In 1978, the first Superman movie came to theaters brandishing the tagline "You'll believe a man can fly." The audacious notion was also a simple one: that notion of fantasy you held as a child, that aspiration towards the impossible that so many grow out of will be revived and, in the scope of a single feature film, you will believe in the incredible once again.
Despite being from a rival comic book company, Thor: The Dark World embodies that spirit in a way that even most of the Marvel movies to date haven't approached.
To compare this sequel to 2011's Thor is almost unfair to itself, given how vastly different the settings are to each other. The first Thor movie—which I will remind you was meant to be the primary (rainbow?) bridge between Earth and the worlds beyond, a critical and necessary role in the run up to the Avengers—featured the wondrous and mystical world of Asgard...for like a minute. The bulk of the movie takes place in the desert of New Mexico. Woo.
The Dark World, in contrast, can barely choose its favorite realm to play around in. In fact, the movie is so full of windows and gateways between the nine realms that it almost feel reminiscent of the Portal games (and in one very obvious moment, it's almost a direct rip off).
The result is that the movie has a scale that actually deserves the lore that it's representing. Thor is already a bit of a misfit in the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far in that he's the only superhero that a.) is from outer space, 2.) is immortal, and d.) actually has a decent grasp of what the hell is going on. He has to fight, of course, and he has struggles. But unlike Tony Stark, Captain America, the Hulk, or any of the other main characters, you never get the sense that he's in over his head or has to process what's happening. He knows who Loki is, he understands how the realms work, and he accepts—even understands—the "magic" that baffles all of the other characters we know and love.
While these limitation on other characters make them ripe for character development—as we saw in Iron Man 3, Tony Stark has difficulty just handling his experiences in New York which, frankly, pale in comparison to the scope of The Dark World—they also tend to funnel heroes into a box. This is a box that Thor has no place nor desire to be in.
Every Marvel movie has a role to play in each Phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man plays the role of grounding us. He is how we adapt and understand. We get science, we get technology. We can ease our way into this bizarre, illogical world through his eyes. Captain America calls us to idealism. The simple and maybe even naive notion that "good" is a real thing. That for all of life's complexity there are—there must be—lines that we can't and won't cross. Maybe that's a notion for a simpler time, when the good guys were good and the bad guys were Hitler, but what good is fighting evil if you become evil yourself?
Thor's role is to make us dream. It sounds corny, it sounds cheesy, and it makes insecure men worry that their feelings might be showing. Yet, we all need that. It's that sense of wonder that makes beauty what it is. For all the horrible things that happen in The Dark World, it's almost impossible to lose the sense that the universe is so far beyond our normal day-to-day. It's from that place that the fight to save the universe gets its drive. You don't want the nine realms to be saved so that Earth people can continue going to coffee shops and working in their offices. You want them to be saved because they are beautiful.
There's one particular sequence in the movie that I won't spoil, but it's rife with emotion and wonder and a sense of absolute magic. While it's hard to be genuinely happy during this sequence, you still can't shake the feeling, even in that lowest of lows, that you have no idea what new mysteries await out in the universe, but you know hope is among them.
Meta analysis about the role of Thor in the larger Marvel universe aside, The Dark World manages to bring together every element of the Asgardian world that should've been in the first movie. The fantasy, the grandeur, the expansion of the universe, Loki. And, as though every review in the world hasn't already stated it: Loki is fantastic.
There are several points in the movie where Asgardians discuss the events of the New York with Loki. Interestingly, during the Avengers, you almost get the sense that Loki had gone mad. Where was the clever, conniving trickster we'd grown to appreciate in Thor? Why had he gone from master manipulator to shallow conqueror?
While I maintain that the Avengers showed enough elements to demonstrate the point (if not necessarily dwelling on it), The Dark World showed exactly why he seemed to suffer such a dramatic shift in character: he hadn't. To the Asgardians, Earth was a little world. To them, the difference between New York and New Mexico was miniscule and—at least in Loki's mind—the lifestyle of war and conquering is nothing new. In fact, if you were to consider these other two Thor movies, jumping down to another world with an army, slaying a bunch of residents and claiming a ruling status in the name of peace seems routine. Mandatory even. The only disagreement with Loki is that he went to war for the wrong reasons and betrayed Asgard. The trickster never left. He was simply operating on a different level from the rest of the Avengers. As was Thor.
Ironically, it's Thor who sees the bigger shift in personality over the course of the three movies he's shared with Loki (though the arc is an obvious one for anyone who's watched the original Thor). And, while it's disappointing that Malekith (played by the fantastic Christopher Eccleston) didn't round out to a more enjoyable villain, the film doesn't end so much with you feeling like a story arc or character progression has concluded so much as you've finished a chapter in a very long, elaborate, and lovingly-crafted story.
At the end of the day, that's exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe is. To separate the movies is impossible. If you were to watch Thor, followed directly by The Dark World, you'd be lost. For better or worse, the movies are all one large story now and this latest installment has raised the bar in a way that Phase 2 desperately needed.