With eight "official" movies under their belt, and more to come, Marvel has set a reasonably high bar for what we can expect. And even when the films are pro forma, they still retain a terrific sense of who and what they are. They can also deliver with reasonable panache. So it is with Thor: The Dark World. It won't top anyone's list of their favorite Marvel movies, but it's not looking to knock the ball out of the park. A simple ground-rule double will suffice for it, created by a peppy mix of straightforward action, clever humor and strong actors who have become very, very comfortable with their parts.
The first Thor is easily my favorite Phase One effort, mostly because it did things that no other superhero movie had done before. We're used to the same old origins story in which the hero gains his powers and learns how to use them. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) started out with all the power in the world and lost it, learning humility and responsibility in the process of getting it back. The Dark World proposes to continue that journey, as he faces the burden of potential rule and the sacrifices he may need to make to fulfill those duties.
Mostly, though, it's a straight-up good guys/bad guys slugfest. The dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) arrives after an extended hibernation with a plan to exterminate all life in the known universe. This doesn't fly with the gang at Asgard, so Thor goes off to pound the miscreant's head in. His human lover Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) picks up some of the bad mojo Malekith needs -- making her a target unless Thor can intervene -- while Thor's step-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) gets reluctantly called into duty after rotting in prison since the end of The Avengers.
Hiddleston steals the show yet again, reflecting more of the moral ambiguity of the first Thor than the flat-out villainy of Marvel's magnificent mash-up last year. He's not happy about being stuck in a cell and his agenda hasn't essentially changed (there's a terrific joke about how many people will kill him if he betrays his brother again), but he has his own reasons for wanting Malekith out of the way, so he's willing to play along for the time being. The Dark World gets a lot of mileage out of the two immortal siblings eyeing each other suspiciously even as they join forces to combat this new threat.
The remainder of the film exists solely to give us a good time. Director Alan Taylor balances the exceedingly clever dialogue against a credible menace, making this Thor funny without losing the requisite sense of danger. The various supporting figures (including Kat Dennings' flaky intern, Stellan Skarsgard's loopy physicist and Jaimie Alexander's quietly heartbroken Asgardian warrior) start to crowd the corners a bit, but they also have more interesting things to do, and the actors go the extra mile to justify their presence here.
The Dark World never strays from the unexpected, relying on a time-tested formula instead of bold innovation. There's a few twists and turns, of course, and the standard-issue Easter eggs to set up future entries in the Marvel movie empire, but even that's just part of the plan these days. It feels about the right speed given the franchise's current exalted status. Like Iron Man 3, The Dark World ratchets expectations back just a bit, letting us enjoy the ride without expecting another Avengers every time. It's a solid formula for success, and helps Marvel play the long game with exceptional skill. The Dark World doesn't take the audience for granted and doesn't stretch beyond its assigned role: simple, blunt and very good at what it does. In that sense, it matches its amiable lunkhead of a hero, still grappling with his limitations, but never hesitating when it comes to the task at hand.