BY KATE FUEYO
When it comes to Marvel heroes, Thor is the odd one out. Minus the all-but-disowned Hulk, Thor's pre-Avengers movie was the least well received of the franchise. Tom Hiddleston's Loki stole the show (and the fangirls), while his brother was the latest-arriving and least-developed Avenger. So my expectations were low when I walked into Thor: The Dark World. I was attending out of loyalty to Marvel, and perhaps for hints at April's Captain America sequel. After the first film's flat and misogynistic writing — reducing Natalie Portman's brilliant astrophysicist into a pining love interest? Really? — I expected little.
I am happy to say that I could not have been more wrong.
As with the Avengers, the secret to a good superhero movie is good writing, and The Dark World played its hand well by hiring the same man. Avengers director Joss Whedon did rewrites, and it shows. Witty banter and comebacks are everywhere, along with character development for the first movie's kick-butt mother Frigga (Rene Russo), all-seeing gatekeeper Heimdall (Idris Elba) and snarky, incompetent research assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings). (In contrast, the precursor's bash buddies the Warriors Three have become practically extras, with the exception of a whiff of a love triangle that's never explored involving Thor, Jane and warrior woman Sif.) Even Loki is fleshed out, and Hiddleston plays his character's daddy issues with enough sadness to make us sympathize yet enough shrewdness to keep the audience on their toes.
Whedon's self-deprecating comedy is here, too (in a cameo from another Avenger that's too good to spoil). It speaks to Whedon's writing skills that the added character depth and slapstick comedy mesh well; although we feel for the characters, the audience never forgets that this is a Marvel movie that refuses to take itself too seriously.
Yet the weakness of The Dark World is, in fact, that the audience never forgets that it's a Marvel movie. The film switches between Thor, Jane and Loki's actions on Asgard and Darcy's gang's efforts to find out what's going on back on Earth. (London this time, because super villains got tired of destroying American cities.) When on Asgard, Thor feels like a fantasy epic; when on Earth, it feels like a well-written episode of a crime show. The tone shifts can be sudden and jarring, especially in the film's middle, and references to the MCU feel forced. While individual scenes can be a comedic or dramatic success, it's difficult to critique The Dark World as a sum of its parts when the movie can't decide what it wants to be.
Still, The Dark World is a comic book movie. It's not high cinema, but it's a dang good comic book movie, a funny and genuinely heartfelt ride that's a worthy addition to Marvel's slate. So pass the popcorn (and you really should know this by now, but stay after the credits).