‘Thor 2′ vs. ‘Iron Man 3′ in Marvel battle

WASHINGTON – Marvel’s “Phase 1″ release strategy culminated last year with “The Avengers” (2012), the team-up blockbuster that became the most successful offering in the smash superhero series.

This year’s top-grossing flick, “Iron Man 3″ (2013), launched “Phase 2,” a superhero rollout that continues today with “Thor: The Dark World,” a follow-up to the very successful “Thor” (2011).

Now that we’ve entered the eighth chapter in this ongoing Marvel saga, moviegoers may be feeling the oversaturation of the superhero movie market. In a world of supply and demand, 2013 could prove the tipping point with “Iron Man 3,” “Man of Steel,” “R.I.P.D.,” “The Wolverine,” “Kick Ass 2″ and now “Thor: The Dark World.”

You can have a great meal for dinner, but if you have it every night, you start getting sick of it. I wondered whether this was the case as “Thor 2″ opened with an extended trailer for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) and a teaser for the new TV show “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” (2013).

With so many superhero offerings out there, and 3-D ticket prices costing a pretty penny, it becomes all the more important for you to budget your time and money.

Have no fear, we’re here to help by weighing each new installment against its peers.

“Thor 2″ will no doubt storm to the ring with killer entrance music and earn a bigtime prize-fight purse, but is it a worthy contender for the Marvel Phase 2 title held by “Iron Man 3″?

The only way to settle it is a good old superhero smackdown — a seven-round slobberknocker pitting Iron vs. Hammer. In the red corner: a billionaire playboy tech wizard. In the blue corner: a hammer-wielding Norse god. Ring the bell.

Round 1 – The Script

With a sparkling script by writer/director Shane Black (“Lethal Weapon”), “Iron Man 3″ played like an action-mystery with Tony Stark conducting detective interviews at a small-town bar and surveying a street-corner crime scene. It’s part of his investigation into an explosive genetic regeneration process called Extremis, which allows the human body to heal itself but is not yet ready for prime time.

“Thor 2″ could have been a fantastic exploration of sibling rivalry, but spends way too much time on Thor’s home planet of Asgard — and not enough time with Loki. The fish-out-of-water bit played well in the original “Thor,” as the god-like hero tried fitting in on Earth. The sequel tries to do the opposite, bringing scientist Jane Foster to Asgard, but never mining her own fish-out-of-water experience.

Instead, the film opens with “Lord of the Rings”-style jargon without the Tolkien gravitas to back it up. Comic-book fanboys may geek out over the dark elves, but casual fans will space out like they did during the too-long Krypton opening of “Man of Steel” (2013). The original “Thor” worked because it poked fun at its own nerd-dom, with Thor saying, “All the answers will be yours once I reclaim Mjolnir,” to which Darcy asks, “Myeu-muh? What’s Myeu-muh?” But “Thor 2″ tries too hard to play it straight. By the time Thor is back to his fish-out-of-water ways on Earth, hilariously hanging his hammer on a coat rack, we wonder why we haven’t seen more of this levity.

Advantage: “Iron Man 3.”

Round 2 – The Hero

Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth are both talented actors independent of their superhero personas, proven in “Tropic Thunder” (2008) and “Rush” (2013), respectively. When they strap on their superhero suits, I’ve always found Downey more relatable as a smart mortal in a kick-ass tech suit — just like Batman — as opposed to the god-given fantasy powers of Thor.

Personal preferences aside, Downey’s character is objectively given more to work with in “Iron Man 3″ than Hemsworth in “Thor 2.” Downey made Tony Stark brilliantly vulnerable because he suffered from “Avengers” insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder. As Stark says, “Nothing’s been the same since New York. I can’t sleep. And when I do, I have nightmares.”

“Thor 2″ makes similar reference to the “Avengers” climax in New York, but the hammer-wielding hero does not seem nearly as affected by the trauma. Upon his return to Earth, Thor (and Loki) get slapped in the face by Jane Foster with the simple explanation, “That was for New York.”

Unfortunately, the face slaps serve as mere slaps on the wrist, as the film unrealistically tries to sweep the New York past under the rug. This paints “Thor 2″ as content with merely referencing “The Avengers” rather than constructing an ongoing character study expanding upon it.

Advantage: “Iron Man 3.”

Round 3 – The Love Interest

Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”) and Gwyneth Paltrow (“Shakespeare in Love”) are Oscar-winning equals, but both could have been given bigger roles in their superhero sequels. “Iron Man 3″ began with a powerful B-story of Paltrow feeling neglected by Downey’s insomnia, but she was off-screen for too much of the second act. Thankfully, she got back in on the action during the climax, appearing to fall to her death before coming back with a crowd-roaring twist.

“Thor 2″ also had glorious potential for a fascinating subplot, with Thor’s promise to Jane in the original flick that he would someday return. But after making such a big deal about breaking the rainbow-colored road from Asgard to Earth, Thor returns to London far too easily with a portal device resembling “Austin Powers,” operated here by Heimdall (Idris Elba, a.k.a. Stringer Bell of “The Wire,” which also gave us Wallace for “Fruitvale Station” and Omar for “12 Years a Slave”).

More disappointingly, “Thor 2″ squanders a potential love triangle between Jane, Thor and Thor’s childhood friend, Sif (Jaimie Alexander), who flirtatiously asks him to forget about Jane at the outset of the movie. As the film progresses, this triangle disappears, as if the screenwriters lost interest in the subplot. Perhaps it’s because Alexander suffered a back injury on set that took her out of filming for a month. Either way, her absence shows.

