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Chris Hemsworth returns as the Norse God turned Avenger Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who must team up with his evil yet possibly misunderstood brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to prevent Dark Elf supervillain Malakith (Christopher Eccleston) from destroying the universe.
After the super-powered royal rumble of 2012’s Avengers Assemble, Marvel Studios have firmly kicked into gear for the second phase of their cinematic universe. A mere six months after Robert Downey Jr led the charge with Iron Man 3, Chris Hemsworth and friends return in the sequel to 2011’s more fantasy-tinged superhero flick Thor.
By now, there’s a certain level of quality that you can expect when it comes to Marvel Studios films - a level which you suspect they'll never be allowed to sink beneath (at least, not now that Iron Man 2 is a quickly-banished memory) even when an individual film doesn't quite hit the Joss Whedon-led heights of Avengers Assemble.
It's little surprise, then, that on a surface level Thor: The Dark World settles neatly into that established consistency. It has a strong cast – the ensemble from the first film (Natalie Portman, Idris Elba, Anthony Hopkins, Kat Dennings et al) almost all return, although some with more prominent roles than others – and plenty of genuine laughs, and it moves along at a brisk pace. It's slick and confident, and doesn't fail to entertain.
Yet it's hard to shake a nagging feeling that much of this serves as Loki-esque smoke and mirrors, masking the fact that what lies beneath the surface is disappointingly slight. The first hint of this is in managing to cast Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who, 28 Days Later) as the ostensible chief baddie, Malekith, and yet somehow rendering him entirely unmemorable.
It seems clear that Eccleston's role was heavily chopped in the edit – he doesn't even get to speak in English until over halfway through – and this has the effect of leaving the main villain and his plot desperately under-explained. We know he has a deep-seated vendetta against Thor's homeworld Asgard, and wishes to plunge the entire universe into eternal darkness, but by the final act severe leaps of logic are required before his plan - or our heroes’ plan to stop him - makes any real sense.
The Dark World, it seems, is content to let the audience sit back and have all the entertaining nonsense wash over them, rather than actually engage them with a compelling and interesting story. To be fair, though, there is a lot of that entertaining nonsense. Arguably the biggest problem the first film faced was a sense of scale, and this is handsomely solved here – we get to see far more of the surprisingly Star Wars-esque Asgardian realm, while Greenwich is a far more appealing base for the Earth-based scenes than Random Smalltown, New Mexico was.
What persists, though, is the sense that the two worlds still never quite connect – confusingly-explained "convergence" MacGuffin or no. Once again, the Earth scenes feel cut adrift from the film proper, particularly once it makes clear its true priority is in giving as much screen time as possible to the double act of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. This isn't without good reason – Loki remains by far the most compelling character in the Marvel movie-verse, and if an excuse can be found to put him in every film, we'd have few complaints – but it leaves an awful lot of supporting characters hanging around with little to do. Building a massive and involving world is all well and good – but not if you're going to shy away from actually exploring any of it in depth.
It's as action-packed and visually spectacular as any of its Marvel stablemates – and arguably the funniest of the lot. Yet Thor: The Dark World also suffers by comparison to its recent predecessors, struggling to turn that surface gloss into something wholly satisfying or coherent.
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