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Lightning Nearly Strikes Twice

MOVIE REVIEW
Thor: The Dark World (2013)

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Jay Maidment/Walt Disney Studios

Phase two of Marvel's cinematic takeover is well under way; and after a lackluster affair with "Iron Man 3," the burden to lift the series back up into the starry sky falls on the shoulders of the hammer-wielding Asgardian.

The film sets its stall out early in its "The Lord of the Rings"-style prologue — punchy, big and as glossy as Chris Hemsworth's well-oiled pectorals. There is definitely something for the ladies in this movie. The action keeps up this crunching pace, with big, brutish enemies for Thor to smash, and lots of bad guys trashing familiar landmarks. Asgard gets a bit battered; a little bit of London gets knocked all over the shop; and all the realms come under attack from Christopher Eccleston's cold-as-the-back-of-a-fridge Malekith.

The visuals are loud and brash, and the sound engineers appear to have looted the data banks of the last "Star Wars" trilogy for their ship effects, perhaps to make Natalie Portman feel at home. It all looks and sounds epic.

The story is simple enough — if a little convoluted — as the good guys face another horde of angry bad guys, lose for a bit, then ultimately triumph. The biggest problem for the Marvel Universe is that it's hard to imagine this film, or those that now follow, standing on their own two feet. If you haven't seen "The Avengers," "Thor" or most of the other features in the canon, then you might be scratching your head at some of the references, relationships and backstory.

It is an entertaining romp, peppered with some smart gags, some not so smart: Thor's unplanned trip on the London Underground seems forced. But it feels like a chapter in a larger story — one episode in a very expensive and flashy action series that would have television executives drooling rather than a stand-alone movie experience.

It has all the necessary nods: a cameo from Stan Lee — one actually very witty reference to "The Avengers" — all that's missing is Samuel L. Jackson. However, the script lapses into moments of grandiose nonsense, Sir Anthony Hopkins bearing the brunt of the cringe-worthy speechifying. Thankfully Mr. Hopkins still has the gravitas to throw most of it away, but Joss Whedon would have made those scenes smarter.

With three screenwriters on board — animated series writer Christopher Yost (who must know his comic-book hero canon) working with the team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely of the "Captain America" and "Narnia" franchises — and with the story by two other writers, you begin to drift toward cooks in the kitchen analogies. The mix of styles shows, and at times pulls the film down.

Also Mr. Eccleston, a very fine actor indeed, fails to present us with the character of Malekith, because the Dark Elf hasn't been given one. He is completely devoid of personality, a one-note evil. His motives for wanting to destroy everything are shaky at best, and he boils down to little more than a striding mass of hormonal rage. At least Loki (Tom Hiddleston) had layers and depth; you could always feel his pain. Malekith is vengeance in a yogurt pot, and what Mr. Eccleston needed was permission to peel back the lid and stick a spoon in.

There are nice comic turns from Chris O'Dowd; and Stellan Skarsgard as the now completely dotty Dr. Selvig. In truth, some of the lesser characters from the first film get a bit sidelined and underwritten, but this film rests on the performance of one man — and fortunately Mr. Hemsworth is so undeniably likable, cruising through the whole thing with his now-prerequisite glint in the eye and swoon-worthy smile, that you soon forget the film's shortcomings.

The film does commit one cardinal sin: It cheats its audience. Giving them a huge gift in the third act, then stealing it away later with a wry smile. Studios like Marvel are always protective of their assets, but sometimes you have to be a little braver and sacrifice something in the name of believability.

"The Dark World" doesn't break the mold, it just adds a chunky, hammer-shaped piece of the jigsaw to Marvel's master plan. With Captain America chasing his heels, at least Thor can say he kept up his side of the bargain. Movies assemble!

THOR: THE DARK WORLD

Opens on Oct. 30 in Britain and on Nov. 8 in the United States.

Directed by Alan Taylor; written by Christopher L. Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on a story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat, and the comic-book series; director of photography, Kramer Morgenthau; edited by Dan Lebental and Wyatt Smith; music by Brian Tyler; visual effects supervisor, Jake Morrison; production design by Charles Wood; costumes by Wendy Partridge; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes. This film is rated 12A by B.B.F.C. and PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Natalie Portman (Jane Foster), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Stellan Skarsgard (Dr. Erik Selvig), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Christopher Eccleston (Malekith), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Algrim/Kurse), Kat Dennings (Darcy Lewis), Ray Stevenson (Volstagg), Zachary Levi (Fandral), Tadanobu Asano (Hogun), Jaimie Alexander (Sif), Rene Russo (Queen Frigga), Chris O’Dowd (Richard) and Anthony Hopkins (Odin).

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