It appears that they have smallered Thor. Sure, call it evolution if you want. Maybe it is. But the grand, egocentric, weird-talking Thor we were introduced to in the first film and then in The Avengers has been intimately involved with puny Earthlings for long enough that they seem to be rubbing off on him in both word and deed. And it's fine, really, a Thor who goes along to get along so that people can understand him and not flee in terror. He's not a one-man show here. Outside of these eponymous adventures he's part of a team of superheroes who'll never be done saving the world from this or that galactic bad thing. But it's an adjustment audiences will have to make as this character becomes more and more familiar and less and less imposing, no matter how well he hurls that hammer.
Meanwhile, Thor's to-do list of action and responsibility has gotten more expansive and complicated. This time around a dark elf named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) wants to obliterate everything because our universe ate his. Something like that. Revenge. Without divulging too much plot (and there's a lot of it and I was told by a panicky Marvel expert that even mentioning some of the processes, space-items and Marvel universe specifics that unfold in this film constitutes giving away too much), Malekith is going to use the thoroughly destructive Aether to carry out his plan unless someone stops him. Who will that be?
As staggeringly expensive place-holders go, this one delivers enough good times to tide over fans until the next Avengers movie, just not in the way the studio might hope. Most of the huge destroy-all-everything set pieces, with one visually inventive and very exciting third act exception that counts as a dimension-blasting payoff for an earlier plot point, are not entirely memorable. It may be that we've all seen too many of them at this point or maybe there was a rush to release, but they feel weightless. There's no sense of genuine threat or fear or suspense. It's a battle cartoon and it looks like it.
Setting that gripe aside for a bit, the pleasures here are many and they come at you fast. The Disney/Marvel films to date, even the not-so-good ones, have prioritized light over dark, exuberance over Great Big Brooding Unhappiness. They remember that POW and BANG are as important as indelible image and great meaning, sometimes even more, and they aren't afraid of comedy. That's good for Thor: The Dark World, because the casual viewer is still surface-rewarded even as the film trots out a lot of Marvel deep-nerdisms for the truly devoted. It's a wilder, more complicated, sometimes more confusing and just plain weirder expanse of universe(s) that Thor navigates here. There are in-jokes and not-so-in-jokes, a Kat Dennings we can finally enjoy, surprising cameos to keep the cross-pollination factor loaded up and, maybe best of all, Tom Hiddleston hitting his stride as Loki. The franchise is in love with this character and it shows. He's equal parts badass, effete lunatic and stylish monster and if Chris Hemsworth doesn't watch out, the man is going to walk away with every movie he's in from this point forward.
Ultimately, the joy of this sprawling, multi-tentacled and soon multi-galaxied franchise is the same kind that inspired kids in generations past to return to the next chapter of serial adventure shorts. The heroes swagger, the villians are cruel, the outcome telegraphed for maximum comfort. You don't care if it teaches you anything, but you have to find out what's next, even if what's next is pretty much just what you figured it would be.