I understood Phase I of Marvel’s cinematic super-franchise. Even if we didn’t know exactly what alien force Loki would use to try and conquer Earth, all the other pieces fell into place clearly enough. Establishing SHIELD and its most prominent members, putting the Cosmic Cube into play, giving Loki a motivation and a method to be the Avengers’ main antagonist, all of these steps were plainly visible as Marvel overtly set its heroes on a collision course with each other. Then Thanos poked his head in at the end of Avengers, and it seemed like a natural progression from what had come before. It looked like we were in for more of the same awesome ride.

But then Phase II started. And it seems that Marvel is taking a different strategy altogether.

Iron Man 2 was clearly made in the service of the greater crossover. Iron Man 3 was just as clearly not. Sure, I could look at the sequence of “Iron Man -> Iron Man 2 -> The Avengers -> Iron Man 3” and see a through-line between them just fine, but even when Iron Man was first released, that end-credits stinger helped lay a clear path ahead to Avengers. Now, when I look ahead to Ultron, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch waiting for us in Avengers 2, I look at Iron Man 3 and find myself asking “How the hell do we get there from here?”

Captain America: The Winter Soldier looks to be a similar case. The previews and confirmed reports on that movie show an increased SHIELD presence, the resurgence of Bucky Barnes, and Cap’s introduction to Sharon Carter, all of which show a natural progression from The First Avenger to Avengers to next April. But how any of that is supposed to set up a berzerk robot, a probability-altering witch, and a speedster is anyone’s guess.

So now I’ve just come back from Thor: The Dark World, and I’m more confused than ever. I have no idea how this movie — much less three or four disparate movies — will play into a greater coherent whole in time for the next Avengers movie. Yet as with the other two, the progression of Thor -> Avengers -> The Dark World shows a very strong development for this particular series.

For those who don’t remember, the previous Thor movie informed us that — including Asgard, Jotunheim, and Midgard (read: Earth) — there are nine realms known to the Asgardians. And it seems that every few thousand years or so, the Nine Realms start to align and blur together so the laws of physics can take some time off. The last time this happened, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and his army of Dark Elves tried to destroy the entire universe by spreading a dangerous kind of energy called Aether through all Nine Realms at once. The Asgardians managed to stop Malekith’s forces, but of course the Aether was too powerful to destroy. So Bor (Odin’s father, played by an uncredited Tony Curran) hid the Aether away in a place where it could never be reached.

Cut to the present day. The Nine Realms are due to start aligning again, which means that unstable and unpredictable portals between realms are beginning to open up. Dr. Jane Foster (played once again by Natalie Portman) stumbles through such a portal, and it happens to drop her right where the Aether is being kept. Eager to escape captivity, the apparently sentient Aether latches onto Jane and takes up residence inside her soul. Her momentary disappearance from Earth catches the attention of Thor (Chris Hemsworth, of course), who takes Jane back to Asgard to figure out what’s going on.

Of course, the Aether’s escape also awakens Malekith and his Dark Elves, who have somehow managed to spend the past few millennia in hibernation without anyone noticing. Oh, and it seems that the Asgardians were all stupid enough to think that the Dark Elves were completely obliterated even though thousands of them — including their leader and his right-hand man — must have gone unaccounted for.

In case it isn’t already clear, the plot to this movie is awful. The premise is paper-thin, the narrative is built on a sequence of contrivances, and there are plot holes wider than the fucking Rainbow Bridge. However, I will grant that there were several clever twists, mostly by way of Loki and his powers of illusion. I’ll get back to him later.

Speaking of Thor’s villains, I’m sad to say that Malekith is not an upgrade. At all. This character has no motivation, no development, no personality, no charisma… he’s a plot device and nothing more. Malekith isn’t a character, he’s a means of providing conflict. Nero from Star Trek (2009) would look like Darth Vader next to this guy. Pathetic.

Then we have the human characters. I hate to think about them, much less talk about them, but I guess I kinda have to. To start with, Kat Dennings’ character is somehow even more annoying in this movie than she was in the previous one. I was willing to put up with Darcy in the previous movie, because her snarky sense of humor contrasted nicely with Thor’s otherworldly demeanor. Without that, however, there’s absolutely nothing redeemable or entertaining about this character.

Even worse, Darcy now has an intern of her own (Ian, played by Jonathan Howard) so they can be shrill and unfunny together. Joy.

Oh, and Chris O’Dowd joins the cast as some random guy who goes on an unsuccessful date with Jane. Because this movie really needed one more annoying and useless comic relief character.

Next up is Stellan Skarsgaard, reprising his role as Dr. Erik Selvig. Apparently, all that time spent under Loki’s mind control has driven Erik to the local mental asylum (no idea how Hawkeye is holding up, sadly). Erik seems to think that mind control by a god has made him stark raving bonkers, at least until the plot needs him to be smart and sane again.

Last but not least, there’s Jane Foster herself. Though Natalie Portman is still gamely trying to salvage this character, the whole Thor/Jane thing has absolutely no chemistry or purpose. Hell, the only reason why Jane is in this movie is because of all the flimsy contrivances written into the premise to put her there.

