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THOR: THE DARK WORLD , USA , 2013 , MPAA Rating : PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive conten

In THOR: THE DARK WORLD, there may be no suspense about how the latest nefarious plot to destroy the universe will turn out, but there are plenty of clever tricks along the way courtesy of the real star of the film, Thorís trickster brother, Loki. Not that Thor, once again in the toothsome person of Chris Hemsworth, isnít suitably handsome in a rugged, unkempt way. Not that he isnít the hero of the piece that finds the Norse god flitting between the nine realms while also reconnecting with his one true love, the mortal astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). No, itís that, for all the basso profundo of Thorís voice, the superhero athletics of wielding that mighty hammer and an even mightier pair of steely blue eyes, Loki is more fun. Thatís usually the case with villains, but with Tom HIddleston playing him as a walking, furiously amused and condescending sneer, Loki is rendered irresistible and Thor doesnít stand a chance against him.

Itís been two years since Thor returned to Asgard, the home of the gods located somewhere in outer space and outer-dimension. Jane, though smitten as any mere mortal would be with a hunk like the god of thunder, has moved on with her life via a first date with an affable soul (Chris OíDowd). Alas, itís a date that is over before it begins thanks to gravitational anomalies that just canít wait, even if they didnít signal a possible return to Earth of Janeís old flame. Of course itís more serious than just a romantic reunion, or a peculiar localized lack of gravity, itís a race of dark elves out to, you guessed it, destroy the universe and replace with, you might not have guessed it and thereís no shame in it, the eponymous dark world of their origin.

Naturally Jane stumbles upon the dark elvesí secret weapon, a buoyant red plasma called the aether. Naturally Thor takes Jane to Asgard, both to help her with the results of coming into contact with the aether, and to avoid getting arrested in one of those awkward police-meet-supernatural-aether moments. It also give him a chance to introduce her to his parents, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of Asgard, and Frigga (Rene Russo), goddess of marriage, which meeting is complicated by one of said parents not approving of this mixed union. Things quickly get even more complicated, resulting in Thor being forced to forge an uncertain alliance with Loki, breaking him out of the prison to which Odin consigned him for the several thousand years left of his life.

The plot, while certainly quick-paced and entertaining, is not the point here. Battles are. That and Lokiís sneer. Armies fall into battle at the merest hint of a lagging cinematic moment, with special effects filling the screen with angry elves, furious gods, and weapons that have a giddy originality. Asgard may have that Mucha-esque quality all too familiar as a model for heavens of all types, but itís still a lovely place to visit, even if the posturing of gods can get a bit heavy-handed after a while. Earth is a lot more fun, with Stellan Skarsgaard reprising his role of an eccentric scientist trying to save the world by running amok at ancient heritage sites, and Kat Dennings, as Janeís intern, returning in all her flippantly dead-pan glory, this time with a delightfully obtuse intern of her own to torment.

The climactic battle does not fail to dazzle, as the dark elves invade earth during a convergence of the nine worlds that expands the battlefield to all nine dimensions at once. Itís a neat trick that is choreographed with perfect synchronicity, and flourishes of comic relief that do nothing to detract from the whiz-bang effect.

THOR: THE DARK WORLD aims to amuse its audience without overtaxing them, character quip, things explode when they arenít tumbling down, and even exploring fun with (rudimentary) physics is a painless amuse-bouche.

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