If all you demand from a Marvel Comics superhero movie are spectacular action sequences pushed to the brink of tedium, a dullingly impersonal cast of characters, some welcome humor shoehorned into the final stretch of a confusing story, a naked Stellan Skarsgard, post-credits teasers and a cameo by Stan Lee, go forth to "Thor: The Dark World," watch long and prosper.
The Marvel quality bar has already been set high by Joss Whedon's "The Avengers," Jon Favreau's "Iron Man" and Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" movies (the first two, anyway).
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"Thor: The Dark World"★ ★
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Christopher Eccelston, Kat Dennings, Renee Russo
Directed by: Alan Taylor
Other: A Walt Disney Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for violence and suggestive content. 112 minutes
"The Dark World," intermittently directed by Alan Taylor, fails to achieve this level of superhero excellence, although it still offers some amusing twists and a few nimble action set pieces.
The adventure begins with a dramatized history lesson by king of the gods Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who tells us that before the universe had light, it had darkness, and that some nasty guys called the Dark Elves wanted to keep the darkness and were willing to use an ambiguous ultimate weapon called "the Aether" to fight the light.
We're never really sure what the Aether is and what it can do, but the Dark Elves love it. The Aether appears to be a blobby mass of fluid with fiery red tentacles that invades bodies, turns their eyes black and makes them super evil.
"Release the Aether!" chief Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) shouts, perhaps to suggest this power trumps even the Kraken.
Fortunately, the warriors of Asgard under the leadership of Odin's dad vanquish the Dark Elves (or so they believe) and bury the Aether in a secret location.
(Strangely enough, later in "The Dark World," this history lesson gets orally retold, rendering this whole beginning segment somewhat superfluous.)
Centuries later, astrophysicist Jane Foster (reprised by a bored Natalie Portman), nursing her rejection by Thor (reprised by an unexcited Chris Hemsworth) in 2011's "Thor," hangs out in London with her comic relief assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and her comic relief intern Ian (Jonathan Howard).
Turns out those Asgardians didn't hide the Aether very well. Jane discovers it and she wasn't even looking for it. Thor shows up just in time to whisk her off to Asgard for some emergency Aether extractions.
But now the evil elf Malekith has been awakened. He intends to destroy the universe with the Aether net when the Nine Realms, including Earth, are in perfect orbital alignment.
Wouldn't you know it? Thor must deal with family issues as well. He refuses to succeed his father Odin and distresses his Queen mother (Renee Russo).
Thor then realizes he might be forced to seek help from his rascally, power-crazed brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, smoldering with self-satisfied, wicked intent) languishing in prison for the naughtiness he caused in "The Avengers."
What's missing from "The Dark World" is a real sense of danger or suspense and genuine connections between the characters. A significant figure's death receives proper lip service, but elicits little feeling of sadness or loss.
The growing bond between Jane and Thor exists on the pages (scripted by a trio of writers), but Portman and Hemsworth make for a fairly cool couple not keen on projecting inflamed passions.
If unimpressive at directing dramatic moments, Taylor proves to be more adept at handling massive action sequences. (His credits come mostly from TV, but they're solid: "Deadwood," "Game of Thrones" and "Mad Men.") A major "Dark World" sequence throws Thor and Malekith into an aerial death struggle as they drop through one time/space portal after another, popping up in different places. The segment could easily have confused audiences, but it comes off relatively coherent.
As a kid who devoured Thor comic books during the 1960s, I always thought it humorous that Asgard was one "s" away from being a perfect name for a hemorrhoid medication.
Which reminds me that nutty Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), Jane's mentor, spends a lot of time running naked through Stonehenge.
What better way to bring this review to the end.