Thor: The Dark World: A God-Awful Villain Steals the Thunder

The Marvel saga soldiers on, with a sturdy, starchy hero and his maleficent adoptive brother

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Film Frame / Marvel

“I wish I could trust you,” the Norse god tells his adoptive brother just before a big battle scene in Marvel Studios’ half-cool Thor: The Dark World. Loki hisses back, “Trust my rage.”

Poor Thor. Sure, he’s handsome and strong and has a day of the week named after him (like his father Odin). But as dreamed up in 1962 by Stan Lee, his brother Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby, Thor is one Marvel comic-book hero without any redeeming quirks. He has no wiseass wit, like Tony “Iron Man” Stark, or anger-management issues, like Dr. Bruce “Incredible Hulk” Banner. Embodied by Chris Hemsworth in three Marvel movies — the 2011 Thor, the 2012 The Avengers and now Thor: The Dark World — he is your basic uncomplicated warrior, your holy grunt, fighting to defend his home realm of Asgard between side trips to Earth to woo astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).

(MORE: Richard Corliss’s Review of Thor)

But the god of thunder shrivels in character complexity beside Loki, the god of mischief, later promoted to the more imposing and accurate rank god of evil. The Marvel Encyclopedia instructs us that Loki stands 6 ft. 4 in. and weighs 525 lb. (to Thor’s 6-ft. 6-in., 640-lb. frame), but Tom Hiddleston incarnates him as a sinister sylph draped in black leather and chain mail, a Hamlet among hunks. Their brawn often seems puny in comparison with his scheming brain. Loki’s demeanor bears a hint of the gay outsider, an antidote to the solemn testosterone of most of the Avengers crew. Except for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, he is one of the few figures in the cosmology who looks to be enjoying himself. Without camping things up, Loki shows that it’s good to be bad.

Though Marvel execs don’t give bad guys their own movie franchises, Loki has dominated three big films in the canon: the two Thors and The Avengers, in which the entire superhero sextet was summoned to bring him down. The Dark World continues the story line of those earlier films and bursts into life only when the villain is swanning his way to Doomsday.

(MORE: Why The Avengers Was Almost Super)

Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has dispatched Thor and his Asgardian elite to make peace — i.e., win war — in the Nine Realms. Meanwhile, the Dark Elves, who existed before time began, have unleashed a powerful force called the Aether; it’s like the Tesseract, the MacGuffin from The Avengers, times a quillion. Some of the Aether gets to Earth and infects Jane. Thor transports her to Asgard’s pipe-organ castle, where his mother Frigga (Rene Russo) cares for her. But the Norse gods’ finest doctors cannot extract the fearful substance from Jane’s system. She’s the universe’s prettiest time bomb.

All in Asgard are awaiting a monumental moment in the Nine Realms’ history. As Thor explains, “Every 500 years the worlds align perfectly, and that we call the Convergence.” If you’re wondering what significant events occurred five centuries ago, in 1513, Ponce de León discovered Florida; Balboa became the first European to lay eyes on the Pacific Ocean; and Machiavelli, the Loki of his day, wrote The Prince.

(MORE: See a Review of Ross King’s Machiavelli Biography by Subscribing to TIME)

So where’s our bad boy? He’s been imprisoned on Asgard, until Thor enlists him to do battle against the Dark Elves’ Lord Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). In confinement, Loki smolders but does not pout, and manages to spread a little murk among his adoptive kin. He also has the occasional patch of dialogue that serves to prod viewers who may have lost their way in the thickets of Marvel mythology. Whereas Thor is handed starchy declarations like “I will find a way to save us all,” Loki gets to whisper to an old adversary, “All I ever wanted was you — dead at my feet.” And stab! Hamlet couldn’t have said it better.

Since Marvel movie series rarely dispense with characters from earlier films, The Dark World must make room for dozens of denizens of heaven and earth. Thor’s warrior retinue of Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Zachary Levi) and the Valhalla hottie Sif (Jaimie Alexander) are back. So is Heimdall the Watchman, played by Idris Elba with a good deal more panache than he was allowed to infuse into his starring role this year as Nelson Mandela.

(MORE: TIME’s Toronto Film Festival Review of Mandela)

In London, Jane is hooked up with a blind date (Chris O’Dowd in an eye-blink role), and her sexy-mousy intern Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) gets her own intern (Jonathan Howard). Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), discovered wandering mad, hysterical and naked through Stonehenge, is locked in an asylum, where he uses shoes as pointers to give a lecture on the Convergence. “Any questions?” he asks his fellow inmates. “Yeah,” says Stan Lee, now 90, in his mandatory cameo. “Can I have my shoe back?”

(MORE: James Poniewozik on Stan Lee and the Marvel Superheroes)

Packing this bulging dramatis personae into a two-hour movie must have been a no-fun chore for its chief assemblers: Alan Taylor, who has directed multiple episodes of smart TV series (The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men, Rome and, very much in the Thor spirit, Game of Thrones), and screenplay writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. They are like the adult supervisors at an overcrowded kids’ birthday party, required to find parts for every child in some enormous role-playing game. The clutter makes your head feel like it’s about to explode — and not in a good way, with wonders upon wonders. Instead it seems like arcana that might show up on the midterm final: the next Marvel movie.

So it’s a relief when the god of evil mischief returns to earth to blow stuff up, including a New Mexico town in Thor, Grand Central Terminal in The Avengers and, this time, Christopher Wren’s stately Royal Naval College in Greenwich, England. Is this the end of little Loki? We won’t say, but do stay seated through the long closing credits, which plant more surprises than the rest of The Dark World put together. There you will find an Oscar-winning actor murmuring, “One down. Five to go.”

That could refer to a nest of Infinity Stones or to the quintet and more of Marvel sagas. We hope they’ll be enlivened by that maleficent spirit, the genius Loki. Long may he rage.