LONDON — A bone-chilling wind and a fine sheet of mist cascaded off the River Thames, but it wasn’t the bitter blasts of air that sent Chris Hemsworth tumbling to the ground. Late on a November afternoon, the brawny Australian actor threw himself down onto the courtyard of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich over and over, filming scenes for what would eventually become the epic final battle in Marvel’s “Thor: The Dark World.”
The film, in theaters Friday, sees the God of Thunder facing off against a nemesis called Malekith, part of a race known as the Dark Elves, but actor Christopher Eccleston already had called it quits for the day. That left Thor, dressed in full armor, long red cape billowing out majestically behind him, to press on alone, with Hemsworth gamely absorbing imaginary blows for the cameras, again and again.
“I’ve been doing that for the last four, five, six weeks,” Hemsworth said between takes. “Just rolling on the ground, on the rocks in Iceland, various locations around London. I’m like, ‘When am I going to win one of these fights?’ I’m on the receiving end of it all, and it ain’t fun.”
Bad weather and bruises are the least of Thor’s worries in his second solo big-screen outing. Directed by Alan Taylor (“Game of Thrones”), “Thor: The Dark World” begins with the story of Malekith, who was ostensibly vanquished by Thor’s grandfather but finds his way back from beyond with a plan to use a weapon called the Aether to plunge the Nine Realms of the universe into darkness.
Only by uniting with his devious brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) can Thor hope to stop Malekith and rescue his lady love, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who stumbles onto the Aether and is inadvertently drawn into the Dark Elf’s schemes.
Since releasing “Iron Man” in 2008, Marvel Studios has evolved into a can’t-miss blockbuster movie machine, transforming characters that had long taken a back seat to the likes of Spider-Man and the X-Men into marquee attractions and launching or re-launching the big-screen careers of actors such as Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr. and directors including Kenneth Branagh, who took the reins on 2011’s “Thor.” (The summer 2012 hit “The Avengers,” which brought together all of the company’s A-list heroes, is the third-highest-grossing film of all time, without adjusting for inflation; this past summer’s “Iron Man 3” ranks 13th on that same list.)
Still, “Thor: The Dark World” might be Marvel’s most quintessentially comic book movie yet. Granted, extraterrestrial warriors called Chitauri invaded New York in “Avengers” and Hugo Weaving had a red skull for a face in “Captain America.” But the CG-laden “Thor” sequel sees its heroes jumping between worlds, its villain speaking an invented Elvish language that’s translated with subtitles, and the movie features one or two creatures that easily could have dropped in from a galaxy far, far away.
“It’s only fun to make a movie that’s risky; otherwise, they become very cookie-cutter, color-by-numbers things we don’t want to do,” said Marvel movie chief Kevin Feige.
In Taylor, though, Feige recruited a television veteran with a track record of rooting elaborate fantasy in the real world. Although he’s directed episodes of such critically acclaimed series as “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire,” it was his work on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” that suggested his sensibility might be a solid match for “Thor.”
“The ‘Thor’ movies, they’re superhero movies, but they’re grounded in mythology, not just the mythology of the comics but Norse mythology,” Taylor said. “I was a history major and wanted to be a history professor and have always been drawn to things that allow me to use the mystique of history. That’s why I was drawn to ‘Game of Thrones,’ and that’s why I loved doing ‘Rome’ and ‘Deadwood.’ You get to use history to represent a world that’s alien but also familiar.”
Taylor relocated from Brooklyn to London in June last year to begin pre-production on the $170 million movie, which shot on location for about four months, traveling to Iceland for one week to capture the bleak vistas of Svartalfheim, the planet of the Dark Elves.
Eccleston, the accomplished British thespian known to many genre aficionados for his one-season run on the beloved cult series “Doctor Who,” said he relied on Taylor a great deal when it came to fine-tuning his performance. He said he struggled to bring a level of pathos to Malekith even while buried in extensive prosthetic makeup, icy blue contact lenses and an elaborate white wig, all of which took four hours to apply.
“You can feel vulnerable in a film like this,” Eccleston said. “No matter how experienced you are, you can feel silly. A director can help you through that with humor and with intelligence.”
Although it’s been only two years since he first picked up Thor’s hammer, Hemsworth, 30, has become a sought-after leading man, working with directors including Michael Mann (next year’s “Cyber”) and Ron Howard (September’s racing biopic “Rush” and next year’s drama “Heart of the Sea”).
The actor said that pursuing dramatic roles in other projects has helped him find renewed energy to bring to his Marvel alter ego, a character he could potentially reprise in a third “Thor” movie and two “Avengers” sequels. That energy and renewed commitment certainly appeared to be useful as Hemsworth, sporting a faux wound on his temple, picked up his hammer and prepared to head back to set.
“I started my career on TV — I was on one show in particular for three years — so I know what it’s like to just exhaust a story or a character,” he said. “I wouldn’t want that to happen with this. So far, so good.”