Thor's second solo outing strikes a far better balance between the Earth-bound action and the dramas on his home world of Asgard, but beyond the strong set pieces and knowing humour, the plot and central romance fail to hit home.
Marvel explores the aftermath of 2012's epic The Avengers for the second time this year, as Thor: The Dark World follows in the wake of Shane Black's incredibly successful Iron Man 3. Wisely, this film steers clear of those events, keeping the promise that each standalone film would give the franchise as a whole space to breathe, rather than attempting to fulfil sequel duties for everything that had come before it.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is returned to Asgard, and incarcerated in the city's dungeons. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), still pining for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and reluctant to take the throne, busies himself on the battlefields of his kingdom. On Earth, Jane discovers, and falls through, a wormhole connecting the Nine Realms, and is infected by a Venom-like black ooze known as the Aether. Thor has no choice but to leave Asgard and search for her, just as a dormant race of space elves, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), are awakened, intent on using the Aether to conquer Asgard and banish the Nine Realms to eternal darkness.
While Kenneth Branagh understandably brought a grand theatricality to the first Thor film, The Dark World feels less Shakespeare and more Game of Thrones, due in large part to TV veteran Alan Taylor taking over the reins. This is by no means a criticism of the film, as Taylor's sure hand brings a balance to the proceedings, and he proves himself more than capable of staging action just as well as dramatic character moments - when the script can come up with the goods.
The greatest strength of the Thor films remains their casting, and Tom Hiddleston's Loki predictably steals the limelight whenever he is onscreen. More mischievous than malevolent this time out, Loki is demoted to wise-cracking bystander for much of the film, but remains an absolutely delicious creation within the Marvel universe.
Chris Hemsworth continues to do sterling work in the lead role, presenting Thor as a commanding presence on the battlefield, yet also a slightly clueless - and often affronted - fish out of water whenever he is visiting Earth. Many of the film's best jokes derive, as they did in the first film, from moments when the fantastical world of Asgard and the comparatively mundane real world attempt to co-exist (Where does one hang their magic hammer?).
Other returning players include Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo as Odin and Frigga, who, perhaps appropriately, continue to perform as though walking the boards of the Old Vic. The dynamic between Odin and his two sons remains weighty with conflicting emotions of loyalty, betrayal, duty and tradition, which Hopkins pulls off with effortless aplomb. Frigga, conversely, has hardly challenged the once-feisty Russo until now, but she finally gets a piece of the action when she is gifted a brief, yet visceral sword fight against Christopher Eccleston's principal villain.
Buried under a mountain of pointy latex appendages, Eccleston's Malekith is unlikely to go down in the annals of great screen villains. What works is how the arrival of his space elf army essentially turns Asgard from a Tolkeinian fantasy world into a science fiction environment closer to the Star Wars universe. It doesn't effect the narrative so much as help the transition between London and Asgard within an otherwise Earthbound superhero franchise, something Branagh's film never quite accomplished.
While Malekith's motives here are as much vengeful as they are megalomaniacal, he never seduces the audience nor convinces as a viable threat. He really only exists to disrupt the balance enough to force Thor into action and bring him and Jane back together. Which is frustrating, because the film's central romance is perhaps the film's least interesting facet.
Portman, obviously a talented actress, brings nothing to a role that claims to be intelligent, beautiful, independent...and yet spends the entire film pining for her knight in shining armour (quite literally as it happens) to come to her rescue. Far more interesting is Kat Dennings' spunky sidekick, Darcy, who wrings a number of solid laughs out of her modest amount of screen time.
While it's encouraging to see that the screenwriters have finally noticed they have Idris Elba in their film, giving him more to do this time than simply opening and closing a gate, other brilliant actors like Asano Tadanobu and Stellan Skarsgard are not so lucky. Asano, in particular, has all of about 7 seconds of screen time in the entire film.
Elsewhere, The Dark World makes great use of its London setting, with everywhere from the Greenwich Observatory to Charing Cross tube station used either to stage a visually arresting action sequence or get a cheap laugh out of the fact that yes, even grouchy commuters find Thor irresistible. The pace does flag at times, more often than not when our attentions are forced onto Portman, who regularly appears wandering vast otherworldly desertscapes looking gaunt and caked in make-up (the fact I even noticed says something about her dispondent performance).
Overall, however, Thor: The Dark World is an entertaining romp, and while the myriad petty squabbles in Odin's household never quite feel as majestic as they did last time, the action on the whole is more bombastic and at least poses a genuine threat to more than a row of parked cars. As expected, the film tosses out a few fan-baiting Easter eggs, an obligatory Stan Lee sighting, not one but two end-credits sequences, as well as a brief appearance by a fellow Avenger that scores the biggest laugh of the whole film.
Thor is still the toughest sell in the Avengers canon (to-date at least), but Hemsworth, Hiddleston et al continue to take a damn good swing at it.