"Thor: The Dark World," rated PG-13 for comic book violence. Stars Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo. Directed by Alan Taylor. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. Grade: A-
"Thor: The Dark World" avoids the slump that often comes with a sequel by cranking up the action, embracing the deep mythology that made the comics popular, sustaining the family elements and focusing on the film's two greatest assets: Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston.
Toss in a strong performance by the supporting cast, a surprise cameo and some good emotional moments and the sequel delivers visual lightning and story thunder.
The threat in this story comes from an elfish looking creature known as Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Defeated thousands of years ago by Thor's grandfather, Malekith comes out of hiding just as the nine worlds under the protection of Asgard are about to converge. It's the perfect time for him to unleash mercurial essences known as the Aether that will send all of the realms into total darkness.
It's up to Thor (Hemsworth) to stop him — but it's a task he can't accomplish on his own. He needs the help of his brother, Loki (Hiddleston), who has aptly earned his title as god of mischief.
Although the final battle takes place on Earth, director Alan Taylor has smartly focused most of the movie in Asgard. This is a world where threats can be sufficiently big enough to challenge a god.
The dazzling world created for Thor in the comics — from the Rainbow Bridge to the massive cityscapes — have been re-created with amazing detail to serve as a glorious background for this epic battle.
And because this is the world where Thor lives, the film can seamlessly shift from the larger-than-life battles to the personal family moments. Even when all known worlds are being threatened, there still is time to embrace the father-son, mother-son, brother-brother dynamics that give the movie emotional depth.
These elements work because both Hemsworth and Hiddleston make their characters so believable. It's easy to be distracted by Hemsworth's Adonis-like physique that makes him perfect for this role, but he also is a strong enough actor to give the character the depth and make him believable.
It's fun to watch how Hemsworth can go from being a force to being a loving soul in scenes with his Earth love, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). It's also a plus that Foster's role in the salvation of the worlds has moved beyond just being a passive observer.
The first film touched on Loki's evil ways, but this film better captures the devilish ways of the character. Hiddleston has perfected the kind of smirking politician approach that makes every line delivery sound both serious and sinister. He doesn't provide the same muscle as Hemsworth, but he is equally as strong.
And with all the death and destruction going on, there's still time for the kind of light humor that has helped distinguish films based on Marvel Comics characters.
There are some problems, such as a 3-D effect that adds little to the movie. And while the screen time for the annoying character played by Kat Dennings has been diminished, the role seems as necessary as a charm school in Asgard.
These flaws aren't enough to take away from this very successful sequel.
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.