They have bazookas in the Nine Realms?

That's one disconcerting question that pops up while watching Thor: The Dark World, the sequel to 2011's Thor, which was pretty disconcerting, too, especially when Anthony Hopkins got all high and mighty, scolding his grown son, the God of Thunder, for insubordinance. And Odin's eyepatch, really?

Things are indeed a lot darker in The Dark World. Someone has unleashed the Aether (in Norse mythology, ether is apparently spelled with a capital A). And the Nine Realms are about to converge - an alignment that will create portals from one world to another, allowing the villainous Malekith and his Dark Elves the opportunity to throw the universe back into the kind of cosmic murk they prefer. Even the Vanaheims are up to no good.

For all its faults (and they were legion, my lord), Thor captured some of the nifty incongruity of the original Marvel Comic: a Norse god fallen to Earth, walking among us and getting weird looks from the locals. There were trips back to Asgard, with its gleaming CG spires, but the best parts of Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh, were grounded in the here and now (if the here and now was a place where Natalie Portman could be an astrophysicist).

But with the exception of a few scenes in London - notably a big empty factory where one of the portals appears - most of Thor: The Dark World takes place on Asgard, which looks a lot grimmer, and gloomier, than it did in the first movie. It also looks vastly more anachronistic: Those bazookas, wielded by the armies of Vanaheim (I think, or maybe it was the Dark Elves?), are just the tip of the iceberg. There are spaceships outfitted with laser guns, there are holographic spheres, and probably a few NSA drones flying around, too.

Directed by Game of Thrones veteran Alan Taylor, Dark World finds Portman's Jane Foster in London, still nursing hurt feelings over being left standing by that hunky Norseman, Thor. When Chris Hemsworth finally does materialize, wearing his red cape and breastplate and wielding that magic hammer, he's ready with the excuses. "The Bifröst was destroyed," he tells her. "The Nine Realms erupted into chaos. Wars were raging, marauding hordes were pillaging. I had to put an end to the slaughter."

Not bad.

Along with Hemsworth, Portman, and Hopkins (as Odin, orating with more reverb than ever!), returning castmates include Idris Elba, as Heimdall the gatekeeper; Jaimie Alexander as Sif, Thor's warrior gal-pal; Kat Dennings as Jane's cloyingly cute comic-relief sidekick, Darcy; Stellan Skarsgård as their fellow scientist, who has taken to walking around without pants, and Tom Hiddleston, back as Thor's thorny sibling, that rascal Loki. New to the cosmology is Christopher Eccleston, wearing pointy ears and death-white makeup as Malekith, leader of the Dark Elves.

When they are amongst themselves, this malevolent mob speaks in Elvish, which requires subtitles, and which can't help but remind us of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and their own brand of elves and netherworlds. In fact, one of the problems with The Dark World is that its monsters and angry armies and visual effects are interchangeable with Peter Jackson's Tolkien pics, with Clash of the Titans, with The Avengers, with Man of Steel, and on and on.

These superhero movies. These Middle Earth movies. These mythic god movies. It's getting hard to tell them apart.

Thor: The Dark World **1/2 (Out of four stars)

Directed by Alan Taylor. With Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, and Anthony Hopkins. In Elvish with subtitles, and in English. Distributed by Disney Pictures. Running time: 2 hours

Parent's guide: PG-13 (action, violence, adult themes)

Playing at: area theatersEndText