I enjoyed the first Thor quite a bit when I saw it in '11, referring to the Kenneth Branagh-directed film as, "a master class in brand management." And I didn't mean that in a bad way. As I said then, it had "the cool confidence that can only come from a studio that's danced this jig already and knows all the beats." Back then the Marvel Studios operation had already become something akin to an assembly line, and that machine-works has only become more practiced and precise in the wake of the senses-shattering success of 2012's team-up opus The Avengers.
As such, while Thor's second solo feature (with star Chris Hemsworth back in armor as the hammer-wielding Thunder God) swaps in director Alan Taylor (HBO's Game of Thrones), the edifice that Branagh helped build last time is so sturdy that any changes are akin to changing the drapes. This is franchise filmmaking at its most efficient. It's either a good thing or bad thing depending on where you sit on the dividing line between "art" and "commerce," but like the James Bond series, the Marvel films are beholden to their own particular producer-driven aesthetics, regardless of who's calling the shots behind the camera.
As The Dark World begins, we get an infodump of exposition from Allfather Odin (Anthony Hopkins) who lays out the backstory of dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who was defeated in the past by Thor's grand-pappy, and whose reemergence in the present provides the film's central conflict. Meanwhile, Thor has brought his wayward brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) back to the astral realm of Asgard, where he's been consigned to prison to pay for the alien invasion carnage he inflicted on the city of New York (See: Avengers, The).
Mean-meanwhile, Thor's human ladylove Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) pines for the Thunder God (who's off keeping the peace in various other realms), and navigates a rocky love life while continuing her scientific research on Earth alongside returning supporting players Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård. Naturally, it isn't long before the various plot threads between Asgard and Earth coalesce into the usual sturm und drang we expect from this sort of thing, though I'll leave out the specific whys-and-wherefores that get us there (spoiler: Loki gets out of prison).
Thor: The Dark World buzzes through its prescribed paces efficiently, but rarely exceeds that efficiency. It's also beset at times by the same pacing and story problems that afflicted last May's Iron Man 3. Too many plot threads needing attention, taking us in too many different directions. However, I also think Thor 2 is more effective overall than the last Iron flick, which really did seem content to coast on the gallons of goodwill that star Robert Downey has built up in that role (and boy was that goodwill ever tested during the interminable action climax).
In that sense, the Marvel films' biggest asset thus far has always been their casting, whether Downey, Chris Evans as Captain America, or Hemsworth here. The charismatic star (who was also excellent in the under-seen Rush earlier this fall) has clearly taken ownership of his heroic role, as has Hiddleston as his unhinged, oddly sympathetic opposite number. Both add dimension and texture to what could easily become one-note portrayals. The chemistry, camaraderie, and conflict between the two helps gird much of the film's soggy middle, and goes a great way toward papering over many narrative deficiencies.
If there's anyone who's left underserved in the cast it's Eccleston, whose trademark baritone booms, but doesn't get to do much else as Malekith (introduced during writer-artist Walt Simonson's legendary comic book run in the '80s). His motivations are left largely undeveloped, and while both Thor and Loki have an emotional stake in seeing the villain laid low, we as an audience don't, beyond the fact that, well, that's what's supposed to happen. As a result, the finale doesn't have anywhere near the impact it should (though, admittedly, this was sort of a flaw in the first film as well).
As yet another entry in Marvel Studios' rapidly expanding cinematic saga, Thor: The Dark World falls somewhere in the middle of the pack, neither raising the bar nor lowering it. And really, this isn't a bad pack to be in the middle of. It's the remarkable qualitative consistency of these products that remains their biggest selling point. When you see that flipping comic book logo up-top, you pretty much know exactly what you're going to get. And while the end credits promise us Thor's imminent return in the not-too-distant future, all eyes now turn to April's Captain America: The Winter Soldier to see what happens next. B+