The biggest issue with Thor, released back in 2011, was that it had a lot of ground to cover. It had to introduce a modern audience to a less-than-well-known comic book hero. It had to fit in with the growing “Cinematic Universe” Marvel Studios was building up to The Avengers. It had to be successful, in that it was communicating several of Marvel’s – and Jack Kirby’s – wackier ideas: Outsized space gods crossed between magic, myth, and super-science. It had to ground that with a story people would even begin to care about. That, and with a rumored cost of over $200 million with marketing… Did I mention it had to be successful?

As a result, Thor only sort-of worked. Director Kenneth Branagh brought his Shakespearean bluster to Asgard and Loki’s political machinations, but the stuff on Jane Foster’s Earth was somewhat… mundane. Just as Iron Man 2 suffered from worldbuilding issues, Thor spent too much time establishing their respective worlds – and the cosmology of the Nine Realms – but it had to be done. Now that that’s all out of the way though, Thor: The Dark World can – and does – get down to the business of being one of the more driven entries into Marvel’s canon, and one of the – if not the – best space fantasies of the last two decades (that easily surpasses the Star Wars prequels).

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Indeed, Thor: The Dark World gets right everything the Star Wars prequels got wrong, while also shaving some of the prideful “grandeur” from The Lord of the Rings series. It’s simple stuff: the dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) hails from a time before the universe was born. He yearns to return existence to a time of complete darkness, seeking out the MacGuffin superweapon called the Aether. Odin (Anthony Hopkins, having the time of his life huffing through his suit of armor) wants nothing more than to stamp Malekith out, even after Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, playing the stuff she thought Queen Amidala was supposed to be) is accidentally linked to the Aether. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) needs to protect Jane, Earth, the Nine Realms, and his noble lineage, and shoulders the responsibility like a true hero of legend.

Thor: The Dark World gets right everything the Star Wars prequels got wrong

If Iron Man is meant for boys and their toys, and Captain America – especially after seeing the trailer for Winter Soldier – is squarely aimed at guys who fancy themselves “real men”, then Thor is doubtlessly aimed at the ladies. And is all the better for it. Thor: The Dark World, the story credited to Don Payne and Robert Rodat with a screenplay by Christopher L. Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, lets both worlds – Jane and plucky intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) are now in London tracking down spatial anomalies – breathe while never dragging things down. The ridiculously attractive Hemsworth, gratuitously not wearing a shirt, stoically yearns for Portman. Sif (Jaimie Alexander) swirls about fighting barbarians, while Frigga (Rene Russo) takes up arms to defend her kingdom. And then, of course, there’s Loki. The Internet has pretty much decided Tom Hiddleston is the world’s best boyfriend, and he continues to earn his stripes by imbuing his villain with a puckish blend of darkness and sympathy. First-time film director Alan Taylor is more surefooted with character moments than the action, but Thor: The Dark World’s perfect blend of sci-fi and high fantasy allows the special effects to do most of the heavy lifting.

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9.5

  • The space fantasy you’ve always wanted to see
  • Fun, effortless performances from entire cast
  • Could be seen as derivative
  • Some Loki moments seem tacked on

Speaking of the visuals, some of the easy cues are lifted from other, earlier works. Malekith flies across space in a black ship with red, glowing lights. They speak in a Tolkien-ish (or even Klingon-sounding) fictional language. But it’s never really that bothersome. Focused on one character, and that character’s whimsical ensemble cast, Thor: The Dark World is more decisive than The Avengers, and effortlessly able to play in a fantastical land of wish-fulfillment, never forgetting that being a superhero would probably be a lot of fun. (And remember to stick around for both post-credits stingers. They’re worth the wait.)

Thor: The Dark World, a Marvel Studios production distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, is 112 minutes long and rated PG-13.