Among the Avengers, Thor should reign supreme. Sure, Captain America is the de facto leader, but even he — like the others — is just a jacked-up human. Thor is a god. Or if not quite a god, as he demurs, he's the next best thing: a flying titan with a 5,000-year lifespan. How old is he now? Who knows? But if you've seen the trailer, you know I'm not the only one tempted to hack off a limb and count the rings.
Do the math, and in Thor years a mortal lives as long as a carnival goldfish. Which explains why he's befuddled when Earth girl Jane (Natalie Portman) slaps him for ditching her in New Mexico. To her, the blond lug (Chris Hemsworth) has been MIA for two years. To him, it's just been a momentary pop-off while he, you know, fought the rest of space into submission. And to us it's just a quick, cheap giggle. Though Portman and Hemsworth are two perfect physical specimens, they give off less heat than a dime-store lighter. Portman seems to be inwardly rolling her eyes that she's followed up her Oscar win with two roles that have stuck her in a metal bra.
No matter. Their miscast romance is just one cog in Thor: The Dark World, which is itself just one motor in the billion-dollar Marvel machine that will run tirelessly as long as each film is, at minimum, competent. The Dark World has the essentials — four fights, six quips, and one Earth city reduced to rubble — and it moves the franchise another furlong closer to 2015's Avengers 2.
Instead of Kenneth Branagh's delightfully silly Shakespeare, this Thor is helmed by TV director Alan Taylor of Game of Thrones. Thanks to The Avengers' $1.5 billion global haul, Taylor was clearly given a bigger checkbook. Thor's astral home of Asgard is twinklier, the Rainbow Bridge is rainbowier, and the villains, well, are still just a bunch of grim-faced gray-and-black aliens — haven't we killed six kinds of them already? — equipped with the Aether, yet another raw element of destruction akin to the Tesseract.
As The Dark World — so named for Svartalfheim, the home of the Dark Elves — starts, the nine realms are due to align. And so awakens the dreaded elf king Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), a fiend with white skin and coal-lump eyes like a skinny snowman, who wants to reclaim the Aether and simultaneously smash every living thing to pieces, which is a surprise only if you haven't seen a comic-book movie in the last six years. At least there are some nifty black-hole grenades, which turn their victims inside out like a rolled-up sock before going poof.
Hemsworth's Thor is still big and blond, and he makes a grand entrance. Here he's first seen thwomping his hammer against a rock monster while Wagnerian Valkyries shriek their excitement. He gets one half-decent nude scene for the ladies, though nothing so lusty as in the first film, when he silenced Portman just by passing shirtless through her apartment. But the sequel forces him to spend most of his time in space, against golden CG vistas that leave him seeming puny. He fares better on Earth, where Hemsworth can get laughs by being a Norse god in mundane apartments, dutifully hanging his hammer on a coat rack. Torn between two worlds, the character feels adrift in his own movie when he's the one Avenger who should be the most anchored: He's certainly the only one with a full regiment of family and friends, even if his younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) can't stop trying to kill everyone.
It's impossible to imagine Tony Stark hanging out at a bar with his friends' babies, as Thor does here. And unlike the Iron Man flicks — which, for better and worse, hum along solely on star Robert Downey Jr.'s charisma — Thor's world is so crowded by naked scientists (Stellan Skarsgård), wisecracking babes (Kat Dennings), hard-fighting babes (Jaimie Alexander), imperious kings (Anthony Hopkins) and idiot interns (Jonathan Howard) that Thor himself can feel almost inessential.
As Thor matures, his ego shrinks, along with his identity. Lacking Iron Man's wit, the Hulk's brains and the Captain's ideals, he's in peril of going poof himself if the franchise doesn't figure out how to capitalize on its most glorious hero. But there's one scene, a Viking burial at the end of the world, where The Dark World shows the emotional potential of the berserker, beautiful Norse epic we've yet to see. Thor might not be immortal, but he's the only Avenger with the operatic ambition to reach, literally, for the heavens.