If you boiled down Marvel's movies to a basic formula, the first Thor film would be a perfect example of it. It's got some decent superhero action, a lot of shoehorned-in S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff, and one huge feather in its cap: A sense of humor about itself and its characters.

Luckily, the new sequel, Thor: The Dark World, is like its predecessor in that it's not afraid to include some levity. As long as that keeps up, it's a jaunty, enjoyable flick. It's only when the movie gets capital-s Serious -- and luckily that's not too often -- that it gets into some trouble.

In the humor department, there are a few actors who are clearly the movie's MVPs: Kat Dennings as Darcy, Stellan Skarsgård as Erik Selvig and Tom Hiddleston as Loki (who gives Tumblr even more reason to love him unreservedly here). Any time one or more of them come onscreen, you're guaranteed an enjoyable scene. Ray Stevenson's Volstagg is also a lot of fun, and Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, gets some great laugh moments. There's one in the big battle scene at the end that might be the best gag in the whole movie. It's hard to go wrong with a "Thor doing mundane Earth stuff" bit. Every one of those hits.

Speaking of battles, I did think the action in this one surpassed the first movie's action sequences by leaps and bounds. Not only was the big, final battle considerably scaled up in terms of stakes, it got lots of characters involved. Jane Foster, Selvig and Darcy all played roles in helping Thor deal with this huge, worlds-threatening event. In fact, just about every character got a chance to shine. Sif has a couple great fight moments. Fandral gets to swashbuckle. Volstagg gets to fight off a horde of attackers. Loki has a great fight. Even Heimdall, who doesn't usually have a chance to see much action, has a really cool showcase moment.

Most importantly, all those moments happen at times that make sense in the story. Very little here feels forced. The Dark World doesn't have those "OK, let's pause and do S.H.I.E.L.D. setup" periods that the first one did. Save one of the two post-credits scenes, it's pretty much all self-contained. In that regard, it's a better movie.

There's also a sequence that involves a subterfuge plot that takes a while to get off the ground, but once it does, it metes out its twists and turns really well. (As if I needed to say, Loki plays a big role.) I'm a surefire sucker for that kind of thing.

Thor Loki

The parts that aren't so hot tend to be the scenes that prominently feature the big bad guy of the film, Christopher Eccleston's Malekith. It's too bad. I usually enjoy Eccleston, but Malekith sucks all color and energy off the screen any time he's around. Clearly the idea was to make him an intense and driven villain, but he mostly comes off as generic. His plan is murky ("use a MacGuffin that isn't markedly different from the Tesseract, except now it's liquid and red, to destory everything and get revenge" is the gist). His motivations are rather unclear, despite an opening infodump attempting to explain them, and he mostly just scowls and yells. He isn't charismatic or magnetic like great bad guys are.

There's one other part of the movie that drags, but to say what it is would be pretty spoilery, so I'll just say a sad thing happens at the end of the first act. As a result, the beginning of the second act is a lot of characters moping around Asgard. It's sort of an inversion of the structure of the first Thor movie; once that movie got through a pretty rocky first act, it really picked up in the second, when Thor got to Earth and started getting to know people. That's where that movie revealed it had a personality. The second act of The Dark World is where it feels the most cookie-cutter, to be honest.

To that point, I couldn't help but notice how much this movie wore its influences on its sleeve. The movie version of Malekith is a Star Trek villain, through and through. He's mostly Romulan (I mean, look at him) with a little bit of Klingon thrown in. All his scenes feel like they're from a Star Trek movie (and not a great one), even down to the lighting. Some Asgard scenes feel pretty Star Trek-like, too. Any of the scenes that involve air battles feel a whole lot like Star Wars. There's an obvious Lord of the Rings influence, and I don't just mean in terms of the way characters talk or have beards. The way director Alan Taylor actually shoots close-ups looks very similar. And let's be real here: One big piece of the plot is Crocodile Dundee 2, with Asgard in the place of Australia (OK, I'm half-kidding on that one).

Upon noticing those clear influences, I kind of realized that, up until the very end, The Dark World feels a lot more like a sci-fi/fantasy movie than a superhero film. The coolest part of the first act is where Jane and Darcy find some crazy spatial anomalies and just play around with them for a while. There's a looseness and a sense of wonder there that make that scene really fun. Individual heroics are generally supplanted with big battle scenes (that involve laser guns!). The Dark Elves, as I said, are certainly alien invaders, with their big spaceships.

Even Asgard seems less godly and more outright alien in this movie. Their medical facility (sick bay?) has non-magical apparati. Jane Foster even knows what they're using to examine her. It sparkles less. Odin's throne room isn't shot with the sort of impossible brightness it had in the first movie. It's dimmer. Anthony Hopkins plays Odin with less godlike certainty, even. There's a shot where he's considerably shorter than Thor, and he sort of just looks like a guy with a beard. He says outright the Asgardians aren't gods and can die.

Thor Jane Foster

I feel like this is all definitely on purpose, and in the end, I actually think bringing Asgard down to Earth, so to speak, is effective. The Asgard from the first movie seemed sort of cold and above it all (literally). There's a humanity to it in this one.

And that's what ultimately makes Thor: The Dark World a winner, in spite of its problems. It may occasionally lose some connection with the audience, but it always endeavors to re-establish it, either with a nicely timed joke or a gripping action turn.

Also: It ends on a comic-book cliffhanger. That's pretty rad.

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