SIGHT FOR THOR EYES: Chris Hemsworth's Thor loses in the second round of the annual sandcastle competition. Photograph by Zade Rosenthal/Marvel Studios

THE SON of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), 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. Putting Chris Hemsworth in 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. At age 19, Hemsworth was playing King Arthur; he assumes this even nobler role with ease, charm and humor.

In this, his best non-Shakespearean film, director Kenneth Branagh finds the perfect tone of nobility without too much loftiness. 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.

Natalie Portman is very endearing as the astrophysicist befuddled by the arrival of a god. In her scenes with Hemsworth, Portman looks pleasingly discomfited to be paired with someone even better looking than she is. Onscreen, they usually mate her with geeks.

Thor touches, without getting tangled, on the War on Terror. The witty script (co-written by former Metro staffer Zack Stentz) sources all the science-fiction films about 1950s scientists worrying whether to contain an alien threat or destroy it outright. An as-above/so-below 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 Tim Burton veteran Bo Welch's marvelous production design makes Asgard a realm of old gold and bronze. Thor was adapted 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, and the startling crimson of Thor's cape as he's drawn to the heavens by his enchanted hammer.


PG-13; 114 min.

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