Putting Chris Hemsworth in closeup on the poster for Thor was a big risk, but the risk pays off. It is a star-making performance for Hemsworth, another Australian actor who knows the old ways of movie heroism, how to embody heartiness and bravado without looking like an arrogant thug. Hemsworth was playing King Arthur at age 19, and he assumes this even nobler role with ease, charm and humor.
In this, his best non-Shakespearean film, Kenneth Branagh finds the perfect tone. The movie is as full of grand, ringing voices as it is with fight scenes and fireworks. One of the biggest voices belongs to Idris Elba, as the gatekeeper between worlds; he seems as massive and mysterious as Rex Ingram's genie in The Thief of Bagdad.
Thor (Hemsworth), the son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and lord of heavenly Asgard, is cast to Earth in modern-day New Mexico. He must redeem himself, even as his dispossessed and troubled brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), schemes to keep him in exile forever, while Natalie Portman is endearing as an astrophysicist befuddled by the arrival of a God.
Thor's witty script sources all the science-fiction films about 1950s scientists worrying whether to contain an alien threat or destroy it outright. A subplot about the planet of the Asgardian's ancient foes, the Ice Giants, counterpoints this human problem in the land of the immortals.
The busy, anonymous score by Patrick Doyle is a drawback, but the marvelous production design by Tim Burton veteran Bo Welch makes Asgard a realm of old gold and bronze. Thor was made with fine understanding of the graphic fist of Jack Kirby (who is credited with thanks). The movie is full of rare sights: Loki crouched on his stolen throne, crowned with a Gothic headdress of curved horns, or the startling crimson of Thor's cape as he's drawn to the heavens by his enchanted hammer.
'Thor' opens in wide release Friday, May 6.