Movie Review

‘Thor: The Dark World’ hammers out its problems | 2½ stars

Updated: 2013-11-08T16:01:47Z

By DAVID FRESE

The Kansas City Star

Forget the cosmic space gods, the mystic hammers, the giant rock monsters, the flying boats and the elves with friggin’ lasers.

“Thor: The Dark World” is a story about a girl in love with a boy.

And why not? This sequel, the eighth chapter in the Marvel movie universe, already samples from “Star Wars,” Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies, J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot, and Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc,” among others. Adding a dash of Bridget Jones and a pinch of Bella Swan can’t hurt the blend of this funny and thrilling pop-culture smoothie.

“The Dark World” picks up a couple of years after “The Avengers,” in which Thor (Chris Hemsworth) teamed up with other superheroes to stop his brother Loki and an alien army from overrunning Earth.

Now astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is trying to forget her Asgardian paramour, who has seemingly reneged on his promise to return to her. (In Thor’s defense, he’s been policing the Nine Realms.)

So while her crush is out hammering rock monsters with his pals, Jane is moving on and dating other dudes. But no ordinary schlub can compete with a Norse god of thunder who can summon a light rain shower at will. Because if we have learned anything from “The Notebook,” “Pride & Prejudice” and “Say Anything,” it’s this: Chicks dig guys who stand in the rain.

That’s especially true if the guy has a full head of flowing blond hair, rippling abs and a magic — ahem — hammer.

Soon Jane is alerted to the same weird cosmic energies that emerged in 2011’s “Thor.” Next thing you know, an ancient force known as the Aether invades her body, and she becomes a pawn in an eons-old war between Thor’s people and a race of Dark Elves.

Director Alan Taylor has helmed episodes of some of the finest television series of the last 20 years — “Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men,” “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “Lost.” He strikes a nice balance between the fantastic and the real, creating genuine laughs and true thrills. Sometimes, though, the script lets him down.

The film’s main problem is the big bad. The generic villain Malekith (former Dr. Who Christopher Eccleston, under a lot of makeup) is on a mission to turn the lights out on the Nine Realms.

His motivation, however, is sketchy. Through a lot of exposition — Thor’s father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), must be the god of the info-dump — we hear why Malekith is angry, but we never really see it. Malekith (pronounced MAL-eh-kith) doesn’t seem all that upset when Thor’s grandfather hands him his greatest defeat. He doesn’t even get that angry when Thor burns half of his face with a lightning bolt.

Thor also is a bit of a problem. He’s the Superman of the Marvel Universe, a red-caped weapon to be directed at a situation when it becomes too dire for his avenging colleagues.

In the first film, our hero had been stripped of his powers, and for all anyone on Earth knew, he was just a raving lunatic. In “The Dark World,” he’s the full-on superhero. He’s nearly indestructible, which puts him at little risk.

And, just as in “The Avengers,” the big battle at the end involves another horde of faceless drones and another big hole in the sky. Actually, eight holes in the sky, plus various random gravity warps that transport characters throughout the Nine Realms willy-nilly. The zipping and zapping are nifty, but overall, the threat is too familiar.

“The Dark World” shares another, better trait with “The Avengers” — it’s frequently very funny. And unlike the recent “Iron Man 3,” characters aren’t talking all over one another. Here, the comedy has plenty of room to breathe.

Much of the humor comes from scenes with the maleficent Loki (Tom Hiddleston), whom Thor has to spring from an Asgardian prison. Each of the thunder god’s comrades-in-arms takes a turn threatening death upon the god of mischief if he betrays everyone again. When Jane slaps Loki in retribution for the attack in “Avengers” and says, “That’s for New York!” he smiles calmly and tells Thor, “I like her.” Even though Loki has ample screen time, Hiddleston is so good, he leaves you wanting more.

Thor and Jane don’t quite have the spark Tony Stark and Pepper Potts share in the “Iron Man” movies. But their rapport is leagues better than the romance Portman was trapped in in the “Star Wars” prequels. You actually want these two to be together, and yet you still feel for Sif (Jaimie Alexander), the Asgardian warrior woman who envies Jane’s relationship with Thor, her FWB — Friend With Battlegear.

The main problem with Jane, though, is she suffers from the same syndrome afflicting Marvel Comics’ female characters from the 1960s to the ’80s: At the first sign of trouble, she faints. These days, Marvel’s comics have lots of strong women — and not all of them are in spandex — so there’s hope that the films will catch up some day.

Despite various quibbles, “Thor: The Dark World” is among the better Marvel movies. Keeping a hammer-swinging god grounded in a world we can relate to isn’t easy, but thanks to good performances, solid effects and great pacing, Taylor and his cast have nailed it.

3-D or not 3-D?

We saw “Thor: The Dark World” on a Real-D screen at AMC Town Center 20. The picture was crisp and bright, but the 3-D effects were often jarring. Heads and bodies occasionally seemed on different planes. Out-of-focus objects in the foreground jutted out of the screen. The depth of field is off, especially in effects-free scenes focusing on two characters. The film was staged, framed and shot as a 2-D movie then converted to 3-D. The process did more harm than good.

Stick around

As with all of the Marvel movies, this one isn’t over until it’s over. There are two extra scenes — called tagscenes — at the end: one midway through the credits (a nod to next summer’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”) and another at the very end, after all of the credits.

The what now?

In “Thor: The Dark World,” the Dark Elf Malekith awaits the alignment of the Nine Realms, which, like Thor and the gang, are based in Norse mythology. Connected by the dimension-spanning cosmic ash tree Yggdrasil, the Realms include:

Asgard: Home of Thor, Odin and the rest of the Asgardians. First seen in 2011’s “Thor.”

Vanaheim: Home of the Vanir, sister race of the Asgardians.

Alfheim: Home of the Light Elves.

Nidavellir: Home of the Dwarves.

Midgard: Home of the Kardashians and the Mystic Beards of Clan Robertson. Also known as Earth.

Jotunheim: Home of the Frost Giants and birthplace of Loki (also first seen in 2011’s “Thor”).

Svartalfheim: Home of Malekith and the Dark Elves.

Niflheim: Land of the Dead.

Muspelheim: Home of the Fire Demons and their ruler, Surtur.

Source: Marvel.com. To contact entertainment editor David Frese, send email to dfrese@kcstar.com. Twitter: DavidFrese.

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