Kenneth Branagh delivers as the hammer-hurling god of thunder kicks off this superhero summer with a bang.
The Marvel universe moves into the cosmic realm with the 3D Thor, a burly slab of bombastic superhero entertainment that skitters just this side of kitsch to provide an introduction befitting the mighty god of thunder.
It's a noisy, universe-rattling spectacle of sound and fury -- with a commensurate design, solid digital effects and a healthy respect for the comic-book lore that turned a mythological Norse god into a founding member of superhero team the Avengers.
The arrogant warrior Thor's great transformation, central to the plot, is unrealistically lightning-quick, and the movie's dramatic arc falters amid constant shifts between the earthly and celestial realms. But execs at Marvel, gambling heavily on the success of Thor and the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger to set up next summer's The Avengers, can rest easy: You've built it, and they will come. They might even bring a date.
The accessibility of Thor's fantastical world is due in no small measure to the good-humored direction of Kenneth Branagh, a man with a highbrow history who knows his way around an epic tale, and a star-making turn from Chris Hemsworth. As the hammer-wielding protagonist who learns humility among humans, the little-known Aussie soap star (seen as Captain Kirk's father in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek) shoulders the burden of selling this $150 million entrant in the expanding Marvel franchise.
Branagh conveys a lofty intellect to the Shakespearean interplay of feuding fathers and sons, and co-stars Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman supply the actorly gravitas, but the 6-foot-3 Hemsworth adds the winning ingredients -- adding lusty Viking charm to his rumbling Olde English line readings, a towering physicality and biceps that look forged in a furnace. Verily, he is ripped.
Thor crashes into being in a desolate stretch of New Mexico desert, his face planted inelegantly against the windscreen of an RV driven by Portman's storm-chasing scientist Jane Foster.
As Jane, her mentor Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and sidekick Darcy (Kat Dennings, along purely for comic relief) puzzle over his provenance, we whip back in time and space to the floating kingdom of Asgard, where Thor's father, Odin (Hopkins), the ruler of all nine realms, fills in decades of backstory in voice-over. It's heavy stuff, and thankfully there's someone of Hopkins' caliber to deliver it.
Thor is about to inherit the throne from the ailing Odin when an unexpected incursion by the Asgardians' long-standing foes, the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, disrupts the coronation.
The mighty god of thunder, foe to all demons, suddenly does a very good impression of a toddler throwing a tantrum. His hot-tempered recklessness has even more dire consequences, though: The peace and stability of the universe are threatened.
An enraged Odin strips Thor of his powers and banishes him to Earth, leaving Thor's half brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) next in line to the throne and Thor with the task of proving himself worthy of again wielding his magical hammer, Mjolnir.
The scenes among the three immortals high in the heavens have such an electrifying intensity -- Hiddleston's jealous, snaky Loki, especially -- that the Earthbound scenes can't help but seem flat by comparison.
Back in the desert, we get amusing fish-out-of-water antics as the mighty Thor struggles to adapt to his mortality and a world with Facebook and iPods, but scriptwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne have their eye on a bigger prize. It's the love of a good woman that powers Thor's life lesson in humility and humanity, and Portman's astrophysicist makes short work of converting him -- too short, some will say, but there's much to cram in, and we haven't even gotten to that oddly out-of-place glimpse of Jeremy Renner as The Avengers' Hawkeye.
The action pinballs between Asgard, the desolate ice planet of Jotunheim, and Earth, where a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (Clark Gregg) from the Iron Man films is making it difficult for Thor to retrieve his magic hammer to save humanity and the kingdom of Asgard from forces that would destroy them.
Bo Welch has created stunning designs, with Heimdall's Observatory -- the celestial portal that connects the various realms -- a triumph. But Branagh's over-reliance on slanted angles and an unusual slo-mo sequence are merely distracting.
Release date Friday, May 6 (Paramount)
Cast Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Anthony Hopkins
Director Kenneth Branagh
Producer Kevin Feige
Rated PG-13, 114 minutes