Whoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of... Thor!
At the beginning of Kenneth Branagh's addition to the Marvel movie franchise, Thor has been judged unworthy of Mjölnir. Cast down to Midgard by All-Father Odin for impulsiveness and arrogance, the heir to the eternal realm of Asgard must regain his hammer from US spy agency SHIELD if he's ever to return home. Aiding him are astrophysicist Jane Foster, the Warriors Three, the Lady Sif and the watchman Heimdall. Allied against Thor are his brother, Loki, god of mischief, Asgardian killing machine the Destroyer and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim.
Director Branagh approaches the source material with respect, providing plenty of humour but never laughing at Thor or his fans. And he's a steady hand with the dramatic sequences, eking out more emotion than you might expect from a summer blockbuster. Vitally, the fight sequences are both big and clever, with one exception - the confrontation between Thor, after he regains his storm god powers, and the Destroyer is over far too too quickly.
But where Branagh excels is in drawing superb performances from his cast. The journey of Hemsworth's Thor from ill-tempered, over-entitled boor to worthy, humble hero is entirely believable. Hemsworth has the acting chops to carry off Thor's various moods and the physique of a god - he looks magnificent in the costume, which translates surprisingly well to the screen. My only disappointment here is that we don't see more of the old winged helmet, which vanishes after the opening scenes.
Almost stealing the film is Tom Hiddleston, whose softly spoken Loki is utterly magnetic: antagonistic but understandably so, mischievous but never cackling. And he somehow manages to carry off that joyously over-the-top horned helmet. Natalie Portman is delightful as Jane, sweet but never saccharine, sassy without being annoying. And Anthony Hopkins - one of the film's two Oscar winners, along with Portman - dials down his thespian inclinations to omnipotent god levels while looking every bit the All-Father.
Sif and the Warriors Three are a delight, strutting through frames with all the Asgardian swagger you could wish for. Josh Dallas is the perfect Fandral the Dashing, blond, buff, a musketeer in all but name; Tadanobu Asano is a suitably gruff Hogun the Grim. And Ray Stevenson is ... actually, miscast - he's OK as the Voluminous Volstagg, but really needs more volume, both in terms of girth and mirth. The Falstaffian faker needs - nay, deserves! - the full Brian Blessed.
Jaimie Alexander, though, is Sif personified - strong, confident, beautiful and as quick as any male Asgardian to dive on a monster with her sword. Idris Elba lends an otherworldy stillness to Heimdall, guardian of the Rainbow Bridge. Popping in from the Iron Man and Hulk movies we have Clark Gregg as SHIELD agent Coulson and, with more to do than in those films, he makes a big impression.
I mentioned the Rainbow Bridge, and if you're considering seeing this film in 3D, Bifrost may be the reason to do so - I'm guessing though, as I hate the format and avoid it at all costs (ie an extra two quid). Rather than the flattened arc of seminal Thor artist Jack Kirby's comic work, it's a fascinating concoction of shifting, shimmering tiles. At the end of Bifrost is a golden dome which transports the gods through the Nine Worlds, a cosmic callback to the 1939 World's Fair Trylon and Perisphere. It's typical of Thor's superb production design, masterminded by Bo Welch, which really comes to life when we're off Earth. Asgard is the golden city, floating over stormy seas and skies, while Jötunheim is the least-inviting of icy realms. I'd love to see the six worlds this film doesn't get to,
Jötunheim is where we meet the Frost Giant king, Laufey (Colm Feore) - massive, icy, all-out-terrifying and a splendid example of how this film combines make-up, costuming, effects and acting to bring the Marvel Universe to life. Then there's the pitch-perfect music of Patrick Doyle - light without being Desperate Housewives-tinkly for the funny moments and melodically bombastic for the more dramatic sequences - the majority of the film.
This is a wonderful introduction for cinema audiences to one of comics' true icons - Branagh tells the story with confidence, working with a fine ensemble and production team to give us a Marvel movie with a new flavour. While the script - by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne - eschews the cod-Shakespearean dialogue of most Thor comics, Branagh's experience directing the Bard (Hamlet, Henry V etc) means he knows when to bring on the grandeur. Quibbles apart, verily and bloomin' forsooth, I deem this a thundering success, well worthy of your hard-earned cash and maybe a second viewing - you're never going to take in all the on-screen majesty in a single visit. I'm looking forward to seeing Thor in the Avengers film, but I'd love a standalone sequel to this, with more gods, more monsters, more Thor.