Speaking as one to whom Thor represents the current nadir of the ambitious but increasingly samey Marvel Cinematic Universe, I am pleased to think that Thor: The Dark World represents a distinct step in the right direction. Though not, perhaps, a terribly large one. It fixes one gaping problem I had with the first movie, though: Alan Taylor's muted directing, while not anything terribly special or bold or distinctive in any meaningful way, is vastly more appealing than the kitschy hucksterism that Kenneth Branagh brought to bear back in 2011. Though I gather this will not be the opinion of those who maintain that Branagh was an inspired choice to direct that film, an opinion I recognise as existing even if I am totally unclear as to why someone would harbor it.

Another key improvement: Chris Hemsworth, in his third attempt at playing the mercurial thunder god (following last year's mega-blockbuster The Avengers) is finally starting to grow into something like comfort with the part, shaking off some of the soap-operatic stiffness that made him so dully noble before. This undoubtedly has a great deal to do with the screenplay, and the degree to which Christopher Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (and supposedly, an uncredited Joss Whedon, which is quite easy to believe) have upped the comedy in this film relative to Thor's previous outings;whereas even in the quip-a-riffic The Avengers, Hemsworth was mostly stuck with being the serious one who talked in a heightened way, The Dark World gives the actor a chance to be rather more playful and downright spunky in one or two spots.

These things are counterbalanced by what is probably the most defective story in any of the Avenger-related films yet, a victim of the film's openly-publicised raft of re-shoots and editing duels (Taylor wanted a cut massively longer than producer and Marvel guru Kevin Feige was willing to let him have), but no less aggravating because we know where it came from. It's actually kind of spectacular how many ways the structure of The Dark World is able to go wrong in just 112 minutes, less the not-brief ending credits. There is, perhaps most notably, the psychotically bad cross-cutting between two levels of plot: on Asgard, the alien planet where a race of long-lived supermen content to be regarded as gods on Earth strive to keep peace in the galaxy, Thor, his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and a whole mess of other people, are busy dealing with the aftermath of the wicked plot executed by Thor's adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), now set to rot in magic prison for the rest of eternity; on Earth, Thor's love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is trying to figure out where the hell he's been for two years, while her zany assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings), Darcy's less-zany assistant Ian (Jonathan Howard), and the brilliant but mentally unbalanced astrophysicist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) bumble about. The first 40 minutes of the film are an absolute train wreck, particularly regarding the timing of Dr. Selvig's unfortunate nude episode at Stonehenge: the way the film is pieced together, it's impossible to form a reasonable chronology that unites everything, and some plotlines need to stretch out a few hours to fit into a day or two elsewhere, if time isn't just stopping altogether (a human interest news report is essentially repeated on what almost have to be two consecutive days, because our heroes weren't watching TV the first time, I guess). There's no reason for any of this, except to keep things as barbarically simple for the audience as possible, which is frankly not appreciated.

Even once this ungainly, hideous slurry of exposition and misshapen place-setting gets out of the way, The Dark World suffers throughout its entire running time from an ill-defined conflict: the stakes are that old popcorn movie chestnut, "the entire universe", but how we get there is foggy at best. And I don't mean the mystical pseudo-science, which is just good comic book movie hokum. The problem is bigger than that: it's the great problem of a vaguely-expressed villain whose backstory seems more full of holes than details, whose relationship to the protagonists remains fuzzy till the end, and whose motivations are never more specific than "to do ee-vil! Bwa-ha-ha!". Which is too bad, because the dark elf Malekith is a pretty terrific creation on the face of it: born out of primordial darkness (primordial darkness is always a promising start), buoyed up by the single best hair and make-up job I've seen in 2013, and played by Christopher Eccleston with marvelous severity and malice. But he's given so damn little to do (the more active villain is a visually impressive but impersonal giant henchman named Kurse, played by the overqualified Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje)! Then again, using overqualified black actors in small parts is nothing new for the Thor movies; just ask Idris Elba, whose role is at least tripled in size from last time, and who still gets nothing to do that even begins to tap his reservoir of talent). And a villain who sits around a gloomy space ship and glowers all the time really isn't a very proper villain, no matter how snarly the performance.

The plot doesn't take shape until a mid-film action scene focuses the drama from the loose "save creation from darkness" ideas that drive the first half, replacing it with something much more personal and domestic, and critically, letting Loki out of his Hannibal Lecter phase to be a much more active participant in the action. This proves something that was obvious in Thor and then really fucking obvious in The Avengers, which is that Tom Hiddleston is pretty much the best thing the Marvel universe has going for it right now, and when he gets to do interesting things and have fun, the movies around him improve geometrically. It's not that the rest of the people in The Dark World aren't good (though it's increasingly clear that Natalie Portman, whatever her talents, was woefully miscast), but none of them hold the camera like Hiddleston does - Jaimie Alexander, who gets an expanded but still pretty small role as the girl warrior who has a name but "the girl warrior" is really all the more that the film cares about her, probably takes second place, and I look forward to watching her career from here on out - and the self-amused, bored villainy that he brings to every line and every gesture is absolutely glorious. Loki is the catalyst for snapping this whole muddy fantasy/sci-fi/action meander into place, and if the plot-destroying reshoots were, as it is said, mostly designed to increase his screen time, then it was effort well spent.

There's other stuff that works, especially a climactic, physics-defying battle between Thor and Malekith that easily takes the title of the second-best action setpiece in the franchise, after the unlikely-to-be-bettered New York war in the third act of The Avengers. But the overall balance is towards not making much sense on a narrative level (nor on a world-building level, but at this point, the jargony, in-jokey nonsense that makes up the Marvel universe is like background noise - even so, the first of two post-credits scenes is a particularly strange, alienating affair), and towards an inconsistent tonal mix between the soaring high fantasy that this film does much, much better than Thor, and the joshing humor that it does much, much worse than The Avengers (the second post-credits scene ends with an obvious, and terribly ineffective, attempt to replicate the shawarma scene from that film). It moves fast enough to be a reasonably inoffensive distraction, but it doesn't earn the emotional highs it thinks it gets from a mid-film death and a late-film romantic clinch, and if it's not remotely as brittle in setting up the rest of the franchise as Iron Man 2, it still feels like busywork: giving Thor something to do in between "real" movies, rather than telling a complete and compelling story that demanded to be told.

Other MCU reviews (Phase 2)
Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013)
Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015)
Ant-Man (Reed, 2015)