Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is busy "keeping peace in the Nine Realms" in the first act of Thor: The Dark World, which means he's beaming himself from one interstellar land to the next, helping to slay whatever nasties are afoot before becoming king in his home realm of Asgard. On one battlefield, he shows up after his pals have been fighting for what looks like hours, just in time to pull an Indiana Jones and trounce the largest villain with a single blow, spooking all other enemies into surrender. "Perhaps next time we should start with the big one," says one of Thor's allies. Little does this valiant quipster know that he's providing commentary on the state of modern action blockbusters, virtually all of which consist of one skirmish after another, each serving as a plot-lengthening baby step on the inevitable march to The Big One.
Audiences have more than accepted this rather transparent formula, but masking it remains the key challenge of films of this type, which need enough clever, enveloping diversions to distract from the basic, battle-to-battle domino effect. For a movie whose mere existence seems solely and indefensibly cash-conscious, this sequel to Thor and The Avengers does a remarkable job of padding that baseline, offering enough humor, special-effects artistry, and actual emotion to make the trek to the showdown a surprising pleasure.
Though screenwriters Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely are apparently working from decades-old comic-book mythology, it remains impossible not to view Thor: The Dark World's story beats as derivative. The film's heavily narrated prologue alone apes that of the The Fellowship of the Ring, right down to an ancient battle involving mystical elves, and a terribly potent power source that needs to be kept at bay so the lands won't be cloaked in that catch-all evil of "darkness." This time, the elves, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), are the bad guys, and the power source is an ambiguous red substance called the Aether, which, in present-day London, is discovered by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor's squeeze and the prettiest scientist on the planet. Still reeling from being left behind by her beloved Fabio clone, Jane encounters the Aether in some kind of vortex, and as it consumes her, it awakens Malekith and his minions. Having endangered herself and all Nine Realms at the dawn of a planetary alignment (never a good thing in fantasy film), Jane needs Thor to usher her off to Asgard for help, and as she dons the robes and armor of the sleek, idyllic otherworld, there's the shocking remembrance that Portman's pre-Oscar work involved similarly traipsing around Naboo.
Director Alan Taylor's sequel doesn't have the near-lyrical theatricality of Kenneth Branagh's original, but it does use Jane's departure from Earth to effectively flip-flop Thor's fish-out-of-water conceit, which saw the Norse-inspired hero bumble around our orb like Encino Man. It also learns from the first film's mistakes of sidelining certain female players, giving Portman much more screen time to play both damsel in distress and survivor, and amping up the much-welcome presence of Rene Russo, who gets moments of tenderness and badassery as Frigga, mother of Thor and stepmother of imprisoned bad apple Loki (Tom Hiddleston).
Loki is finally called on by his brother to help defeat Malekith, presenting a precarious partnership that yields as many knowing laughs as it does poignant rewards. Loki's holographic morphing abilities, which he apparently learned from his mama, lead to such jokes as him assuming the form of Chris Evans's Captain America, while the tricky sibling rivalry reaches steep emotional levels, thanks to two significant in-film deaths and an unforced rehash of the brothers' loaded history. Easily giving the finest performance in Hollywood's entire Marvel Universe, Hiddleston lends merit to this brand that can't be overstated, as Loki's cheeky deception is laced with the tear-inducing pain of a bastard son.
And yet, it's levity and visual panache that ultimately seal this film's triumph. Whereas a lesser sequel would wink at the audience with an overdose of pride, Thor: The Dark World displays buoyant humility in its self-awareness, matching, for instance, Thor's exposition about the realm alignment with Jane's cooed response, "I like the way you explain things." (There's also a priceless, hysterical bit back on Earth when Thor casually hangs his hammer on the coat rack in Jane's apartment.) And while a post-production 3D conversion probably won't do much to enhance the experience, this movie's imagery is flawlessly, epically realized. The prologue's likeness to The Fellowship of the Ring might be off-putting, but Malekith's spaceship-piloted siege of Asgard is anything but, calling to mind the riveting grandeur of The Return of the King's Siege of Gondor.
And it says something that the realization of this world needn't only use wars and destruction to dazzle viewers. There's a nighttime memorial sequence as handsome as anything else in the film, with fallen Asgardians floating down a river in burning canoes, and dissolving into starlight absorbed by the sky just as they hit a waterfall's edge. Naturally, Thor: The Dark World culminates with one last melee, but it doesn't lazily resort to having Malekith lay total, requisite waste to a major city a la the insufferable Man of Steel. There's some rare madness to the genre discipline, be it via contraptions that manically jettison objects through portals, or the actions of a mad scientist played by Stellan Skarsgärd, whose serial nudity has no apparent purpose other than possible prep for Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac. Superhero movies aren't going anywhere, nor is their standard, on-to-the-next-fight structure, so it's heartening to see a gem that grandly and amusingly fills in the blanks.