Part of why the Thor movies work as well as they do is because Chris Hemsworth really doesn't have to do that much to convince us he's a god. (Or a space sorta-immortal, whatever.) And it's not just that he's got the face of an angel and the body of a titan. He simply has a commanding presence about him, you genuinely trust in his ability to protect us puny Earthlings from the cosmic forces threatening to destroy us. But, and this is a crucial but, his eyes also twinkle with a bit of humor. Hemsworth knows that all his muscly hunkiness and hammer-tossing and whatnot is a goofy lark. And the Thor movies know it, too, which is why they remain the true comedies of the Marvel universe. Which is just fine by me.
Though not quite as sprightly as Kenneth Branagh's original outing, Thor: The Dark World is still a zippy gambol. Well, the second half at least. Which is somewhat strange for a superhero movie. Usually the set-up is what's fun, and then by the time the big climactic action set piece kicks into gear, things have muddied into a senseless clatter. Instead, the beginning of Dark World is a slog of exposition that grows tiresome. We learn about the movie's MacGuffin, some sort of evil weapon that some bad guys want to use to cast the universe into terrible darkness, and there's some strife between wicked Loki (Tom Hiddleston), now in a dungeon in Asgard for his crimes against New York, and his proud, noble family. It's all rather soupy, especially everything involving the villain (a "dark elf," heh) and his nefarious plot. One problem with all of these Marvel movies is that the villains always seem too arbitrary; it's just a fill-in-the-blanks of [bad guy] + [thing he wants]. I know that's true of pretty much all action movies, but particularly in Marvel's world, the stakes never feel quite as high as they should.
If you think about it too much, anyway. After The Dark World gets through all of its plodding, director Alan Taylor picks up the pace and takes us on a good-natured romp through the heavens and on Earth. The stuff happening on this planet before Thor gets here is also a good time, with Natalie Portman's Jane and her wisecracking sidekick Darcy (Kat Dennings) bopping around London and investigating a mysterious gravitational phenomenon. When Thor finally does arrive, we're reintroduced to the first film's winning mix of Asgardian stiffness clashing with Earthly ordinariness. I love seeing Thor bumble around our human world, and it's the perfect way for Marvel to cleverly acknowledge that he can be a pretty silly character without completely undermining him. The goofier Thor seems on Earth, the more heroic he seems when he inevitably saves the planet. Ultimately, the thing that makes him funny is what wins the day. It's odd that a big hunk of avenging man-meat can be called endearing, but he is. He really is!
What else to say about this film without spoiling? (Really, there's not much to spoil, but Marvel fans seem particularly spoilerphobic, so I'll be cautious.) Hemsworth and Portman have nice chemistry together, though I'm dying for more domestic scenes between the two of them. Siting down and eating dinner. Something. Portman is a fine damsel in distress, but she could have a little more to do. Hiddleston, as ever, makes Loki a charmingly sneaky dandy. This is his third outing in the role and yet nothing is too practiced or overplayed. Loki is one of the better characters in the Avengers universe because he's cleverly written, yes, but he'd not have survived this long were it not for the almost classical wit that Hiddleston brings to the role. He was a great find — maybe Branagh knew him from British TV? — and a sterling example of the surprising creativity and intelligence that Marvel has employed in undertaking this massive endeavor.
Speaking of creativity and intelligence, the big final battle in the film uses a gimmick that's so kooky and fantastic that I thought for a second that Joss Whedon might have directed it. He didn't, but his stamp is all over this movie. Which is a good thing, and bodes well for the future of the franchise. Who knows what to expect from next spring's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but The Dark World suggests to me that this whole operation still has some life left in it. What a smart thing Marvel did in making these films as bouncy and elastic as they are. If they'd been somber dirges like Christopher Nolan made — dirges I loved, but grew tired of — all would be a mess. But instead, a film as silly and, let's face it, unnecessary as a Thor sequel sent me out of the theater plenty giddy and cheered. I had a big dumb grin on my face for much of the film's raucous, eye-popping finale, which is exactly the effect that these movies should have, and almost consistently do. Marvel has built quite a brand here. They should think about branching out. TV shows? Comic books? The possibilities seem endless.