Any reservations I had about "Thor: The Dark World" evaporated when the movie shifted into maximum overdrive in its second hour. The latest chapter in Marvel's never-ending story takes a while to find its narrative momentum, but its later, better scenes have a loony oomph that drowns out your misgivings. It elevates comic-book pandemonium to new heights of clamor. Joyous Pop Art excess permeates every frame.
Directing duties have passed from Kenneth Branagh to Alan Taylor, late of HBO's medieval-mystical "Game of Thrones." The sequel builds on the alchemy of apocalyptic tomfoolery and humor in the original (and "The Avengers"). First it's knocking your block off in battle scenes, then you're laughing your head off. It's only in the moments when the latest threat to the cosmos is plotting his attacks that the energy flags. The movie demonstrates that even without a compelling villain, you can have a jam-packed whirligig of a superhero movie.
There's a lot going on here, with Asgard under attack in an intergalactic conflict spreading among nine dimensions. The expected third-act punchouts send adversaries blipping out of London (where the earthbound action is centered), into bizarre alternate realms, and back again. There is a meatier exploration of Thor's troubled connections with his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and physicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). They break into frequent mid-battle quips hashing out their various relationship issues. "It's not that I don't enjoy our little chats," the devilishly snide Loki tells imperious Odin. "It's just that ... I don't."
As Thor, golden-locked Chris Hemsworth wears a cape with more casual authority than any actor in the game. Maybe it's the breadth of those gym-pumped shoulders, or maybe the blunt self-confidence that's part of his Australian heritage. Whatever the cause, he's utterly at home as the demigod prince with a special fondness for human beings. Set between the icy high theatricality of Hopkins' Odin and the marrow-poisoning malice of Hiddleston's Loki, Hemsworth's Thor radiates a reassuring warmth. He's a deity you could have a beer with.
The opening scenes are the most labored, with Hopkins declaiming the back story of the nefarious vampire-like light-shunners who want to return the universe to its original darkness. The leader of these Dark Elves is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), whose Nosferatu-inspired makeup provides most of his paper-thin characterization. His doomsday weapon is the Aether, an all-powerful concoction of dark energy. Odin expects Thor to defend their stunningly visualized kingdom, impatient that his thoughts are still with Earth and Jane.
Earth is funnier than Asgard. Jane's coping with Thor's two-year absence by half-heartedly dog-paddling in the dating pool (her awkward lunch date with a well-known comic actor is a stitch). Portman is that rare actress who can make fun of who she's playing and still make you care about her. Jane's snarky intern, Darcy (Kat Dennings), is now lording it over her own sub-intern, whose name she can't be bothered to remember. Jane's scientific mentor Erik (Stellan Skarsgard), suffering manic PTSD following last year's cataclysmic "Avengers" battle for New York, delivers a graduate seminar in Monty Python lunacy. The London scenes are brimful of sight gags and silly asides, no doubt thanks to the script polish by Joss Whedon. Who said Marvel movies have to star Robert Downey Jr. to be uproarious?
This is Thor's third outing in as many years, and remarkably it doesn't seem like more of the same. The film's design feels more like an occult war epic than a superhero saga. There's epic property damage, but the buildings that go kablooey aren't the usual tourist magnets, and the destruction is thankfully free from collateral human casualties.
There's also a focus on strategy, as Thor recruits the untrustworthy Loki in his battle against Malekith. Will the master trickster use his wiles against their common enemy, or is he more interested in conquering his resented older brother? The film keeps you guessing until literally the final frames, which deliver the best ending of any comic-book adaptation. In a film awash with "Wow" moments, they saved the biggest blast for last.
* * * 1/2 out of 4 stars