THE POPULACE has been indoctrinated. Now that Marvel and their corporate overlords at Disney can safely assume that every sentient creature on Earth is familiar with every one of the Avengers, here's Thor: The Dark World, coming just five months after Iron Man 3. Even if there are any pop cultural holdouts—no doubt they're cold and hungry, huddling in some long-forgotten cave, congratulating themselves on having avoided learning what S.H.I.E.L.D. is—they won't last long. Marvel is, after all, planning on releasing two films per year until Ragnarök.
After seeing Thor and The Avengers, stepping into Thor: The Dark World should be an easy experience. It isn't: For much of its first half, this sequel jumps and jerks, stumbling as it tries to match the wit and charm of the first Thor while also establishing a whole lot of mythology and plot. (There are Dark Elves! There's a half-assed love triangle! There's some evil liquid called "Aether" that looks like a batch of moldy Kool-Aid!) Scenes feel rushed, the greenscreen looks shoddy, and The Dark World struggles to find its tone as Thor (Chris Hemsworth) runs around hitting people with his hammer and taking off his shirt, Thor's Girlfriend (Natalie Portman) gets sad that Thor is doing those things on planets that aren't Earth, and sinister Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) tries to get his hands on that (presumably cherry-flavored) Aether. Meanwhile, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), whose schemes were foiled in The Avengers, sits in a cell, pouting like a teenage drama queen.
It won't surprise anyone that Thor: The Dark World finally finds its groove when Loki enters the film in earnest. Hiddleston's smirking quips provide Hemsworth with exactly the foil he needs, and having Thor and Loki awkwardly team up makes the film less of a collection of Dungeons & Dragons shenanigans and more of an actual narrative—The Dark World works best when it's a buddy movie about two buddies who don't trust each other. And it's when Loki comes in that everything else settles into place: balancing goofy humor and goofier action, The Dark World gets fun. So much fun, in fact, that the overall film is pretty great, despite its rocky start. More than any other Marvel blockbusters, the Thor films capture the bright, weird, adventurous tone of the comic books on which they're based, where bizarre technology meets old-fashioned mythology, and likeable characters joke and punch their way through. (One thing that the comics don't have are actors like Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Chris O'Dowd, and Stellan Skarsgård—all of whom pop up in The Dark World and promptly steal whatever scenes they're in. True, Eccleston's Malekith, who has the makings of a great villain, isn't given nearly enough to do—but it's hard to complain that a beady-eyed bad guy isn't getting enough screen time when everyone else is so great.)
Directed by Game of Thrones' Alan Taylor, this Thor bears the marks of a longer, better film that's been crammed into a too-short runtime; my guess is there are a bunch of deleted scenes sitting on a hard drive at Marvel HQ. But like HBO's Game of Thrones adaptation, some clunkiness can be forgiven when the overall experience is this solid. Once Thor: The Dark World just lets Thor and Loki do their thing, Marvel's dominion is assured, yet again.