Ride the lightning

Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” kicks off the blockbuster season with a thunderous bang

Anthony Hopkins as Odin bestows celestial wisdom to Chris Hemsworth's Thor, left.

Photo Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Anthony Hopkins as Odin bestows celestial wisdom to Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, left.

Andrew Penkalski

âÄúThorâÄù

DIRECTED BY: Kenneth Branagh

STARRING: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins

RATED: PG-13

SHOWING: Area theaters

Marvel Studios made a gutsy move signing on Kenneth Branagh to direct its latest caped-crusader outing, âÄúThor.âÄù ItâÄôs hard to envision how a man who had almost exclusively built a career out of Shakespearean interpretations could salvage a potential tent-pole franchise that previously toiled in development hell.

But this doesnâÄôt matter. BranaghâÄôs greatest strength in the cosmically vast and visually arresting âÄúThorâÄù is his ability to make it abundantly clear that this Norse hero is unlike any other the summer popcorn crowd has seen.

Considering the grandiosely dramatic universe that Branagh had been asked to explore, it also shows that he was the best man for the directorâÄôs chair.

Thor isnâÄôt like other comic book heroes. There isnâÄôt the human pathos that comes along with murdered parents and radioactive spider bites. Thor lives a life of sublime divinity until Anthony HopkinsâÄô domineering Odin exiles the titular god of thunder âÄî played by the oafishly charming Chris Hemsworth âÄî to earth.

Unlike MarvelâÄôs sci-fi bedrock, âÄúThorâÄù is utter fantasy. So Branagh tackles the job in the only way appropriate âÄî by swinging for the heavens.

Taking cues from the Bard of Avon, Branagh keeps the conflict at towering heights by demanding a level of theatrical excess from Hemsworth and his other godly actors.

The effects and set designs of the filmâÄôs otherworldly realms, most notably the hammer-wielding ThorâÄôs homeland of Asgard, are breathtaking.

Even more notable is BranaghâÄôs apparent eye for restraint. The director clearly favors makeup and costume design for both the Asgardian gods and the Frost Giants, the narrativeâÄôs army of antagonists.

Things went worse for âÄúThorâÄù on earth. Branagh deftly weaves stranger-in-a-strange-land humor amidst ThorâÄôs time with scientist and love interest Jane Foster, which pits Natalie PortmanâÄôs adorable timidity against HemsworthâÄôs affable machismo.

But the sensory joyride of the filmâÄôs astronomical scenery has an inevitable dulling effect for the terrestrial scenes. Even with an apparent chemistry between Hemsworth and Portman, the punctuated moments of budding romance between Foster and her astral beau leave something to be desired.

There is also the obligatory Marvel Studios synergy that stifled Jon FavreauâÄôs âÄúIron Man 2.âÄù Appearing once again to remind viewers of next summerâÄôs Marvel all-star outing âÄúThe AvengersâÄù is Clark Gregg, playing the ominous S.H.I.E.L.D. government agent Phil Coulson.

While the careered supporting actor does an admirable job teasing charisma and mystery out of his role, his plotline is an unwelcome promotional tool. The digressionâÄôs presence was 20 minutes any viewer would much more gladly spend astro-trotting alongside gods.

Even with this pestering digression, BranaghâÄôs palette of astronomical bells and whistles put a necessary gloss over any narrative cracks. With its deft blend of humor, light pacing and blissful visuals, Branagh may have inadvertently made the antithetical superhero film.

Next summer, Christopher Nolan will drag us back to the drastically grimmer depths of Bruce WayneâÄôs personal hell. However, this summer will likely remain ThorâÄôs, and heâÄôs a big, fun breath of fresh air.

Three out of four stars