The Legends of Legends

Thor: The Dark World begins as the original Thor did, with a look back at Asgardian history, but this one goes far enough that the story has become a legend to the people of Asgard. It tells of a time when the Dark Elves tried to use a weapon known as the Aether to destroy the Nine Realms. Odin’s father defeated them, and sent the leader of the Dark Elves, Malekith (Christopher Eccelston), into a suspended animation exile. The Aether was hidden, and then forgotten, except as a legend.

In the present day, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns from the Battle of New York with his prisoner, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Then he and his inner circle of warriors – Sif (Jaimie Alexander), Fandral (Zachary Levi), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) – set about to restore peace in the Nine Realms, including Hogun’s home world. Meanwhile, on Earth, things are getting a little crazy. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard has been arrested for dancing naked at Stonehenge. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is in England pursuing her studies, helped by Darcy (Kat Demmings), who’s now taken on an intern of her own. They find an anomaly in a warehouse in London, where physics no longer apply.

Jane doesn’t know the anomalies (and Erik’s behavior) are tied to a once-every-5000- years alignment of the realms, when the worlds can intersect for a brief period of time. Exploring the warehouse, Jane is transported to the spot where eons earlier the Aether was hidden. Unwittingly she releases it, and it invades her body. She returns to London after what seems to be a few minutes only to find that she’s been gone for hours and Darcy has called the police to search for her. When the police try to arrest them for trespassing, the Aether reacts violently to protect Jane. Thor returns to Jane at that moment and, seeing the power within her, takes her back to Asgard. He doesn’t know that the Dark Elves, awakened by the release of the Aether, are heading to Asgard as well.

While the first Thor was a tale of redemption on a Wagnerian scale (beautifully directed by Kenneth Branagh), The Dark World owes more to The Avengers with invaders from the stars threatening first Asgard and then Earth. The screenplay was written by the team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote the three Chronicles of Narnia pictures as well as the excellent Captain America: The First Avenger. This time they worked with Christopher Yost, who has written a number of recent animated adaptations of Marvel comics. The story expands our view of Asgard from the first movie, and overall it works well, though in the end it gets a little too clever for its own good. Branagh left after the first movie to do the reboot of Tom Clancey’s Jack Ryan series (in which he also appears in front of the cameras). Instead, the directing duties were given to Alan Taylor, who has mostly done series work with HBO, most recently on “Game of Thrones.” He’s a journeyman who tells the story well, though without the theatrical flash of Branagh.

One weakness of the first movie that is corrected this time is the horrible underutilization of Rene Russo. She had hardly any lines, but this time she plays a crucial part in the story. Stellan Skarsgard’s role as Erik Selvig goes way over the top with craziness, but somehow Skarsgard pulls it off. As in the first movie, Kat Dennings is wonderfully dry as Darcy. Hemsworth is a perfect physical specimen to play Thor with his blond locks and honed muscles. The story is more straightforward so his role doesn’t have the emotional resonance of the original, and the same is true for Portman’s Jane Foster. One does wonder why Thor is obsessed with Jane when there’s Jaimie Alexander in the picture. The most compelling character in the film is, not surprisingly, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, as he tips between hero and heavy.

Overall Thor: The Dark World works better than one would expect and – with the exception of a too cute ending – it’s a satisfying experience. There are two tags: one midway through the credits; another at the end. The mid-credits one apparently is a set up for the next Avengers movie, with an appearance by Benitio Del Toro as “The Collector.” The final tag gives a bit of payoff to the Thor/Foster love story, along with a bigger payoff from an earlier scene in the movie. It’s worth waiting for.