Thor wields a mighty hammer

Anthony Hopkins and Chris Hemsworth star in "Thor: The Dark World."
November 10, 2013

This summer’s “Iron Man 3” left a bitter aftertaste for many a fan, feeling as though it played against the rules of what a superhero action film should be (personally, I thought it was an engaging divergence). Those chafed by its sharp exit off the superhero highway will be relieved at the arrival of “Thor: The Dark World,” which plays by the rules, but adds to the broader landscape for which the masterminds at Marvel are aiming.

The original “Thor’s” success was thanks in large part to the Shakespearean background of director Kenneth Branagh. It felt like the riskiest of the “Avengers” film adaptations, as the hammer-wielding Norse god was the oddest hero of the lot to wedge into the storyline, and did not really exist on the same playing field as his Earth-born brothers-in-arms: Iron Man, Hulk or Captain America.

“Thor” was helped by its strong, charismatic cast, complete with a scene-stealing Tom Hiddleston as Thor’s half-brother Loki. In “The Dark World,” a new director by the name of Alan Taylor enters the chair. Having a resume that is populated mostly with TV shows might seem like a strike against him, but when you consider those shows include “The Sopranos,” “Oz,” “Homicide,” and perhaps most fitting, the majority of the episodes of “Game of Thrones,” it becomes clear he’d be right at home with the medieval worlds in which most of the film is set.

It’s a good thing he’s so skilled at such old-school battle scenes, too, as the film’s climactic third act features a doozy, which makes you forget about the pretzel-logic plotting that would require a PhD in physics to decode.

Thor (played again by Chris Hemsworth, able to add a side of corn to his serving of beefcake by balancing comedy, drama and smoldering) is back on his home planet, far from his Earthly homegirl Jane (played by Natalie Portman). Not only has Thor failed to send an intergalactic text for the past couple years, but she has also had the misfortune of becoming an intergalactic gateway for a universe-destroying force (remember THAT next time you think your workday sucked!). The only way Thor can think to come to the rescue is with the aid of his still-imprisoned brother Loki. Even after reading the dumbed-down production notes, I will be honest in saying I was still trying to connect the galactic dots, but that still didn’t deter me from having a heck of a good time here. Taylor takes the time to explore the film’s secondary characters, including Portman, Stellan Skarsgard as the loopy doc Erik Selvig, Rene Russo and Anthony Hopkins as Ma and Pa Thor, and Christopher Eccleston caked with heavy evil elf makeup.

One might think a film in which the fate of the entire universe hangs in the balance may be as heavy as a god’s hammer, but there are actually many light touches throughout (including a standout scene when Loki is initially released from his cell). Skarsgard also lets it all hang out, too, quite literally in one scene.

It all adds up to a flawed-but-fun addition to the “Avengers” cinematic pantheon. In terms of its position in the universe it’s creating, “The Dark World” does a much better job in its second outing than the “Iron Man” sequel, even at its nonsensical peak. And it wouldn’t be an “Avengers” film if it didn't contain a post-credits sequence that hints at and ties to things to come. Here, there are two sequences, both quite different in tone, that suggest the Thor franchise will remain mighty.