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‘Thor: The Dark World’ mixes fantasy and mythology

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Having saved the Earth in the first “Thor” movie, the Marvel Comics superhero/god takes a mighty whack — with his fabled hammer, of course — at saving the entire cosmos in the much-anticipated “Thor: The Dark World,” which opens Friday in movie theaters across the United States.

Chris Hemsworth returns in the title role, with Natalie Portman back as Thor’s human love interest, Jane Foster. Tom Hiddleston is also back as Loki, Thor’s adoptive brother and nemesis in both “Thor” and “Marvel’s The Avengers.” Only this time, Loki and Thor must work together to defeat a villain that is even too powerful for their father, Odin, played once again by Anthony Hopkins.

The cast also includes Stellan Skarsgård reprising the role of Dr. Erik Selvig; Idris Elba as the all-seeing, all-hearing sentry Heimdall; Christopher Eccleston (“Doctor Who”) as the malevolent Malekith; Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as the evil lieutenant Strong/Kurse; Zachary Levi as Fandral; and Rene Russo as Frigga, wife of Odin and queen of Asgard.

Directed by Alan Taylor (“Palookaville,” “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones”), “Thor: The Dark World” opened internationally last week, taking in nearly $110 million in its first weekend in such countries as Great Britain, France, Mexico and Brazil.

Forbes estimates the production cost of the new Thor film to be around $200 million, so the stronger-than-expected international opening is seen as “another victory for Marvel Studios and parent company Disney,” according to the Hollywood Reporter’s Pamela McClintock.

“I don’t think the anticipation for the new Thor movie is quite at the level of ‘The Avengers’ last year,” said Dan Farr, founder of Salt Lake Comic Con and an experienced businessman. “But if you’re a fan of the Marvel movies — and there seem to be an awfully lot of those — you’re aware of the new movie and you’re probably going to come out to see it. I don’t see how you can enjoy one of those movies and not want to see the others.”

According to Farr, the anticipation for “The Dark World” is especially true in certain demographics.

“I’ve seen a lot of women in the 35-50 age range, ladies who aren’t typically fans of superhero movies, who are big fans of Chris Hemsworth,” he said, chuckling, acknowledging that his wife, Stephanie, is among those fans.

“And so are all her friends,” he added. “It’s kind of funny. Even her sister, who hasn’t had a celebrity crush ever, is one of them. If we can get Chris Hemsworth to come to the Salt Lake Comic Con next year, we won’t have any trouble selling tickets to that demographic.”

One person who is not eagerly anticipating the new movie opening is Dan McCoy of Nashville, whose Norse mythology website is billed as “the ultimate online resource for Norse mythology and religion.” Although Thor is among his favorite Norse gods and the legends of Odin and Asgard are as comfortable and familiar to him as Bible stories are to Christians, he didn’t see the first “Thor” and doesn’t plan to see “The Dark World.”

“I had every intention of going to see the first one,” he said during a telephone interview last week. “But then I saw the trailer for the movie on YouTube, and I could see it wasn’t a movie that I was interested in seeing” — not because of any scholarly objection to the way significant Norse mythological characters are presented in the film but because “action movies and supernatural movies in general just don’t appeal to me.”

Still, he had some interesting insights into the mythological underpinnings of some of the movie’s central characters. For example, he said that “the god Odin is a relentless seeker after knowledge.” While Odin is often likened to Zeus, the ruler of the gods of Greek mythology, McCoy said they really are very different.

“Zeus is anchored to Olympus and is concerned with maintaining structure and order among the gods, while Odin is constantly away from Asgard on self-interested quests,” McCoy said. “Odin only uses structure to help him achieve his objectives for personal fulfillment.”

Thor, on the other hand, is “a very dutiful and loyal guardian of Asgard.”

“The giants (another tribe of Norse divinities, along with the gods) are constantly trying to destroy Asgard, and Thor is constantly trying to stop that from happening,” McCoy said. “Thor is thunder and his hammer is lightning. According to mythology, whenever there is thunder and lightning, that is Thor crashing down on the giants and killing them.”

Although the decision by Marvel creators to make Loki Thor’s adoptive brother is “definitely not true to Norse mythology,” the decision at least “makes poetic sense,” McCoy said.

“Loki is the constant companion of Thor and Odin,” he said. “The stories suggest that the three of them often had adventures together,” although it is also clear that Loki “is not on anyone’s side. He seems to enjoy playfulness and mischief just for the sake of playfulness and mischief.”

Such departures from Norse mythology don’t bother McCoy because “I don’t even think of the Thor movies as being especially tied to Norse mythology since they are focusing on the superficial details and missing the heart of it, which is the worldview of mythology.

“Traditional mythologies are expressed in terms of stories, and modern worldviews are expressed in terms of conceptual language,” he explained. “In animistic societies people see themselves as being part of a larger story, which is the story of the land around them. Since everything in the world is in some sense alive or conscious or spiritual, they believe we are all characters in the grander stories of the land.

“Norse mythology,” McCoy continued, “is ultimately one long, grand narrative that ultimately shows that the world itself is divine — that everything we need is right here. We just have to look for it harder.”

Farr and other fans of the Marvel-ized version of Norse mythology aren’t really looking for such profundity from “Thor: The Dark World.” Rather, they are looking for a couple of hours of escape from the harsh realities of life into a world of creative fantasy.

“I think what happens as people start watching the Marvel movies is it touches the creative, fantasy-oriented part of their brain,” Farr said. “It’s not like a cop drama, that is grounded in reality and mimics real life. You can certainly enjoy a movie like that and be compelled by it. But I don’t think it stirs your soul as much as going into a world of fantasy that touches the creative portion of your brain and allows you to escape into something that is imaginative and unreal.”

At least, Farr said, that is what is going on for him when he goes to a Marvel movie.

“I like to be able to step back from the real world and go into something fantastical,” he said. “I find I become more immersed in a Marvel movie than I would something that is more realistic. It’s like a roller coaster, where you can just go for the ride and enjoy it. You know that you’re going to be thrown around a little, but it’s all safe.”

If there is a deeper level of appreciation for such movies, it’s probably in what Farr calls “the very human desire for heroes.”

“I think that’s kind of in our nature,” he said. “We all want to believe that there’s something more. We want to believe in something bigger than ourselves. Thor gives us that. He’s flawed, and his character is evolving. But then, he’s also a god with these amazing powers, and this really cool hammer. How can you not get lost in that?”

Email: jwalker@deseretnews.com