Every hero is only as good as the villain they’re paired against, and a lot of what makes Thor so much fun in the comics and the movies is the constant trouble he gets at the hands of his brother, Loki. And this only scales up as the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes Thor’s story one not just of smashing the foes of Asgard, but of managing the challenges of a cosmic-level sibling rivalry that is going to leave one or both of these brothers dead. As Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe gets underway, bringing its heroes into darker and more troubling territory, Thor: The Dark World offers a tale where Thor has to save the world yet again, but it’s all a backdrop for an increasing need to figure out what to do with Loki, a guy he relies on and mistrusts in equal measure, and with good reason for both.
The story takes place two years after Thor shatters the Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects the realm of Asgard to the rest of the Nine Realms, including Earth. In the time since, Thor and his allies have fought to pacify the realms from monstrous invaders, while Loki sits in prison, doing time for his attempts to overthrow Asgard and Earth. In the background, a dark elf named Malekith has re-emerged after an eons-old battle with Odin’s forefather, on a quest to obtain a mystic super-weapon called the Aether that will plunge entire worlds into primordial darkness. Commanding a legion of magical super-soldiers, Malekith proves a wily and elusive foe, even as Thor’s love interest, Dr. Jane Foster, is infected with the Aether itself and is in mortal danger of being consumed by it. With his options running out, Thor has no choice but to turn to Loki for help, knowing full well that he lacks the authority to set his brother free, and that if he does, he’ll surely come to regret it. But with Thor’s mother slain by Malekith’s onslaught, Odin laid low, Asgard in flames and Earth under shadow, and the Nine Realms themselves threatening to unravel, even a God of Thunder knows that sometimes the right choice is no choice at all.
Of all the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: The Dark World is one of the few installments that gets a mixed review from its fans. As sequels go, it ticks all the boxes, making a good portion of the movie feel like a beautiful, hollow exercise. The battle scenes are gorgeous and by the numbers. The love interest between Thor and Jane progresses but never really feels right. The emergence of Malekith feels like another big bad conjured from nowhere so he can get clobbered and return to nowhere. And the weariness of Odin and the departure of Frigga never quite seem to carry the emotional weight that they ought to. For such a fun movie, Thor: The Dark World sometimes feels like it’s running on the collective energy of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe rather than on its own power.
And yet, The Dark World is a heck of a fun movie, one worth taking over just about any superhero movie that came before the rise of the MCU. And a huge reason why is the interplay between Thor and Loki; a pair of characters whose fraternal drama continues to define them and provide each with the most compelling narrative territory in the Asgardian corner of the Marvel Universe. Thor continues to fight as a dutiful son to Odin, knowing he’s not ready for the crown. Meanwhile, Loki seethes at his humiliating defeat and imprisonment by a bunch of people who are universally less clever than he. With every passing moment, you know that these guys aren’t going to stay apart forever.
The secret sauce here, of course, is Loki, played with utter mastery by Tom Hiddleston. Never has a villain been more charismatic, a guy you love to hate to love. Everything you need to know about how much Hiddleston utterly brings Loki to life can be seen when Hiddleston showed up to the San Diego ComiCon in costume to promote Thor: The Dark World, and the crowd spontaneously chants “LOKI! LOKI! LOKI!” And then, when things hit their peak, Hiddleston brings a single finger to his lips and the crowd dutifully falls silent. When your villain is accepted as a guy who deserves every beating he gets, but is still worth some admiring genuflection, you know you’ve struck theatric gold. And that is what Loki is.
We see this throughout The Dark World. We actually feel bad when we see Loki in jail. We delight in seeing Thor have to ask him for help. We laugh when Loki shows off his magical masquerading powers…and then does a mocking impression as Chris Evans’ Captain America just to prove his point. With every sharp comment, with every sidelong look, with every flashy move, Loki steals the show. After a long enough time, you almost begin to feel sorry for Thor, because this is supposed to be his movie, but it sure as hell isn’t whenever Loki’s around.
The moment of truth, of course, is the most Loki of moments in the entire show. As Thor, Loki and Jane confront Malekith on a gloomy, alien world, Loki turns the tables on Thor and stabs his brother in a moment of opportune treachery. He kicks the God of Thunder while he’s down, and when Thor reaches for his magic hammer, Loki cuts Thors hand off with a single stroke. It’s a moment of such slick brutality that when it’s all revealed to be a ploy by Thor and Loki to deceive Malekith instead of each other, we can be forgiven for falling for such an obvious ruse ourselves. That’s the power of Loki: to deceive and make his victims somehow grateful for it. And for that, Asgard is still lucky to have him, villainy and all.