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film review

Marvel superheroes don't get much down time. Since the giant spectacle of this spring's The Avengers, we've seen Iron Man suit up in the third film of that character's franchise and now, Thor is once again wielding his mighty hammer in Thor: The Dark World.

What's the big blond warrior been up to lately? Jane Foster, the love interest and astrophysicist played by Natalie Portman, sure would like to know. She's been pining for him for two years now (perhaps Portman is also wondering just what's going on with her post-Oscar career). But even Foster admits that, as far as excuses go, having to restore order to the nine realms is a pretty good one.

Now that an ancient race of evil elves who look a lot like Tolkien creatures are out to destroy the universe, however, Thor is back on Earth and in Foster's life. It's almost the time of the alignment, when all nine realms will converge. Or maybe it's the time of the convergence, when all nine realms will align. It's all a little confusing. What's important to know is that it's prime time to destroy the universe, evidently. The elves just need to extract the Aether, an ancient weapon, from Foster's body.

Thor tries to spare Asgard from destruction by luring them to the dark world of the title, a barren landscape that only an evil elf could love. To do so, he'll need help from his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the power-mad trickster who stole the show in Thor. Is there decency in him, or just more deceit? The great thing about Hiddleston's portrayal of the character is that you're never sure.

There's plenty of intergalactic travel here, but the movie only really finds its groove when Thor lands on Earth. That's where the elves will launch their attack. Where are the rest of the super team from the Avengers when the elves are rampaging in London? Surely that level of destruction must make an alert button on Nick Fury's desk beep.

It's probably best not to ask these sorts of questions. Director Alan Taylor, who takes over from Kenneth Branagh, certainly isn't bothered by them.

Taylor, whose recent credits include directing episodes of Game of Thrones, is also smart enough to know that mindless entertainment about a godlike hero saving the universe needs comic relief. Too many superhero movies suffer from an unbearable self-seriousness (I'm looking at you, Christopher Nolan).

Branagh added a few moments of levity to Thor, but his interests were always primarily with the character's dramatic Shakespearean elements. When your protagonist's father is Odin and his brother is trying to usurp the throne, that interpretation is fair enough. But it can only be pressed so far.

Taylor saves the picture from self-importance with several great moments of comic relief. It would spoil things for viewers to mention any of these in detail. Let's just say that Loki does a fantastic impression of Captain America and that Thor getting back to Greenwich is arguably the high point of superhero comedy. These touches have a wonderful self-deprecating quality, unlike the brand of smarm charm that Robert Downey Jr. peddles in Iron Man, which is close to becoming insufferable.

There are currently 18 comic-book adaptations slated for release between now and 2018. Yet as the glut continues, the genre seems stuck in a dilemma. The post-9/11 context it has used to find meaning is growing stale. But without it, the genre risks irrelevance. How it will escape that dilemma is anyone's guess, but Thor: The Dark World is a good model of how superheroes can save the world without forced gravitas, and have fun doing it.

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