'Thor: The Dark World' brings more fizzle than thunder

A perfunctory follow-up to 2011's 'Thor' will make you wonder, So

The first Thor succeeded best through the casting of Chris Hemsworth as the ripped, blonde-tressed thunder god and Tom Hiddleston as his conniving, emotionally raw brother Loki.

In Branagh's film, the supernatural city of Asgard came across as a kitschy, overpolished film set, but the sequel Thor: The Dark World replaces Branagh with director Alan Taylor, who adds a patina of realism to the fantastical elements. Taylor is best known for his work on HBO's "Game of Thrones," and while The Dark World features no full frontal incest scenes or graphic footage of lopped-off heads, it renders the supernatural realms as lived-in places, while bringing more clarity to the sword-and-sorcery action scenes.

But for every area The Dark World improves on its predecessor, it seems to magnify a problem from the first Thor. Neither the adventure story nor the personal subplots ever muster high stakes, so The Dark World largely feels like its marking time until the next Avengers movie comes along.

A prologue lays out the Asgardians longstanding rivalry with the Dark Elves, who reveal themselves to be highly generic bad guys (led by "Doctor Who's" Christopher Eccleston) seeking a vaguely-defined power source called The Aether, with which they'll revert the universe to primordial darkness. On Earth, Thor's human girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) follows her interest in scientific anomalies to a London warehouse where the law of gravity seems to have been revoked. She unwittingly becomes the carrier of the Aether, and when Thor gets wind of her peril, he whisks her back to Asgard.

For a time, The Dark World feints at developing some juicy ideas, including a romantic triangle between Thor, Jane and warrior princess Sif (Jamie Alexander), a fellow Asgardian who might make the thunder god a better match than a mortal woman. The plot involves the convergence of the mythological "nine realms," and comic book fans briefly hope that Thor will take Jane on a quest to all of them (including the land of the dead). Neither of these notions pan out, and Thor's main conflict seems to hinge on whether he'll choose Asgard or Earth as his primary home.

The film's second act brings out plenty of imaginative accoutrements at least. When the Dark Elves attack the Asgardians, the film suggests a Viking version of Star Wars, including flying longboats armed with laser cannons. Best of all, Thor decides that the best gambit to save Jane is through an uneasy alliance with Loki, even though his brother may be the least trustworthy being in the universe. The Thor/Loki sibling rivalry has spilled across multiple Marvel movies but still strikes sparks, with Hiddleston bringing a layered performance to the villainous role. You never know if Loki's voicing genuine grievances, or constructing schemes within schemes.

Hemsworth still brings grandiose gestures as well as amusing, relatable details to the larger-than-life role, even though Thor has less of an arc in this film. The previous film built some rich fish-out-of-water humor out of a Norse deity wandering around contemporary gags. Kat Dennings' dimwitted intern and Stellan Skarsgård's addle-minded scientist serve almost solely as comic relief with jokes that aren't just leaden, but seem to be hewn of the same indestructible material as Thor's hammer.

The labored, quippy scenes feel particularly redundant given that the likes of Anthony Hopkins, playing Thor's all-powerful (yet somehow ineffectual) father Odin, get such short shrift. Whenever Thor: The Dark World focuses on Thor's relationship with Jane or Loki, the film flares to life, and Rene Russo, as Thor's mother, helps enliven both of these storylines. The film features plenty of clever little details - when Thor and Jane embrace in a downpour, the shower leaves her untouched. Otherwise, The Dark World's script feels thin and perfunctory, as if at some point the writing was canceled because of rain.

Thor: The Dark World. Directed by Alan Taylor. Stars Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., Nov. 8. At area theaters.