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Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in "Marvel's Thor: The Dark World."

If fall was our season of suspense at the movie theater, parking us at the edge of our seats with the likes of "Captain Phillips" and "Gravity," then the holiday season will be headlined by a trio of sci-fi/fantasy franchises. This weekend, "Thor: The Dark World" leads the charge, and in its wake, we'll soon have sequels to "The Hunger Games" and "The Hobbit" to compete for our attention.

Of course, the Thor franchise should be used to competitive company by now. As one of four separate characters who enjoyed individual projects before combining their efforts in 2012's "The Avengers," "The Dark World" marks the second return to solo work by one of Marvel Comics' flagship heroes. But unlike last summer's "Iron Man 3," "The Dark World" plays out most of its action far, far from earth, which helps to keep its audience from wondering where all the other Avengers are when its hero (Chris Hemsworth) could use a little super-powered assistance.

The action picks up in the aftermath of the Avengers' showdown with Loki, Thor's estranged sort-of half brother, in New York City. With Loki returned to Asgard and in safe keeping, everyone's favorite demigod can focus his attentions on a new threat. Or rather, an old one: An ancient race called the Dark Elves have returned from deep hibernation to complete a long-postponed conquest of the nine realms (which include Asgard and Earth). The impetus for their awakening? Thor's favorite human, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), has stumbled onto the Aether, a mystical weapon that, in the wrong hands, can usher in a nine-realm apocalypse (creating the titular "Dark World").

In order to combat the Dark Elves and their leader Maelkith (Christopher Eccleston), Thor must get the whole gang back together, including, yes, his estranged sort-of half brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Which is great for the audience, because awful name aside, Loki is easily the most captivating character in Thor's corner of the Avengers universe.

But even though the majority of the action takes place in the heavily CGI-enhanced dreamscapes of the other eight realms, "The Dark World" has clearly picked up a sense of humor from Thor's time spent with the earthlings. Jokes subtle and not-so-subtle run in and out of even the film's more serious passages, which isn't such a bad thing. A good sense of humor feels appropriate in a film populated with magic super-Vikings. (Watch for a bull's-eye coat rack joke as the film rolls into its third act.)

Overall, "The Dark World" offers plenty of fun for longtime fans and for newcomers, though the final product will still keep the Thor franchise inbetween Iron Man and Captain America in terms of total quality. The action and effects are impressive (though the 3-D is pretty useless), and Portman and Stellan Skarsgard (who plays Foster's mentor, Eric Selvig) offer experienced acting resumes to the effort (not to mention Anthony Hopkins, back as Thor's father, Odin). But the sheer force of Robert Downey Jr.'s personality as Tony Stark/Iron Man will probably keep his franchise on top of the heap. (Personally, I'm still holding out for a buddy movie with Stark and Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner.)

As per tradition, fans should stick around after the credits roll. A pair of bonus scenes will bring both smiles and plenty of speculation for Internet forums in the coming weeks.

"Thor: The Dark World" is rated PG-13 for generous if bloodless sci-fi/fantasy violence, some mild profanity and the now-obligatory shirtless Hemsworth scene.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.