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"Thor: The Dark World" 

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The latest chapter in Marvel Studios' ever-expanding big-screen universe, "Thor: The Dark World" picks up not long after the events of 2012's "The Avengers" to check in on the continuing adventures of the heroic Norse god. Much like how "Iron Man 3" found Tony Stark in a darker place, suffering from PTSD after his near-death experience, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is feeling a little glum because he really misses his girlfriend, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). He's back in Asgard, keeping the peace between the nine realms with the support of his merry band of warrior friends, the rather unimaginatively named Warriors Three.

Back on Earth, Jane has attempted to move on with her life, but is still searching for signs of Thor's return. While investigating some bizarre anomalies in the fabric of space and time, Jane discovers and inadvertently absorbs an alien energy/deadly weapon known as the Aether, which was used thousands of years prior by dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) in a plot to plunge the universe into darkness when the nine realms aligned, in a rare event known as the Convergence. The reemergence of the Aether reawakens Malekith, who immediately sets out to do what he had failed achieve all those years ago. And damn the luck, the Convergence is about to happen once again. Thor learns of Jane's infection with the Aether and brings her back to Asgard in the hopes of extracting the force before it kills her, as well as keeping it out of Malekith's hands. Of course, Thor's plan to destroy the Aether and defeat Malekith eventually requires him to partner up with his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who has been imprisoned on Asgard in response to his evil deeds in the Avengers film.

That's an incredible amount of plot crammed into a film in which most of it ultimately doesn't matter. What audiences have really come to see are the interactions between the characters they've come to love throughout the course of the previous Marvel films, and in that regard, "Thor: The Dark World" is a huge success.

As with "Thor," the executives at Marvel Studios have shrewdly chosen a director who is most comfortable working with the overly theatrical setting of Asgard. Kenneth Branagh, who directed the first film, had a background in Shakespeare, while this film's director, Alan Taylor, is a veteran of HBO's "Game of Thrones." In his hands, Asgard feels like a real, lived-in place, and the scenes that take place there are among the film's most successful.

Despite working with a plot that's significantly less streamlined than the original's tale of brotherly jealousy and betrayal, Taylor manages to find a balance between complicated story and huge number of characters while delivering a number of satisfying and exciting action set pieces. He develops the worlds that were introduced in "Thor" in new and exciting ways. I also appreciated the screenwriters' (Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely) decision to maintain the goofy sense of humor that was established in the first film; "Thor: The Dark World" is a far funnier film than I had any reason to expect.

Hemsworth still makes for a hugely appealing hero, but after learning the value of humility in the first film, I found myself missing Thor's cocky swagger this time around. I understand why it had to happen, but without it he loses a bit of his distinctive personality and starts to fall into that more traditional brand of stoic heroism. Hemsworth and Hiddleston are great together, and the scenes where Thor and Loki verbally spar with one another are all fantastic. Portman is also quite good; likeable and charming, but most impressively, makes for a fairly convincing scientist.

Taylor does a good job of allowing most of the actors to have their moment, aside from Eccleston, who is buried under pounds of makeup. Unfortunately, Malekith isn't much a character, a problem that has plagued just about all of the Marvel's film villains aside from Loki.

It's pleasing to note that the film boasts four unique female characters, giving it the rare distinction of being a superhero film that can actually pass the Bechdel Test. Aside from Portman, Kat Dennings' scene-stealing Darcy returns, as well as Jaimie Alexander's Lady Sif. Thor's mother, Frigga (Rene Russo), even gets something to do, demonstrating that she's just as much of a warrior as the men in her family.

"Thor: The Dark World" ends on as much of a cliffhanger as we've had yet from the Marvel films (though with films' increasing interconnectedness, we'll likely be getting that more and more), leaving little doubt that we'll be returning to Asgard soon enough. Thankfully, as long as the next film continues to be as entertaining as the first two, I won't mind returning to that world.

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