Advantage: “Iron Man 3.”

Round 4 – The Sidekick

All hail Tom Hiddleston. Making his third appearance as Loki after “Thor” and “The Avengers,” Hiddleston steals the show as Thor’s adoptive brother, continuing a sibling rivalry that’s always been a bit like Maximus vs. Commodus in “Gladiator” (2000), with a sliver of Anakin Skywalker’s transformation to Darth Vader in “Star Wars” (1977). Perhaps Hiddleston makes such an impression in “Thor 2″ because he spends the first two-thirds of the film locked up in a jail cell off-screen. By the time he arrives with his devilish grin and rapid-fire humor, it’s like catching up with an old friend.

Never mind that he used to be the villain who tried to destroy New York City and take over the world. And never mind the script’s ridiculous attempt to turn him from baby face to heel in another simple Jane Foster slap to the face. Hiddleston rises above these flaws with hilarious comic relief, badgering Thor at the wheel of a flying ship and shape-shifting to hilarious effect. He’s a far better sidekick than Don Cheadle’s Patriot, who was one of the more forgettable parts of an otherwise dynamic “Iron Man 3.” And, unlike most sidekicks, Loki always has something else up his sleeve.

Advantage: “Thor 2.”

Round 5 – The Villain

Ben Kingsley was a memorable villain as The Mandarin, playing a media-savvy terrorist leaving fancy videos addressing his audience as “ladies, children, sheep” and describing Chinese fortune cookies as an American invention: “hollow, filled with lies and leaving a bad taste in the mouth.”

While a shattering twist altered The Mandarin’s comic book role, it was a witty surprise that offered Kingsley new acting territory and left his co-star Guy Pearce (“Memento”) pulling the villainous strings.

In “Thor 2,” the villain is the evil Malekith, played by Christopher Eccleston (TV’s “Heroes”) in a pound of makeup. The prologue explains that Malekith led the dark elves into battle against Bor, father of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and despite being defeated, managed to escape — unbeknownst to Thor.

Upon his return in “Thor 2,” Malekith tries to return the universe to its pre-Creation state using a force called the “Aether” — pronounced “ether” — which would have been a more apt description for a plot device that will make audience eyelids droop. The CGI special effects turn the Aether into a slick-looking red liquid, but its place in the story can only generously be called a MacGuffin.

Advantage: “Iron Man 3.”

Round 6 – The Direction

Director Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”) proved a worthy replacement for Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2″), crafting an Air Force One rescue that used real-life parachute stunt teams to draw out the tension of falling airline passengers scooped up by Iron Man at the last second. Black then flipped our expectations with a truck emerging from off-screen, obliterating Iron Man to certain death, only to cut to Stark operating his suit via remote control.

“Thor 2″ also found a replacement director, swapping out Kenneth Branagh for Alan Taylor, who’s slated to helm “The Terminator” remake in 2015. Fans were salivating to see how Taylor would treat the fantasy world of Asgard after directing six episodes of “Game of Thrones,” not to mention an episode of “Boardwalk Empire,” two episodes of “Oz,” seven episodes of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” two episodes of “The West Wing,” one episode of “Six Feet Under” and nine episodes of “The Sopranos.” He even won an Emmy for the Season 6 “Sopranos” episode “Kennedy and Heidi.”

In “Thor 2,” Taylor shines when he’s allowed to breathe, his camera pushing through the glow of Loki’s jail cell, or dollying past a row of pillars that serve as wipes for Loki’s identity changes. These moments prove Taylor has real storytelling skills when our eyes are allowed to scan his entire image. Unfortunately, the quick-cutting formula of commercial digital effects rarely allows it.

Advantage: Draw.

Round 7 – The Final Battle

Finally, “Iron Man 3″ climaxed with Tony Stark calling multiple remote-controlled suits to help him defeat Guy Pearce atop a perilous construction site. While such an ending would feel over-the-top in any other genre, it worked under the Marvel umbrella with Stark’s Earth-based technology.

“Thor 2″ takes things to a cosmic level as the Nine Realms of space suddenly overlap, as predicted by Stellan Skarsgard (“Good Will Hunting”), who streaks at Stonehenge before being locked in a mental home. It’s a fitting location considering the similarities between Thor’s strained hammer pull in the original “Thor” and Jack Nicholson’s strained sink lift in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975).

This celestial overlap creates a series of invisible “convergence portals” that cause Thor and Malekith to disappear from London, reappear on Asgard and disappear again as they do battle across different planets, simultaneously. This approach is at once highly entertaining and incredibly confusing, as our brains try to follow the logic of the fight and overlook the convenience of unlimited deus ex machina. Either way, it makes for an exhilarating third act that reminds us of all the fun we didn’t have in the first half of the movie. At least it goes out with a bang.

Advantage: “Thor 2.”

That’s the final bell. Let’s go to the scorecards.

The judges felt “Thor 2″ made an impressive push in the final few rounds, but its “rope-a-dope” strategy was too little, too late. It should have come out swinging early on, instead of taking so many punches to the chin from a far-better prepared Tony Stark.

Your winner by unanimous decision and still undisputed Marvel Phase 2 champion: “Iron Man 3.”

Your turn, “Captain America.”

★ ★ 1/2

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this film ranks in Jason’s 2013 Movie Guide. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP, read his blog The Film Spectrum or listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM.

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