Even better, the film tries to explore the whole “Arwen/Aragorn” angle, asking why Thor would care about Jane when he’s going to outlive her by a few hundred of her lifetimes. One, it’s hard for me to care about the question when I’m still figuring out why Thor loves her so badly to begin with. Two, we’re going by comic book logic here. Mortal or no, Jane Foster will most assuredly be forever young, always beautiful, and never at risk of staying dead for very long.

So with all of this going against the movie, what does it get right? In a word, Asgard.

This film addresses a huge complaint from the last go-round by taking us into Asgard and showing us what everyday life there is like. The film fleshes out Asgard beyond the palace and the Rainbow Bridge (which has apparently been repaired since the last movie, I might add), showing us what ordinary Asgardian citizens are like when they’re living and playing and drinking. There’s a whole army at Odin’s command, and we see them charge into battle with epic results. Hundreds of Asgardians get killed, and we see how those losses are mourned.

As for our main Asgardians themselves, they fare superbly. Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) might have gotten pushed to the wayside early on, but I was still relieved to see Lady Sif and the Warriors Three have something substantial to do after their worthless turns in the previous film. In fact, I understand that Sif would have had even more to do if Jaimie Alexander hadn’t gotten herself severely injured on set. Such a damn shame, because the character still shows a lot of untapped potential. As for the two Warriors with any decent amount of screen time, I’m glad to say that Ray Stevenson is still a joy to watch, and Zachary Levi disappeared into his character with shocking ease. Never knew the guy had that much talent.

I’m also glad to say that Idris Elba was given way more to do as Heimdall, and even Thor’s mother (Frigga, played by Rene Russo) gets to kick some ass. Strangely enough, the weak link in the Asgardian supporting cast is Anthony Hopkins, who seems to be phoning it in as Odin. Not that it matters much, since Hopkins still nails the role even when he’s sleepwalking.

Ah, but what of everyone’s favorite Asgardian brothers? Well, Chris Hemsworth still owns the role of Thor. I was rather pleased to see that this character is still ruled overwhelmingly by his emotions, except that his feelings are more geared toward other people than toward himself as in the last film. That’s a very smart way to develop the character. I do have some problems with Thor’s strange invincibility, given that Asgardian mortality is such a huge part of this movie, but whatever.

Last but not least, we’ve got Loki. Tom Hiddleston continues to prove himself as Marvel’s secret weapon, delivering more of the same smug comic relief and devious antics that we’ve come to know and love from Loki. In fact, I think that Loki actually benefits from taking a backseat in this movie. Loki has always been at his strongest in verbal sparring matches and one-on-one fights, so it’s way better for him to stick with the Thor/Loki banter and let some other maniacal threat do all the heavy lifting.

(Side note: Speaking of which, I’d be remiss not to mention the hilarious Thor/Loki exchange that involves the both of them taking various disguises. The scene includes a show-stopping cameo that I don’t dare spoil here.)

It bears repeating that the film’s scale is easily its strongest aspect. The climax is probably the best case in point, making clever and thorough use of the series’ nona-planetary scope. The action and production design are all staggering from first to last, and the series continues to deliver a unique tone of science-fiction-meets-fantasy. I don’t think the 3D effects really added anything significant, but still.

On a final note, I must mention the score. Brian Tyler delivered a perfectly acceptable score for this movie that was appropriately epic in feel. Even so, it doesn’t sound anything like Patrick Doyle’s soundtrack from the previous film. It’s like with Iron Man 3: Ramin Djawadi had already written a perfectly badass theme for Iron Man, so why the hell did Marvel decide to give him another theme written by… Brian Tyler? What?

*checks IMDB* Okay, so that’s just a fluke. The score for Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be written by Henry Jackman and Tyler Bates will be the composer for Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet that just strengthens my point.

I can’t for the life of me understand why Marvel is being so stringent on every aspect of this massive super-franchise and being so lax when it comes to the heroes’ musical presences. When Tony Stark is in full armor and being all badass in the second and third Iron Man films, why don’t I hear “Driving With the Top Down” anymore? When Thor took on Malekith, where was this? Oh, and if Henry Jackman throws out Alan Silvestri’s theme and starts from scratch, then God help him.

Thor: The Dark World does a lot to expand the scope of Asgard and Thor’s fantastic corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s just as well, because everything in this film that doesn’t relate to Asgard kinda sucks; none of the Dark Elves made for compelling villains and every scene with the human characters was simply painful. Still, the Asgardian characters are more awesome than ever, and the Thor/Loki powerhouse is still going strong. Also, the action and the production design are both sterling, even if the plot is weak sauce.

I don’t see the point in recommending or disparaging this film, because the entire MCU has become critic-proof by now. There’s no longer any middle ground between the die-hard fan who sits through the credits of every single film and the moviegoer who avoids Marvel’s offerings like the plague. At this point, every last one of Marvel’s films — and their post-credits clues — are required viewing, and if anyone doesn’t like it… well, too bad. Marvel’s inter-continuity model has become the envy of Hollywood and every studio in town is looking for ways to replicate that success. There’s been talk of a massive inter-film super-franchise for Tom Clancy’s characters, for God’s sake.

Though it still remains to be seen if any other studio can replicate Marvel’s success, this is the next big thing for right now. Better brace yourselves now, folks.

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