At first, the union of Shakespearean actor and director Kenneth Branagh and a Marvel comic book hero seems like a mismatch of thunderous proportion. Just think back to Ang Lee and “Hulk” and what a colossal mistake that was. But the mythical gods were with us on this one, and Branagh brings just the right balance to what could have been just another beefcake-in-a-cape caper.
For the first big summer entry, “Thor” sets the bar pretty high for those who will follow. It embraces the first rule of comic book hero features — don’t take it all too seriously —and it has some jaw-dropping visuals in an age when we’ve become all too cynical about special effects.
Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth stars as the arrogant young Norse deity who is set to ascend to the throne of the celestial Asgard when his elderly father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), deems him ready, which is to be soon. But in a childish fit of pique, Thor launches an attack on their sworn enemies, the Frost Giants of Jutenheim. This rash act brings down the wrath of his father, who banishes him to Midgard, or Earth, to learn humility and robs him of his powerful hammer, Mjoinir (pronounced, uh, mumble, mumble).
Through the Bitfrost portal Thor must go, and the giant swirling wormhole plops him down in the New Mexico desert, where comely astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman doing her best to look bookish) is studying strange atmospheric phenomena with her assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings playing the comic relief) and her mentor Dr. Erik Selvig (Skellan Skarsgard), whose Norse heritage will come in handy later.
Doubling up on the action, Branagh juggles the earthly story, which plays off the fish-out-of-water set up as the once mighty Thor learns the modern ways of his new home, and what’s going on back on his home planet where Thor’s brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is wreaking havoc. And those gnarly Frost Giants are still a little peeved.If there is anything to fault here is that there is too much crammed into one movie, probably as a result of Marvel trying to jumpstart this secondary superhero before his next appearance in “The Avengers” next summer. This “Thor” could easily be two movies with the Asgard/Jutenheim story propelling the sequel of Thor falling to Earth. But as one who finds the monotonous action of summer action movies tedious, I have no quibble.
Thor’s final showdown with a giant metal, fire-breathing creature named the Destroyer is just long enough. If anything suffers in this jam-packed story it’s the underdeveloped love story between Jane and Thor. In an instant it seems he’s used his otherworldly charm and old school ways to woo her, only to lose her when he’s called back to Asgard. But there is always a Part II to handle that one.
Under the direction of Bo Welch, the production values are first-rate with Asgard portrayed as a gleaming golden city on high that projects its superpower status in the realm. The eye-catcher is the portal and the sparkling walkway that connects it to the city. Even Thor’s red cape pops off the screen. Other things to look for include Jeremy Renner’s cameo as Hawkeye, another Marvel character who will probably return in “The Avengers,” and the Stan Lee cameo — always a fun moment.
Offered in 3D or the plain vanilla 2D, either way you can’t lose. Go. Have fun. The god of thunder commands you.