(Alan Taylor, 2013)
The success of the Marvel project - a vast, overarching series of interlinked blockbusters starring the companies most famous characters (with the exception of the X-Men and Spider-Man, owned by rival studios) has begun to sink into the films themselves. The Avengers was such an enormous success that there is a winning feeling of confidence flowing through the two post-Avengers Marvel movies; Iron Man 3 and now Thor: The Dark World. If Kenneth Branagh's original film had the difficult job of introducing a fiddly concept to the general public, Taylor's film dives headlong into the complex mythology of the character and his world, presuming that they will already like and know the character enough to go with it.
So this film is a fast-paced romp through the sci-fi, fantasy and super-hero genres; tremendously assured in its world-building, layering detail onto our understanding of Asgard and the nine realms while awkwardly positioning a familiar plot involving the death of the universe due to an ultimate weapon into place. Christopher Eccleston, largely wasted, plays Dark Elf Malekith, very much a Star Trek villain in the wrong universe, seeking the Aether, an ancient substance that can transform matter into dark matter. This brings him into contact with his old enemies on Asgard, where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his Warriors Three have been striving to bring peace to the nine realms after the actions of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in the first film and The Avengers. Then there is Thor's love interest from the first film, Jane Foster (Nathalie Portman) still lovesick for the Asgardian in London, where she stumbles across a strange red substance...
While the spectacle is a given, what works well in the two Thor films is the humour, twinkling away at the ridiculousness of the concepts, but never making fun of them. This is a big part of the appeal of Hemsworth's performance - he is charismatic, but funny about it, charmingly aware of himself - but also of the film itself. The way Foster is introduced - on an awkward date with Chris O'Dowd, asking about her "guy trouble" and nicely oblivious to the fact that the guy is a Demi-God - is a good example of this. Thor crumpling himself into a car and jealously asking about this rival (Fosters response: "Seriously?") extends the joke, and the lightly "realistic" response of many smaller characters to the outsized events occurring around them frames the action in a pleasingly ironic light.
Yet it still works very nicely as pulp. The fight scenes are plentiful and pleasurable, the design and effects making this version of Asgard even more expansive than the one we saw in the original film. The smaller Asgardian characters - Rene Russo's Frigga and Idris Elba's Heimdall, particularly - are given great action beats, while Hiddleston's Loki gets to strut his stuff. He and Hemsworth have great chemistry, and the decision to team them up is a solid one, giving the film a very different dynamic.
Of course it all comes down to the usual super-hero bullshit: destruction of property, a one vs one fight involving huge punches, and a final powerful effort. But it's always staged well, and that Marvel confidence sells it.