When Guardians of the Galaxy was announced, fans celebrated Marvel for their bold choice to let the MCU get weird, allowing James Gunn to work a little outside the box. It's as if they had forgotten how bizarre Thor: The Dark World was. Before Guardians of the Galaxy was weird, Thor: The Dark World was pretty strange. It upped the ante from the first film, a more straightforward superhero action flick in which taking Thor from Asgard to Earth was in itself a humorous and thrilling concept. That film is fine and surprisingly funny, thanks in part to Kat Dennings acting as the audience proxy and slicing through Thor's inherently serious demeanor with one-liners.
But Thor: The Dark World is a better film. Set mostly on Asgard, the sequel expands Asgardian mythology with its intergalactic take on Norse mythos. Fans were excited by the prospect of Guardians of the Galaxy taking Marvel to space, but the studio already took them there with The Dark World - did everyone forget that Asgard exists in space? It's no coincidence that the mid-credits sequence in The Dark World delivers our first introduction to Guardians of the Galaxy by way of Benicio Del Toro's Taneleer Tivan, the eccentric intergalactic Collector. Marvel's "weird" movie needed its introduction attached to a similarly strange film, and while The Dark World has a heavier tone than Guardians, they both reside in complementary corners of the MCU.
The Dark World is the contemporary Star Trek movie that never was - the amorphous and indestructible aether, the rousing spaceship chases with intricately designed vehicles, a more fully-realized planet and alien villains who have more depth of story and history in the first five minutes than Eric Bana had in all of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek. The huge, soaring fight through Asgard following Malekith's initial attack is reminiscent of Star Wars, with chases through and beneath the ancient-yet-futuristic structures and lasers firing from ship to ship. This action sequence alone is better the entirety of George Lucas' second Star Wars trilogy (then again, most things are).
Perhaps Christopher Eccleston's miscast Malekith is the only real flaw of The Dark World, but the film's villainous designs are awesomely weird, adding to the history of the dark elves. Malekith's henchmen sport elfin versions of Eyes Without a Face masks, and those masks alone show you exactly where this film's head is at. But Malekith is a distraction in the sequel, which uses the villain primarily as a vessel to propel Loki's arc - and it's a wonderful, complex arc for a charismatic and complex character. Tom Hiddleston's performance is insanely good as the conflicted Loki, fighting against his adopted family and outwardly decrying their importance, while internally feeling saddened that his own actions have left him isolated and rejected from the only people who loved him. During the climactic scene, Hiddleston's eyes do all of the heavy-lifting - when Thor attacks the aether with his hammer, Loki instinctively rushes to cover Jane, his eyes widened with innocence, worry, and fear. Although his desire for universal domination overshadows his goodness, it still exists within him.
The Dark World is, as the title implies, darker than the first Thor with its broody cinematography and its use of the sinister, blood-red aether, an enchanting and dangerous element which snakes about like fluid smoke. We watch Malekith draw the aether from Jane, who is lifted above the ground like a graceful ragdoll as the aether slithers out of her in beautiful tendrils, her eyes glassy pools of darkness. It is a gorgeous scene, and in that moment, Jane is everything the Dark Phoenix could have been in The Last Stand. The Dark World isn't just a sequel that improves upon the first film by embracing more mythological and spacey concepts - it also improves upon concepts from other geeky film properties, deconstructing and reassembling them in ways that are new, better, and more fantastically designed and enacted.
The final battle hops between worlds, taking advantage of a structural weakness between them as the planets align during what Thor describes to Jane as the Convergence. Malekith and Thor wildly chase each other between these alien worlds and our own, teleporting with the assistance of Jane - and like every other female character in The Dark World, she is hardly a damsel in distress. Jane is smart, active, and necessary. Like Lady Sif, she has her own particular set of skills and does not exist in service to a male character. Both are overshadowed by Rene Russo's Frigga, who gets her very own battle sequence, fighting Malekith with a sword - not only is this scene incredible, but it hints at Frigga's warrior history, and shows us that every Asgardian woman is just as versed in battle as their male counterparts. This is a world where women are exceptional, instead of being an exception to the rule.
Maybe The Dark World wasn't odd enough for some, or perhaps most were expecting a more straightforward story for a more straightforward and brawny hero. A Marvel sequel can operate independently while still connected tonally to its predecessor(s) and the larger MCU - Captain America: The First Avenger was a WWII action piece, while The Winter Soldier felt like a '70s spy thriller set in modern day, for instance. The first Thor is all action-adventure with a fish out of water hook, but the most intriguing parts are those set on Asgard - our introduction to the Bifrost and the mystical, magical powers of this exciting alien world.. Those elements are a huge part of The Dark World, which focuses its energies on Asgardian myth, effectively crafting a dark sci-fi tale steeped in a very specific mythology. While all Marvel films are arguably sci-fi, this one embraces that genre more heavily. It's not afraid to be weird and wild - by setting the film largely in space, there are more creative possibilities, more chances to incorporate things that are alien and strange. It was risky before Guardians was risky, though unfortunately far less loved.