LONDON - Any visit to a film set tends to be a disorienting experience, characterized mostly by the odd sense of being between worlds: the fantasy of what will eventually appear on screen, and the constructional, often chaotic reality behind it. For “Thor: The Dark World,” however, that disconnect feels more apt than usual. Thor, after all, is a character who belongs to two worlds himself – though even the versions of Earth revealed to us at London's Shepperton and Longcross Studios last October seem, well, not quite earthly.

Yet director Alan Taylor's vision for the blond-maned superhero's return to the screen is a lot more concerned with reality than Kenneth Branagh's glossy, stylized 2011 franchise-starter. “Dark,” “real” and “physical” are words we hear repeated a lot as we speak to the film's army of gifted craftsmen. We're still in the realm of the gods – just with a little more grit this time.

Still, the two-day glimpse we were given suggests viewers can still expect plenty of extravagant Marvel spectacle from a production whose shoot took the crew as far afield as Norway and Iceland. In the words of executive producer Craig Kyle: “We’re really going to get out there to explore as much of Asgard as we can. It’s really important for us, as we move further out in the stars, that we move deeper into the worlds we’re visiting.

“We spent more time outside of sets to just really capture the environments of the world and to get in there and improve the costumes – it’s just about elevating everything. Marvel’s always wanting to do what it takes to meet the demands of our very, uh, demanding fans. You know, they deserve it. So, we’re budget conscious, but we’re not going to harm the film for the sake of a dollar.”

Emmy-nominated production designer Charles Wood is a newcomer to the franchise, having first delved into this kind of fantasy territory on 2012's “Wrath of the Titans” – he's now firmly embedded in the Marvel family, having also designed the upcoming “Guardians of the Galaxy.” He has nothing but praise for the studio, citing their “very strong” visual development department and their generous pre-production schedule: “Whereas normally you might get this 22-week pre-production period, you certainly get more with Marvel.” 

The extra time was necessary to develop a universe as complex as this one. Expanding on the world of the first film, Wood incorporated a range of ethnic and architectural reference points. “The basis of it was Norse runic shapes,” he tells us, though Islamic, Chinese and Gothic Romanesque influences also came into play.

Though many of the sets were digitally extended – something of a necessity when dealing with 300-foot high palace halls – Wood was determined to keep things as physically constructed as possible, “to get as much in the camera as we can.” “We wanted to create worlds or environments which are tangible, which have a historic base, which actually have sort of a human reference to them from our planet,” he says. “And we wanted to set that against these kind of futuristic technologies, so there’s kind of a yin-and-yang thing going.”

Certainly, the sets we're allowed to see – from the grand chambers of Asgard to Jane's boho London apartment, have a pleasingly old-school solidity to them. Wood explains that the observatory from the first film has been “rebooted,” while other familiar elements like the rainbow bridge will be present once more. Most impressively, we're given a glimpse of the Hedrosyl set, a “tree of life” in whose branches all Nine Realms will be visible.

In terms of locations, the film's earthbound action takes place mostly in London – a city that excites Wood on both a historical and “textural” level. Many of the film's key action set pieces are based around key London landmarks – though other parts of the shoot took them to a very different landscape.

“We needed somewhere beautiful in its own right, but completely dead, completely silent,” Wood says, “and Iceland came up. It seemed like the perfect location for that, which would be in direct contrast to somewhere like Asgard. We wanted to sort of try and find somewhere which was just as far removed from this world as possible.”

For visual effects supervisor Jake Morrison – who also worked on “Thor” and “The Avengers” – the objective was also to keep things grounded in physical reality. “We make sure that the work we do on this one is as ultra-realistic as it can possibly be,” he says. “Our focus on that has really been to try and make sure that we use as many locations as we can and as much aerial work as we can get in there.

Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.