Just when you thought it was safe to go back to a superhero-free multiplex, we get sledgehammered with "Thor: The Dark World," which opens Friday.
Chris Hemsworth returns as the titular Norse god. He's tasked with protecting the Nine Realms of the Universe from the Dark Elf king, Malekith, who was defeated by Thor's grandfather eons ago. The recycled revenge plot is exactly what you suspect, but thankfully, director Alan Taylor imbues the film with enough humor and dramatic heft to overlook the derivative comic book story.
The film opens with the burial of the Aether -- a floating mass of red tendrils that can annihilate the entire Universe -- so that no one can find it. Conveniently, the one person who does find the Aether is Thor's eternal love interest and the most beautiful astrophysicist in the world, Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). But when her body inadvertently becomes the Aether's host, Thor whisks her away to Asgard.
The stunning vistas of Asgard and other overly saturated environs provide the backdrop for much of the film's action -- from a beautiful and touching Viking funeral at the edge of the Universe to the fun finale where our hero and villain are teleporting from one dimension to another.

When the film jumps to Earth, we’re subjected to the funny but sometimes forced one-liners from Jane’s assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings), nude enthusiast Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgaard) and idiot intern Ian (Jonathan Howard). Luckily, Chris O’Dowd absolutely steals the two scenes he’s in as Jane’s Earth-bound potential suitor.

Back in Asgard, we find Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who's been imprisoned after the events of 2012's "The Avengers." Hiddleston is his usual insidious self, but rarely has he been more delicious -- bitterly sarcastic and completely indifferent to the chaos around him. And yet Hiddleston displays powerful depth, particularly in a scene with his mother Frigga – played by the sublime Rene Russo -- that elevates the film above the expected inconsequential CGI filler.
Hemsworth, though a solid presence in the film, seems to have lost his identity without the hubris of 2011’s "Thor." Portman also suffers as the token damsel in distress this time around, with nothing more to do other than look gorgeous in Asgardian couture. What's worse is that these two -- possibly the best-looking movie stars in the world -- generate sub-zero levels of heat together.
Fortunately, the continued tension between Thor and Loki -- as they join forces to save Jane and Asgard -- is a wise balance of laughs and drama. Their climatic scene is the only one where the stakes genuinely seem high.
Marvel has got these films down to a science and as long as they keep the assembly line at least mindlessly entertaining -- which "Thor: The Dark World" succeeds at being -- they should have no problem continuing to capitalize on these "Avengers"-related films. Hell, one of the films two post-credit teasers was even a wink to the launch of their next big franchise, "Guardians of the Galaxy," out next summer.
But here’s to hoping that the inevitable Thor threequel will do more than just passably amuse and actually do justice to the superheroes namesake by soaring to the high heavens.
- Wally Zafar

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