The Marvel Cinematic Universe returns to Asgard in THOR: THE DARK WORLD, the second solo outing for the titular God of Thunder. While its predecessor was mostly earthbound, this superhero sequel offers a much more cosmic adventure with appropriately raised stakes leading to far more epic confrontations. In a magic trick rivaling those of the mischievous Loki himself, THOR: THE DARK WORLD also manages to be one of the funniest movies ever offered in the genre.

The events of the film pickup not far from where MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS left off. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has taken Loki (Tom Hiddleston) back to Asgard so that the latter may answer for the crimes he committed on Earth. Meanwhile, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has moved from the New Mexico desert where we last saw her to London. She is trying halfheartedly to move on with her life, but really, she is working to find the god she fell in love with only to be cutoff from in the first film.

As one would expect, emotional drama is not the only trouble brewing. An ancient race known as the Dark Elves, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), are trying to track down a long lost weapon called the Aether, which they hope to use to destroy all life in the nine realms. As the film explains multiple times, now is the most opportune time for Malekith to unleash his diabolical plan as this is the Convergence, a moment when all the worlds align that only comes once every 5,000 years.

All the exposition required to set the table for the audience weighs THOR: THE DARK WORLD down in the early going. The few inexplicable shortcuts that come later in the film actually play better than the longwinded lectures in the opening half hour. Impossible science is still impossible no matter how much detail one uses to define it. Sometimes it’s best to state the terms as simply and efficiently as possible, then move on.

Once the feared threat finally emerges, the story breaks free of its expository chains, kicking into emotional and action overdrive. What made THOR so great in 2011 was the intense, familial conflicts between the King of Asgard, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and his two sons, Thor and Loki. Those elements are back in play for the sequel with a darker, heavier tone.

Hopkins is brilliant as he takes a much colder approach to Odin. He is a king at war and on a more personal level, he is a father who’s lost all hope for his son, Loki. There is no warmth in his eyes as he looks upon the adopted child he once saved from abandonment. Odin is no longer ashamed of his firstborn, Thor, but he is very stern while discussing his expectations of the son who is scheduled to be king. Odin is the father who knows best and believes it’s about time his sons listened.

Hopkins’ cold king is balanced by his queen, Frigga (Rene Russo). Russo is tasked with more in this film compared to her first appearance and she delivers in a big way. Russo’s Frigga shows a mother’s heartbroken disappointment cannot sever the unconditional love she has for her child. She will never condone Loki’s actions, but she still has hope for the smallest hint of the man (or god) she raised him to be. It is a moving performance that is rounded out by scenes that show Frigga’s sword-playing physicality matches her unrelenting heart.

Chris Hemsworth does an excellent job of communicating the emotional growth his character has gone through over the course of three cinematic appearances. While still fully capable of wielding Mjolnir to great effect, Thor is no longer an ego-fueled action junkie. He is a wiser, more compassionate soul who fights to save lives, not attain more personal glory. His love for Jane Foster feels even more authentic, as does his affection for Loki despite Thor claiming, more like wishing he felt none at all. His heart plays host to the war between his hatred of Loki the villain and his love for Loki as his only brother. The uneasy bond between the two godly brothers is the source of some of the film’s funniest dialogue, making Thor’s plight all the more relatable.

Tom Hiddleston is just getting too damned good as Loki. Devilish villainy is never more fun than when Loki is scheming. Hiddleston is arguably the second most valuable performer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Robert Downey, Jr., as he continues to add layer after entertaining layer onto such a remarkable character. Loki is to be loved, hated, laughed with, and laughed at depending on the scene, but what makes the character so special is the glimmer Hiddleston puts in the character’s eyes that makes one feel as though there is still someone inside that green costume worth rooting for. It doesn’t even matter whether or not redemption is actually possible; we’ll just convince ourselves it is to justify how much we love seeing Loki onscreen.

Devious though he may be, Loki is not this film’s chief antagonist. Christopher Eccleston does the honors here as Malekith, ruler of the aforementioned Dark Elves. There’s nothing really multi-dimensional about the character; he’s mad at the universe and wants to destroy all life in it, save for himself and his dark brethren. In a film already rich in depth of character elsewhere, it’s perfectly fine and perhaps even better for the bad guy to just be a bad guy. His job is to be a challenging adversary for the hero and Malekith is exactly that.

As a centerpiece of the plot, Portman turns in a very good performance as Jane Foster. Like Frigga, Foster is given a bigger canvas on which to paint a more diverse portrait of her character. Though she is in danger throughout much of the film, Foster shows little to no fear. She’s strong enough to dodge intimidation from any source other than her future in-laws. The only notable misstep with her character is the suggestion that Foster has done little but mope around in the two years Thor has been away from her. It’s funny to see her first attempt at moving on at the expense her humorously hapless date, Richard (Chris O’Dowd), but her motivation as a person and as a scientist should not be so reliant on her man, or god.

The rest of the cast is comprised of superb role players. Kat Dennings reprises the role of Jane Foster’s intern, Darcy, a character with impeccable timing that completely embodies the comic spirit of the feature. Stellan Skarsgard steals a scene or two as Erik Selvig, the scientist still trying to get over his Loki hangover from THE AVENGERS. Thor’s Asgardian allies, Sif (Jaimie Akexander), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Zachary Levi), and the watchful Heimdall (Idris Elba) all make good on their somewhat limited screen time to wield weapons and an even sharper wit. An opportunity was missed by not exploring her character a little further, but Alexander does well in playing Sif as a woman who loves Thor, but does not plan her entire life around him. She cares far more about the good of all the nine realms and the trillions of souls residing within them.

The collaborative nature of Marvel filmmaking can be seen all over THOR: THE DARK WORLD. Director Alan Taylor successfully runs Asgard through his GAME OF THRONES filter to make the Realm Eternal actually look like a place that has been around and lived in since the dawn of time while still retaining its awe-inspiring majesty. The costumes and sets, both practical and digital, are beautiful to behold. Journeys across the other realms show harsher, more savage environments that illustrate the necessity of a protector like Thor while giving the film a much grander sense of scale than most of its counterparts in the genre. There is a steady escalation as the story builds to bigger, increasingly epic battles that befit the gods taking part in them.

As intense as matters get, THOR: THE DARK WORLD maintains and even exceeds the level of fun that has become a staple of Marvel movies. This movie, while not a comedy, is flat out funny. Most if not all of the jokes stick the landing. Well-timed quips tickle ribs while reactionary humor to the amazing, but sometimes impractical nature of superhero adventures busts guts. Credit for the balancing act between drama, action, fun, and humor must be paid to the cast and screenwriters Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely.

THOR: THE DARK WORLD is a very welcome addition to the evermore impressive legacy being built by Marvel Studios. It has its share of flaws, but they are all more than compensated for by the film’s sense of wonder and fun. Propelled by a strong emotional core, this latest piece of superhero cinema pulls cheers, laughs, and perhaps even a few tears from its audience. As a fantastical thrill ride, THOR: THE DARK WORLD engages viewers on a multitude of levels, ultimately delivering an incredibly entertaining experience.