thor_web.jpgComic book movies are increasingly, like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, lost in space. Following the summer’s glumly bombastic Man of Steel, which added a heavy dose of Krypton politics to Superman’s once pleasantly silly story, comes Thor: The Dark World, in which Thor’s Asgard, a celestial home of gods floating somewhere in the universe, is the primary setting. Earth is an afterthought – just one of the “nine realms,” albeit the one with Natalie Portman.

Gone are the earthbound pleasures of a superhero amid us mortals. Such was the joy of the Spider-Man movies and the first Thor, when Chris Hemsworth’s lofty, hammer-wielding Norse warrior, exiled to Earth, so happily encountered a cup of coffee for the first time.

As Marvel’s latest 3-D behemoth, Thor: The Dark World isn’t so much a sequel as the latest plug-and-play into the comic book company’s blockbuster algorithm. It’s a reliably bankable formula of world-saving action sequences, new villain introductions and clever quips from women on the side, (and they, most assuredly, are always off to the side).

The expansive Marvel universe is carefully stitched together across its many properties. The Dark World (with director Alan Taylor of Game of Thrones taking over for Kenneth Branaugh) follows The Avengers in chronology and runs alongside the current, unremarkable ABC series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Each is referred to with something less than, say, the binding connections of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Instead we get cloying winks. The great city of New York, for example, is reduced to shorthand for the climactic battle in The Avengers, as if we’re still so consumed by that movie. Yes, we’re all very impressed it made so much money.

Thor has spent the last two years restoring order to the nine realms of the cosmos, but just as peace settles, a previously locked-away dark energy called the Aether seeps out. It leaks into Portman’s astrophysicist, Jane Foster, awakening a previously vanquished species of Dark Elves, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). They would like to see the universe returned to complete darkness. Not a day person, this Malekith.

This occurs as the nine realms are lining up in a rare convergence that makes them particularly susceptible to Aether-spread ruin. There’s not a lick of character to Malekith and his motives: He just wants to end all life.

To save life as we know it, Thor seeks help from his duplicitous adoptive brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who has been imprisoned for killing thousands of humans at “New York.” Hiddleston’s sneering Loki remains one of the finest Marvel antagonists, and _ now with a starring role in three films – the franchise seems to value him (as it should) as much as his more heroic brother.

When The Dark World touches down on Earth, away from the Clash of the Titans-style realms of gods, it’s considerably better. Along with Portman, returning is the sarcasm sidekick Kat Dennings (as Jane’s intern) and Stellan Skarsgard as discredited scientist Erik Selvig. Chris O’Dowd makes a welcome cameo as a blind date for a very reluctant Jane.

The tone is far more amiable on Earth (London, to be specific, the site of the final showdown) than in Asgard, where Anthony Hopkins, Renee Russo and Idris Elba remain locked in golden-hued majesty. Hemsworth, a seemingly perfectly rendered movie star equipped with brawn and baritone, also suffers from the stiffness. He had much more fun in Rush earlier this year.

Ardent fans (who should stay through the credits) will likely be satiated by the pleasing enough Thor: The Dark World. But perhaps at this point, even diehards may wish for something more from a Marvel equation that often subtracts humanity.

Thor: The Dark World, a Walt Disney release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content.” Running time: 111 minutes. Two stars out of four.