Operating on a grander scale and with a sharper funny bone than its predecessor, Thor: The Dark World emerges with much of its title character's swagger, standing proud among Marvel's most confident offerings to date. With warring brothers Thor and Loki forced to work together and hash out their issues mid-battle, there's a rock solid emotional foundation here to offset the quips, although the two aren't always smoothly integrated.
Chris Hemsworth is on charismatic, physically imposing form once again as the hammer-wielding hero (look out for a genuinely awe-inspiring shirtless scene within the first 15 minutes), but the film belongs to Tom Hiddleston, which is all the more remarkable given how much of its running time he spends off screen. Additional scenes were filmed to flesh out Loki's storyline, and watching the final cut you only wish they'd gone further. His fraught relationship with adoptive father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) goes unexplored, although the trade-off is a brief, touching strand with foster mother Frigga (Rene Russo).
Game of Thrones alum Alan Taylor directs with a grounded physicality that feels markedly different from Kenneth Branagh's glossy, colourful first chapter. The opening battle sequences – the first of which sketches in the backstory of Christopher Eccleston's villainous Dark Elf ruler Malekith – recall in their best moments the opening sequences of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, combining epic spectacle with deft choreography.
While Tony Stark's grappling with PTSD down in Malibu, the events of The Avengers have made no less of an impact in Asgard: Loki's consigned to life in prison, Thor's finally given up on him, and Odin is more impatient than ever with Thor's attachment to Earth and specifically Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Much like Iron Man 3 before it, The Dark World grapples with the aftermath of Loki's actions in New York so extensively that the film's own villain feels superfluous; Malekith is so devoid of personality that you only assume most of Eccleston's scenes were left on the cutting room floor.
Back on earth, a miffed Jane has relocated to London and is trying to move on from Thor by dating Chris O'Dowd, which is going about as well as you'd expect. After a mysterious transfer of dark energy puts her life in danger, she's transported up to Asgard to meet the parents moments before full-blown Dark Elf warfare breaks out. The device exists largely as an excuse for Jane to be unconscious for large chunks of the narrative, with reluctant allies Thor and Loki left to their own snarky, intermittently tender devices.
Loki's trickster abilities are used more extensively here than ever before both to emotional and comedic ends, giving rise to a glorious, sly Avenger cameo as well as many of Hiddleston's most poignant moments. All of the qualities that have made Loki beloved among fans despite his villainy – the sardonic wit and eloquent rage and the crippling vulnerability beneath – are given full reign, but Loki is ultimately still on screen less than you wish.
By and large, you're having too much fun in The Dark World to notice any of this until afterwards; the script (on which Joss Whedon did a pass) is very, very funny, with Kat Dennings's feisty Darcy given an expanded role and Stellan Skarsgård returning for some mental breakdown-based comedy.
But effective though the humour is, it's clumsily placed at times alongside the moments of real darkness and loss – there's an emotional gut punch in the second act, but its impact is immediately blunted by a curt segue into wacky hijinks with the gang in London. With the final cut coming in at a taut 112 minutes, there's a distinct sense that a brutal editing process is to blame for these tonal swings.
Despite its occasionally bipolar quality, Thor: The Dark World is a hugely entertaining and sharply written continuation of Marvel's Phase 2, combining heart, spectacle and a shrewd lightness of touch.