(Kenneth Branagh, 2011)
Thor seems a tricky Super-Hero property to adapt to cinema. The mix of cod-Shakespearean Epic Sci-fi and fantasy myth with more generic earthbound Super-Hero stories is an awkward one, and even Jack Kirby, the character's legendary creator, struggled with comfortably balancing both in his comics. Which is what makes Kenneth Branagh's Thor such a pleasant surprise.
It confidently addresses the Asgardian material straightaway, zipping through some dense but crucial exposition with the aid of a voiceover from Anthony Hopkins - who makes this messy mix of myth and various genres sound epic and suitably grandiose - and some strong, vividly imagined production design. The principal characters are established early on, the emotional conflicts that underpin the narrative clear and primally effective. The antagonists here are warring brothers, and Branagh never really loses sight of that. Such a strong dramatic through-line allows the film to take all sorts of tangents, introduce a few too many characters and even flirt with other genres - most obviously a decidedly 80s-style fish-out-of-water comedy - but maintain some emotional impact.
The scenes on Earth are nicely-grounded by limited ambition, all being set in or around a small New Mexico town, and play Thor's responses to his new circumstances and companions well, even if Natalie Portman is wasted here in a role that only demands she be beautiful.
Chris Hemsworth is a massive element of the film's success; funny and charismatic, he possesses a sort of twinkly old-school masculinity seemingly available only to Australian leading men right now. His work suggests a young Russell Crowe in that he is entirely credible in both the action and dramatic scenes, and Thor's journey from arrogance and hot-tempered impulsiveness to a more mature and considered feeling for his world and responsibilities is believable and effectively played. Hiddleston is just as good, making Loki a very modern villian, damaged, insecure and complex. They are supported by a host of capable - and mainly British, in the Asgard scenes - character actors.
The Super-Hero stuff, when it does come, is solidly done, although the best action scene comes when Thor is a mere mortal fighting his way through soldiers in the rain, shorn as it is of the inconsistent CGI which mars some of the rest of the film.
Reminiscent to some extent of both Richard Donner's Superman the Movie and Gary Goddard's dreadful 1987 Masters of the Universe, Thor is surprisingly warm and funny for such a big, anonymous Studio production. Its visuals - Branagh's seeming obsession with Dutch angles aside - are generally slick and occasionally impressive, its pacing superb, and above all it never forgets to be fun, as any movie about a man with a magic hammer must be.