The Easter hols might have been late this year, but blockbuster season is starting early, as Marvel unleashes its newest extravaganza before the month of May is even upon us. In keeping with typical British bank holiday behaviour, Paul Martin goes to get hammered.
Thor! Er, who's he then? Well, in general cultural terms, he's an ancient Norse deity, the hammer-wielding god of thunder, to whom ye olde Vikings would raise a flagon in between their bouts of monastery-pillaging and maiden-ravaging. For our purposes here today however, he is the latest Marvel Comics character to be converted into a theoretically blockbusting big screen motion picture.
Thor is not simply A. N. Other Marvel property either, but one of the brightest stars in its money-spinning firmament, having been cooked by the legendary creative axis of Lee and Kirby (plus Larry Lieber) during that febrile spell in the early '60s when everything the company put out turned to gold (the same period also spawned Spider-Man, Iron Man, Daredevil, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and the first incarnation of the X-Men, amongst many others).
But a question mark has always seemed to hover over the god of thunder's wing-tipped head, wondering aloud whether he would ever be granted his own big screen outing (and no, Adventures in Babysitting most certainly does not count). For while Thor's comic book pedigree might be close to unimpeachable, the backstory and indeed the whole conception of the character identified him as a far harder sell to the cinema-going public than Spidey, with his regular teenage hang-ups, or even the Hulk, with his battle to control his own creature from the Id.
Thor instead asks for acceptance of an entire fantastical other-verse derived from Norse legend, in which a race of warrior gods co-exist with a race of frost giants (there are all manner of further creatures in the comic books too, from fire giants to trolls, although the movie wisely restricts the species count to two, not including we mere mortals). And even though the frosties, led by red-eyed King Laufey (Colm Feore), live in their perma-midnight nether-realm of Jottenheim, and the gods, led by Odin (Anthony Hopkins, looking not unlike a monocular Captain Birdseye), inhabit their shiny fortress land of Asgard, their alternate dimension is still linked to ours, via a colossal rainbow bridge, the 'Bifrost', access to which is strictly regulated by saturnine sentinel Heimdall (Idris Elba, seemingly having great fun by playing ultra-serious).
Tough to swallow for your average mallrat crowd? Yeah, like taking a raw swordfish in one gulp.
Perhaps a surprise then that the audience are almost immediately deposited into the thick of the fantasy myth-making by director Kenneth Branagh and his veritable battalion of scribes (five credited, including J. Michael Straczynski, an erstwhile writer on the source book, and granted a cameo, as inevitably is that man Lee). As one of those all-purpose 'In the beginning...' intros fills us in on the animus between Laufey's snowmen and Odin's god squad, it feels almost as if Branagh and co. want to get that Krull-style silliness out in the open as early as possible, like a World of Warcraft nut blurting out a confessional stream on a first date, in a pain-now bid to spare themselves from possible further bother later down the line.
Spin on through a slew of LOTR-derivative scenes of computer-generated factions smashing into other, before Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is banished to Earth by father Odin, for being a "vain, greedy, cruel boy" (no, Dubya, no one is talking to you). Stripped of his godly powers, as well as his magic hammer, Mjolnir the thunderer is ditched down in New Mexico, clearing the path for brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to succeed the old man as ruler of Asgard and its Ocarina of Time castle. Every cloud and all that though, and via a couple of vehicular collisions, Thor makes the swiftly-charmed acquaintance of physicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and her cohorts Erik (Stellan Skarsgård, bringing some class to an expository role) and Darcy (Kat Dennings, saddled with a string of truly lousy one-liners).
The Earthbound strand of the film not unreasonably deploys culture clash humour in a bid to poke some fun at the grandiose manner for which comic book Thor is known (for example, the thunder god marching into a pet shop and demanding a steed from the stoned-looking clerk). The execution is not as laudable as the intent however, with most of the gags turning out to be about as funny as being punched in the gut soon after consuming a bacteria-riddled ham 'n' cheese roll.
There is something appealing about the emasculation of Thor, with the removal of his powers (he's still quite hard, mind) offsetting the usual Superman criticism of being too tough to ever really feel as if he's in danger and also giving the character an internal journey to undertake, as for the first time in his centuries-spanning life he cannot simply rely on brute force to win the day. As I was watching Branagh's movie, however, I was often reminded of Masters of the Universe from 1987. In both, a brightly-coloured patina is cue for travel between present-day Earth and a medieval realm of magic. There is an evil uprising taking place while the main character is stranded. And that main character is a potential winner of an Übermensch pin-up contest. Thor probably is superior to that Golan-Globus production, admittedly, but not by a huge margin.
The main cast members are only middling too. Hemsworth's accent wanders through just about every inch of the movie's multi-realm cosmos all on its own, while Portman does very little aside from furrowing her brow in a bid to communicate her character's passion for pseudo-science. Meanwhile, back in Asgard, Hiddleston's Loki is more stroppy emo-teen than a substantial arch-nemesis. It is left to old hand Hopkins to add some dramatic weight to the lurid flim-flam, his ever-magnificent tones giving suitable voice to the daddy of the gods.
There are a few sops to the more rabid fanboys: the name of Thor's old comic book alter-ego, Donald Blake, is invoked, while Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye puts in an entirely pointless cameo. And, as ever with Marvel movies, you will have to sit through an epic list of credits (including a tool person. Snigger) in order to see a brief epilogue, which in this instance does nothing to disprove this hypothesis about the plot of next year's Avengers movie.
Rating on a scale of 5 lightning dolts: 2
Release date: UK = 27 April; US = 6 May
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay by: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne, story by J. Michael Straczynski, Mark Protosevich, based on characters created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston
Cert: UK = 12A; US = PG-13
Running Time: 114 minutes