Thor: The Dark World takes a three-colour page from this year's earlier Iron Man 3 in one positive way: It takes a step away from the origin story and embarks on a stand-alone adventure.
Some comic-book-to-movie franchises never get out of the origin story rut. (Yes, we're looking at you, Superman.) But the Marvel movies are starting to venture more frequently beyond those safe zones, likewise unencumbered by the requirements larger grand narratives, a la The Avengers.
In that spirit, we return to Asgard, the Norse-flavoured godly realm ruled by Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Odin's mischievous adoptive son Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is in prison after masterminding the intergalactic assault on Earth, as seen in The Avengers. The hammer-wielding good son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is in line to assume the throne.
But Thor is still pining for the earthly scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), to the extent that he can hardly keep his head in the game of putting down the various invasions on the Nine Realms under Asgard's rule.
Down on Earth, Jane is still looking for ways to get to Thor's world. One effort takes her to an abandoned industrial facility in London, where there appears to be a gateway to an alien world. Unfortunately, that world is the hiding place of "The Aether" -- pure malevolence in handy liquid form. This stuff was once the secret weapon of Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), a "dark Elf" intent on returning the universe to its original state of darkness.
The stuff gets into Jane. Thor takes her to Asgard for treatment. And while Jane lies, Aetherized upon a table, Odin lets it be known that he still disapproves of mixed relationships between demi-gods and mortals.
But before he can get too high and mighty, the evil Malekith appears. Apparently, he can smell Aether like a drug-sniffing dog can zero in on a doobie, and he and his elvish minions launch a full invasion of Asgard.
The result of that skirmish sees Thor and his estranged brother Loki embarking on a trip to the Dark World on a mission of revenge.
Director Alan Taylor knows how to translate comic book dynamics to film -- a body must fly just so when smacked by Thor's hammer. He knows, like Kenneth Branagh did in the first Thor movie, that such fantasy requires a certain burnished grandeur.
He also knows enough to give Loki the best lines.
But when it comes to intergalactic mayhem, The Avengers proves to be a tough act to follow. Even though the movie stages an inter-dimensional donnybrook for its finale, it still registers as a rather pale imitation.
Much of this has to do with its stolid hero. Sure, Hemsworth is physically impressive as Thor, but let's face it, the evil Loki got all the charm in that family. (Hiddleston is as reliable a scene-stealer here as he was in The Avengers.)
A few of the first film's supporting players show up to add some comic beats, including Kat Dennings as the saucy scientist Darcy and Stellan Skarsg*rd as the understandably befuddled Dr. Selvig, a previous victim of Loki brainwashing. He complains at one point: "A god was in my head."
The god Thor may stay in your head for a few minutes after seeing this movie. But he will have no staying power much beyond the closing credits.
Speaking of closing credits, be advised, you hapless moviegoers who leave as soon as the screen goes black: There are two different additional scenes, a.k.a. "stingers," to be seen when the final credits begin -- one in the middle of the credits and another at the very end.