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(2011) *** Pg-13
114 min. Paramount Pictures. Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Ray Stevenson.

/content/films/4016/1.jpgFinally, something to relegate Rebecca Black to permament has-been status. Pop culture fanatics, it’s no longer “Friday.” It’s Thor’s day. Yes, Marvel Comics’ interpretation of the Norse god of thunder has caught the wave of superhero cinema and ridden it into multiplexes to help kick off the overeager summer movie season. In a bit of inspired behind-the-scenes casting, Marvel Films hired celebrated Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh to direct Thor’s big-screen debut. Though Branagh and “blockbuster” are hardly synonymous, his history of popularizing Shakespeare held promise for translating a superhero known for royal-family dramatics and pompous turns of phrase (“I say thee nay!”).

With insistent dutch angles and a frequently cheeky script credited to Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne, Branagh gives Thor a winking sensibility that wisely holds the line this side of self-mockery. Though the character’s 1962 origin story gets considerably reworked (effectively eliminating Thor’s sometime human vessel Dr. Donald Blake), fans will be able to appreciate how the film embraces the core mythology of godly realm Asgard.

Meanwhile, even those allergic to superhero movies might see the appeal of Thor’s throwback mythology and classy casting, since the hero is son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and love interest to Terran astrophysicist Jane Foster (reigning Best Actress Natalie Portman). The film opens in the astral plane, where the arrogant, hammer-wielding Thor (Chris Hemsworth) becomes responsible for reopening the Asgardians’ longstanding conflict with the Frost Giants (led by an unrecognizable Colm Feore).

Odin banishes his son to Earth, where Thor entangles Jane, her mentor Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), and her assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings, in fine fettle as comic relief) in what’s suddenly a matter of top-secret national security. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes the scene to study Thor’s immovable hammer, but the real conflict comes from the Thunder God’s desire to return home, and the concurrent Asgardian palace intrigue resulting from the jealousy of Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

The narrative’s “hurry up and wait” fashion doesn’t make for the smoothest storytelling, but the Thor lore and Bo Welch’s grand-scale production design give the film suitable heft, and the comic flourishes and supporting characters go a long way to keeping the proceedings buoyant. The ensemble includes Rene Russo as Queen Frigga, Idris Elba (The Wire) as noble gatekeeper Heimdall, and Ray Stevenson (Rome) as Volstagg, a comical comic-book reworking of Shakespeare’s Falstaff.

As one of a handful of Marvel films pointing toward next year’s team-up adventure The Avengers, Thor will hearten superhero fans, but it needn’t necessarily annoy everyone else: clobberin’ action, a touch of ’50s sci-fi, and a heaping portion of titan-clashing theatrics spell something a little different for the comic-book movie.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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