In the long, important, trillion-dollar history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 2011’s Thor represented its first semi-risk. Iron Man, the 2008 film that launched the franchise, introduced a character who wasn’t terribly well-known outside the comic book shop, but it starred Robert Downey Jr. right when America needed him back. The Incredible Hulk cast an Oscar-winning actor as pop culture’s most famous humanoid monster (non-Frankenstein category), and had only to be better than the movie that made us wonder whether we were wrong about Ang Lee.*
And then Thor. It asked us to get excited about muscular-but-unknown-but-muscular Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, playing an arrogant Asgardian god banished to lowly Earth. Its director had previously imagineered a four-hour adaptation of Hamlet. Luckily for Marvel—and with an assist, surely, from Peter Jackson, who had primed the American pump for Norse-ish fantasy—it was a hit. Hemsworth got famous, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki was established as a perfectly odious, treacherous, tragic, dreamy villain.
Thor spent most of his own movie sulking around, mourning his lost power. The people who flocked, the following summer, to see The Avengers realized that Thor was even more fun when he had better dialogue, less pomp, and more Mjolnir flying at you in Digital 3-D. If the naïve God of Thunder was always going to be betrayed by Loki, better to do it while calling his evil brother “adopted” (he was!) and getting shot out a Helicarrier.
The Marvel machinists have applied these lessons to Thor: The Dark World, which is quicker, sillier, and more violent than its predecessor. Written by the fantasy vets Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who helped shape the Chronicles of Narnia adaptations (and will be tackling the Captain America films next), the new installment advances a story that will be either be finished or further advanced in the Avengers sequel. Alan Taylor, who was hired after directing a bunch of Games of Thrones episodes, set out to make the Thor-iverse “richer and edgier,” and he succeeds, at the expense of a plot that makes sense when you write it down.
A film like this has to start with someone with a British accent explaining mythology to us, and TTDW does not skimp. “Long before the birth of light, there was darkness,” says the disembodied voice of Anthony Hopkins, back for another residual as Odin. “From that darkness came the dark elves.” Enter the elves, mirthless, mask-wearing terminators who want to use a fluid mass of energy called the Aether to cast the universe into eternal darkness (with shades of red), using chunks of it to transform their warriors into invincible beasts.
The dark elves are defeated by Odin’s father, but not destroyed. The best of them, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, glowering magnificently), disappear into sword-shaped spaceships and hibernate for thousands of years until the galaxies are in perfect alignment and the Aether can be recovered from the cave the Asgardians hid it in. Want to guess who finds the cave, through an alignment-created portal in the London stockyards? Scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), that’s who. She’s spent the years since Thor pining for her absent Thunder God and poking around rocks that just might contain some magic, world-threatening CGI goo. The dark elves awake. Havoc ensues from Asgard to Midgard (aka Earth).
Thor followed the Crocodile Dundee paradigm, the tough guy dazzling people in a new land with his rough manners and strange vest. TTDW is Crocodile Dundee II, which put the fish back in his familiar waters, dragging his New York girlfriend to the Outback. Jane is brought along to Asgard and Svartalfheim, awkwardly meeting Thor’s parents and learning to wear medieval gowns. Sif, the lovely warrior whom Odin wants Thor to marry, gets to see the earthling who’s stolen her man, but the movie isn’t very interested in exploring that love triangle. Sure, Asgardians might look down on humans—they’re both mortal, “give or take 5,000 years,” as Loki snarls—but the humans seem to understand science better than the gods. Erik (Stellan Skarsgård), the scientist from Thor and the Avengers, comes up with his third intradimensional high-tech MacGuffin, one that can save the universe better than anything Odin’s come up with.
We can accept that logic—the “anything aliens can do, we can do better” trope is too important to discard now. But why does so much else in TTDW depend on bendable logic? The dark elves have been trapped in their spaceships for millennia, hibernating in H.R. Giger pods. In all that time, the Asgardians haven’t advanced their society or weaponry? The elvish assault on Asgard pits the elves’ spaceships against what appear to be magic, flying canoes armed with cannons, and elvish laser guns against … spears. Later, a group of elves large enough to slaughter a demigod earlier in the film is taken down by a hurled sedan. The elves who get high on Aether are completely invincible, until the plot necessitates that they be vanquished by a sword or a good Mjolnir blow.
This “random power level” problem wasn’t invented in one movie. All summer, we’ve been introduced to villains who are unbeatable until the plot needs them beaten, from Star Trek Into Darkness’s Khan to Iron Man 3’s Aldrich Killian. We know that Thor will be around for a dozen or so more Marvel films, so we know that Malekith will go down. It would have been more satisfying to see the Asgardians tossed around like dolls—after all, if they were any good at being gods, they’d be worshiped by more than a few Norwegian black metal bands, right? Thor, as the one bold Asgardian willing to understand humans, to let them teach the gods, is the best idea in the series. He’s a meathead, maybe, but he’s smart enough to set about learning what he doesn’t know.
Humans get something out of the trade, too. Skarsgård’s Erik has become increasingly debased and erratic since falling under (then out of) Loki’s mind control. The scientist, who has gained an advanced knowledge of the cosmos, disrobes and runs around whenever the “comic relief” button starts blinking red. He might be a better avatar for the audience then the dazzled, wry Jane Foster. Faced with alien invasions, techno-terrorists, magic Nazis, and 10 interlocking superhero movies, wouldn’t you go insane?
“I had a God inside my head,” mutters Erik, rattling his bag of medication as he meets a new character. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
*Correction, Nov. 11, 2013: This article originally stated that Edward Norton is an Oscar-winning actor. (Return to the corrected sentence.)