Marvel Studios successfully brought The Avengers to the big screen, first individually and finally uniting the team.

The second phase of Marvel’s Avengers saga is in full swing, but can our heroes keep the momentum rolling?

Thor: The Dark World doesn’t simply maintain, but elevates the quality of Marvel’s Phase 2 films.

Thor: The Dark World duplicates the best of The Avengers movie, from huge action set pieces and nonstop humor, to a villain determined to destroy the world. The story may be a bit weak and cliché’, but everything else is done so well, it’s almost forgivable.

The Dark World pits Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his fellow Asgardians against The Dark Elves. The Dark Elves seek the Aether, an ancient relic, mistakenly discovered by Thor’s beau Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), that will give them the power to bring darkness to all worlds.

The set designs, costumes and special effects give life to a world that was merely hinted at in the previous Thor film. The Dark World dances between Midgar (Earth) and Asgard, with stunning visuals. Thor’s home is washed in bright colors, and littered with towering, fantasy influenced architecture.

The Dark Elves have a rigid, alien look similar to the Kryptonians of Man of Steel. Their home planet is desolate, ravaged by war and feels sad and grimy with every camera shot.

Thor’s latest adventure juggles a cast as large as The Avengers’ and handles all characters, old and new, with the utmost care. The leader of the Dark Elves, Malekith (Christopher Eccelston), his companion Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Asgard’s faithful Heimdall (Idris Elba) share some of the flashiest costumes and action on screen.

Jane Foster’s hilarious assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and scientist companion Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) are back for comic relief.  Thor’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo), father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) also return. There are so many characters that I almost forgot Loki was in the story, until he appears and steals every scene.

Seeing the other Marvel films isn’t a requirement, but the audience is rewarded with many callbacks to both Thor and the Avengers. Loki makes a great visual joke about Thor’s new avenging buddies and Darcy still can’t pronounce the name of Thor’s hammer.

Besides having a predictable plot, Dark World does miss opportunities to explore tension between Thor’s interest in Jane Foster and Earth, and his allegiance to Asgard. Conflicts of dating and being king are teased early on but quickly pushed aside.

Thor 2 has large scale army battles reminiscent of Lord of the Rings and more laughs than most comedies this year. It’s a great popcorn flick, moves the Avengers’ storyline along and finds space for some surprisingly emotional character development.

Most fans know to stay for a small scene during credits. Stay after all of the credits, for a second short, amusing clip. Thor: The Dark World is a great sign that Marvel is taking their characters in the right direction. With Phase 2 in full swing, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Rating 9.0/10