Kenneth Branagh's foray into superheroes finds its grace in pratfalls

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3 Stars

At first thought, Kenneth Branagh might seem an odd, even mischievous choice of director to adapt a Marvel comic into a summer blockbuster. But in taking on Thor, he's avoided the mistake of Ang Lee and Julie Taymor before him: He's chosen to focus on a character for whom pretentious bombast is wholly appropriate. In fact, the God of Thunder's grandiose, pop-opulent milieu is perhaps comicdom's likeliest platform for Branagh's skills at Shakespearean comedy and drama.

Surprisingly, the comedy works better and more consistently than the drama in Thor, partially because the latter is ramped up too early and too heatedly for us to connect to it fully on a human level. As the title character (Chris Hemsworth) and his Asgardian compadres declare personal war on their adversaries in the upper realms, fervent oaths are hurled, lineages are reverently retraced and shafts of light glint off of gleaming headgear in a Norse approximation of Helmet Day at Shea Stadium. Yet the deepest emotional reaction we register is admiration of Branagh's handiness at babysitting Peter Jackson's audience between trips to Mordor. (Tolkien being about the closest commercial cinema comes to Shakespeare these days.) Even more distancing: an extended battle sequence that viewers of the film's 2-D version will assume is taking place inside a coal mine.

The pleasures of this section are highly sporadic. There's the sumptuous production design by Bo Welch (Batman Returns), centering on a Lucite-look Rainbow Bridge that wouldn't be out of place connecting the MGM Grand to a New Age apothecary. And while we wait for the brash, even boorish Thor to start exhibiting something close to a sympathetic trait, we take refuge in some of the more intriguing supporting performances, including Tom Hiddleston's nuanced turn as Thor's conniving brother, Loki, and Idris Elba's eerie implacability as the eternally vigilant community lookout Heimdall.

It's when Thor's naive warmongering gets him banished to Earth that Branagh finds his own footing – in whimsy. The displaced prince becomes an object of curious fascination to astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her team, who can't decide if he's legend incarnate or just a drifter with tight abs and no evident social skills. These passages aren't without their clunkers, either: Portman, in particular, never has to worry that some ringer will one day come forth and claim credit for her “acting.” But little matches the pure, silly joy of watching the vainglorious Thor bested by the simple task of walking safely in traffic. This is Branagh, the capering clown of Much Ado About Nothing, finding obvious delight in takin' the piss.

What's more, the fish-out-of-water gags have a subtext that's liberating and almost profound. We don't just chuckle when the supposedly mighty Thor is handily felled by a well-aimed syringe to the butt; we register deep satisfaction that, for all our mortal frailty, we live in an age of … well, marvels. Mjolnir, hah; we got morphine! The immortal brought low for laughs is hardly an unknown concept in the Bard's canon, either; it's just that today, the groundlings have to be reminded not to text during the show.

Mundane humiliation upon mundane humiliation helps bring Thor around, finally revealing the lusty fairness at the heart of his character – and effecting a back-slapping camaraderie with his earthly guardians, just in time for them to face a climactic attack that unites the film's two narrative worlds in a package of undeniable amiability. God makes peace with man, each recognizing that the call of duty makes gloriously gallivanting fools of us all. Or, as Stan Lee so memorably put it, all's well that ends well.

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