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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Thor: The Dark World' loses the energy, fun of first installment

Thor: The Dark World

(PG-13)

1 and 1/2 out of 4 stars

Before it was even finished filming, “Thor: The Dark World” achieved what only a dozen or so other movies have done before. Because it is part of a gargantuan action/fantasy franchise (“Marvel’s The Avengers”), it scared the bejesus out of every other major studio, all who chose not to release anything this weekend out of fear of being trampled. This same sort of thing happened with the “Twilight,” “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings” franchises.

Lacking the relative light touch of its predecessor (“Thor”), “The Dark World” — as its title suggests — is a lumbering, incoherent, heavy-handed monstrosity of a film. Overly serious with only hints of the first’s sardonic humor, “TDW” — with its dingy black/grey/blue color palette (made all the worse because of sub-par 3-D) — looks more like a “LOTR” installment than comic book adaptation. Edited to death with way too much reliance on CGI, it is also reminiscent of the recent “Man of Steel” where fight scenes go on interminably and — even by forgiving sci-fi parameters — spits in the face of logic or basic storytelling structure.

One of the big reasons “Thor” worked so well was the flip, cocksure attitude of the title character played by Chris Hemsworth, a younger, bulkier version of Brad Pitt. In “TDW,” we get a more humble Thor who has lost his edge and has second thoughts regarding his accession to the throne occupied by his father Odin (a surprisingly dull Anthony Hopkins). Also clear in the first were villains with zip and personality. The bad guys here are variations on the elves from “LOTR” with blue eyes, white wigs and speak a language that sounds like garbled Portuguese. One of them is fond of wearing armor that resembles a bull.

The other “villain” is actually a red gas that enters the bodies of two of the characters and plays havoc with their personalities and makes them virtually indestructible. The gas is introduced early in the first act that even by malleable sci-fi standards doesn’t make a lick of sense. There’s a battle that looks like an outtake from “Gladiator” and the reintroduction of Jane (Natalie Portman), a human scientist and Thor’s love interest.

Like Thor, Jane has been dramatically neutered and is reduced to playing a thankless, “damsel in distress” type that was in vogue in the 1950s. Also back are Kat Dennings as Jane’s flighty assistant Darcy and Stellan Skarsgard as Erik, another scientist with a couple of loose screws. Given less to do than Portman, Dennings and Skarsgard are present solely for comic relief that is completely devoid of any actual humor. Dennings screeches a lot and Skarsgard appears most of the time without pants and is infrequently naked.

The sole glimmer of hope comes in the form of Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Thor’s adopted brother and full-time mischief maker. As in the first installment, Loki steals every scene in which he appears and walks the pro- and antagonist tight rope with remarkable dramatic agility. Even when regulated to a single room for over half of the film, Loki — with his evil grin, sharp tongue and semi-psycho gleam in the eye — is always fun to watch. Disney and the Marvel brain trust need to come up with a project where Loki plays the lead; that would make for a great movie.

Simply by default, “TDW” will clean up at the box-office this weekend (it already made a whopping $109 million last weekend in 36 other worldwide markets) mostly because there is little competition. It should be mentioned the low-budget art-house movie “Diana” starring Naomi Watts as the late British princess is also opening to almost universal bad reviews and wasn’t screened for the Atlanta press prior to deadline.

What competing studios need to recognize is that not everybody — make that most serious movie fans — is in love with comic book movies. Offering something else (referred to in the industry as counterprogramming) would not only give the consumer more options, it would increase the attendance and visibility for smaller films that might otherwise get overlooked in the regular logjam of the fall season.

Presented in English with infrequent space-based gibberish with English subtitles. (Disney)