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The funny thing about the Thor films is that, as absurd as the whole set up is, they actually focus on being character studies. The action-adventure element has always felt like an afterthought.

This worked wonderfully for me in the first film, which was my favorite of the stand-alone Marvel flicks after Iron Man. When Thor (Chris Hemsworth) gets banished for his warmongering, and when he can save the people he formerly sought to destroy only by cutting himself off from Jane (Natalie Portman), I was sold. That the emotional climax came at the end of the second act didn’t bother me in the slightest – after watching Thor’s moral self-reclamation, I was happy to indulge an obligatory action movie finale.

Thor: The Dark World follows much the same formula, though this time its Thor’s reconciliation with his treacherous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) that supplies the story’s emotional punch.

Despite the repair of Asgard’s transportation system – which should ostensibly allow him to reunite with Jane – Thor must travel abroad to restore peace after war erupts in his realm following the events of The Avengers. But an older enemy – the Dark Elves, led by Malekith (Christoper Eccleston) – is waiting in the wings. They’re out to destroy the universe (Because, you know, why think small?) and are after an elemental force called the Aether that will allow them to do it.

Through a series of interdimensional hijinx, Jane winds up inhabited by the Aether, and Thor wisks her away to his home world to protect her. That brings the Dark Elves to Asgard, where they prove a solid match for King Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) forces. When tragedy strikes, Thor realizes his father is too blinded by grief and rage to recognize the futility of making a last stand. So he turns to Loki, and the two hatch a scheme to take Jane off world and draw Malekith into a trap.

Like the first film, all this jumping between Earth and Asgard requires a considerable amount of set up, and things don’t really get cranking until about 45 minutes in. But director Alan Taylor provides some striking imagery: Asgard looks amazing, the psychological effects of the Aether on Jane are ominously rendered, there’s that haunting shot from the trailer of her suspended in space, and there’s even a funeral with an extraordinarily beautiful sci-fi viking aesthetic. Bryan Tyler’s score is also a solid addition.

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The screenwriters keep things moving with some fun lines and lovely character notes throughout, and all the actors are clearly happy to be back. Hemsworth and Portman are reliable as always. As Odin, Hopkins bites of his lines with a vainglorious panache, and the film makes good use of Idris Elba’s world-weary gravitas as the gatekeeper Heimdall. Renee Russo doesn’t get much screen time as Thor’s mother Frigga, but the film draws a lot of sly and subtle humor out of her interactions with Jane. It’s the most mundane of situations – a strong mother assessing her son’s new love interest – but set in the most outlandish of circumstances. Russo and the screenwriters make every second of it count, and then throw in the revelation that Frigga is no slouch as a swords woman to boot.

Thor’s lieutenants are fun as always, though we don’t see much of them. And Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings (looking less voluptuous this time out, I’m sorry to say) are underused as the astrophysicist Erik Selvig and his assistant Darcy.

But the actor who really sings here is Hiddleston as Loki. Even locked in a dungeon for half the movie, every ounce of Hiddleston’s performance courses with a savage sarcasm hiding a roiling furnace of rage and self-loathing. I honestly think Hiddleston has gotten better every single time he’s played the character, and Thor: The Dark World sets Loki up marvelously for a fourth outing.

Like its predecessor, the film sews up its central emotional arc by the end of the second act. That arc has real heft, though Thor: The Dark World avoids some logical holes by confining its key moments to a few scenes and milking them for all their worth. The rest is largely exposition, plot logistics, and action.

Unfortunately, that tradition also comes with the risk of an underwhelming third act, and this film falls much further into that particular trap than Thor did. As an action set piece, it’s nothing to write home about, and it has nothing as organic or as moving as Thor’s final choice to destroy Asgard’s transportation system in the first film.

The result is a movie that – while it still has aspects to recommend it – is a noticeable step down.

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