walking the golden halls of Asgard? The answer involves vengeful elves, gravitational anomalies, inter-dimensional portals, and a vague, gaseous MacGuffin called the Aether. Most of these elements are introduced during another Hopkins-narrated prologue, this one skewing even closer to Lord Of The Rings territory. When not barking mythological exposition at one another, the characters are breathlessly exchanging pseudo-science that would make the late Gene Roddenberry proud.
But every step the series takes isn’t a backward one. In fact, as is the case with most good superhero sequels, The Dark World escapes the oppressive duty of franchise building, finally getting to play in the world its origin-story predecessor established. Replacing Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair, TV-trained Alan Taylor (Game Of Thrones) adapts more gracefully to the Marvel house style; for once, the action is cleanly and coherently staged, and Taylor brings some of the gravity and grandeur of Westeros to this universe. (Without instituting a redesign, he’s somehow made Asgard seem less Emerald City-chintzy.) Filling in the cracks of the perfunctory narrative is a wealth of Whedonesque comedy, delivered by Thor’s returning, Earthbound cavalry: not just Jane, still flustered by her beefcake suitor, but also a quip-firing Darcy (Kat Dennings) and a ranting, pantsless Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård). This being a Marvel movie, there’s also a surprise cameo, this time by a character who doesn’t actually appear in the film. Confused? Just wait for it.
But would it kill the makers of these splash-panel blockbusters to dream up a bad guy with a little menace, a little flavor? As if to match Thor’s increasingly flawless virtue, the heavy here is a bland force of ancient evil, determined to destroy the universe because… well, that’s what forces of ancient evil try to do. Consequently, the movie’s most valuable asset may be Tom Hiddleston, reprising the role of Thor’s jealous, treacherous brother, Loki. He’s the only person onscreen with truly complicated motives, and Hiddleston reveals new depths to the character once The Dark World, in its most fruitful development, forces this black sheep into an uneasy alliance with the favorite son. Forget the fairy-tale romance between Jane and her hammer-wielding hunk. The real emotional center of the Thor series is this sibling rivalry, more compelling than any climactic battle royale or winking teaser for the next chapter.