At this point, you ought to know whether or not you like Marvel's particular approach to superhero movies. I do. If you also liked the rest of the Marvel Universe films, you'll like THOR: THE DARK WORLD - and likely rate it among the best of the films in the series.

Director Alan Taylor's THE DARK WORLD is an decided improvement on Kenneth Branagh's THOR, which was hampered by having to do too many things within its running time: the backstory of war with the frost giants, revelations about Loki's true nature, the romance with Jane Foster (and wacky Midgard hi-jinx that ensued), some business with the Destroyer, etc. All of that got in the way of presenting a convincing character arc for Thor himself, who had, all told, maybe ten minutes of time actually devoted to his transformation from glory-hungry barbarian to self-sacrificing guardian of mortals. If you're a fan of the comics, you know this is how it has to go, but cinematically, it was not particularly well-done. That's forgivable, since the noble, stoic Thor we ended up with is really the character we wanted all along, but still, it made the movie less enjoyable

In THE DARK WORLD, after a little bit of naked exposition (obviously reminiscent of the prologue to Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring), we are able to get right into it: the Nine Worlds exist, and we get to visit quite a few of them. (There's even a scene in Vanaheim, which is traditionally the most boringest plane of existence in Marvel Asgard.) There's very little apologizing for the fantastic elements in this film; there's no self-consciousness in the Asgard scenes. Design-wise, this film embraces the "science fantasy" aesthetic even more than previous installments have: I can see a lot of STAR WARS in this film. And this completely works! While easily lampooned as Vikings... in... spaaaaaaace!, I found the design of both Asgard and the Dark Elves' weaponry, armor, and space ships to be delightfully imaginative. They have flying longships, folks, complete with shields hanging off the sides. The settings are equally impressive: Svartalfheim (simply called "The Dark World" in the film because, well, Svartalfheim doesn't quite roll off the tongue) is a sepia-skied waste of black sand, Vanaheim is a rugged wilderness, and Asgard continues in its golden glory

We get a much better picture of the relationships between Thor and his companions, only sometimes filtered through a surrogate like Jane Foster. This leads to some great scenes, particularly between Thor and Heimdall; Idris Elba doesn't spend an enormous amount of time on-screen, but he adds considerable depth to his character. Really, all of the Asgardians get moments to shine, especially Rene Russo's Frigga. (And of course, Tom Hiddleston steals the show as Loki, but that was to be expected at this point.) Christopher Eccleston's villain, Malekith, remains at a distance - he's good enough for the story, but his scenes won't leave you with the kind of attachment you might have felt for Loki at the end of the first film.

The plot is so-so. Malekith the Destroyer, dark elf warlord, wants to plunge the universe into darkness using a Maguffin that works in largely unimportant ways. The humans - Jane Foster, Erik Sellvig, Darcy Lewis, and newbie intern Ian - run into a startling number of coincidences that allow them to provide comic relief and world-saving Anti-Maguffins. The film ends on a cliffhanger that has serious plot holes. These are undeniable flaws, and knowing me, I'll be kvetching about them for the next month. 

But the plot of this film - like the plot of most Thor comics, if we're being honest - isn't all that important. It is appropriately grand in scale and provides excuses for the action scenes, and I can forgive some of the contrivances. (Except the twist at the end. Man, I don't want to wait until Thor 3 for an explanation of what the Hel happened there.) The tone is perfect, the Asgardians well-drawn, and the worlds fascinating and imaginative. THOR: THE DARK WORLD continues the line of well-executed Marvel films. Everything I love about Marvel's Asgard is here in abundance. I'm already excited for what comes next

(Also: if you were in Champaign, Illinois, this afternoon and had to endure a fat man laughing nonstop for ten minutes after a certain brilliant cameo: I'm sorry. But then, you were almost certainly laughing too.)