You can see why Kenneth Branagh, one of the great popularizers of Shakespeare, agreed to direct the superhero movie "Thor." Aside from the money, what probably attracted him were the familiar themes, themselves borrowed from ancient Norse mythology: a king, a son, the desire for a throne.
That's where the similarities between the Bard's plays and this Marvel comics adaptation end. Branagh struggles mightily to find the emotional center of "Thor" but is too bogged down by a Hollywood superhero format that requires each new installment to lay groundwork for the next (in this case, next year's "The Avengers"). For every minute spent pleasing fans with little hints and cameos, "Thor" misses another chance to tell an actual, you know, story.
Chris Hemsworth makes for a likable Thor, even though the thunder-god's vanity and disobedience provoke his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), into banishing him from Asgard. Thor lands in -- where else? -- small-town New Mexico, giving astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) a chance to observe his heavenly body. As Thor tries to redeem himself, his deceptive brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), lays his own plans.
Bouncing frantically between planets, kingdoms and eons, "Thor" can't even find time to have fun with its fish-out-of-water hero. The occasional glimmers of humanity and humor (as when Thor storms into a pet store and calls for a horse) are quickly obliterated by the next computer-generated battle sequence. Let's hope Branagh was well-compensated, at least. To quote his favorite author: No profit grows where is no pleasure taken.
Back story: Director Branagh 'the perfect guy'
It's not surprising to see art-house souls migrate to superhero films -- "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" director Michel Gondry took a ride with "The Green Hornet"; Christopher Nolan made his mark with "Memento" long before Gotham City. But Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige was taken aback a few years ago when Kenneth Branagh's camp inquired about "Thor."
Feige, whose passions run more toward "Star Trek" than "Masterpiece Theatre," was intrigued, having seen Branagh's vibrant 1993 "Much Ado About Nothing" and been stunned by how much he enjoyed it. "The accessibility of it," Feige said, "that makes him the perfect guy to take Thor to the screen."
When Branagh was growing up first in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and then in England, American superheroes were a mystery, with the exception of the blond-tressed thunder god with winged hat and a red cape. "I was passionate about Thor," Branagh, 50, said. "There was so much there, this hero with primitive brute strength and the dysfunctional family and always this sense of epic about it, the journeys and quests and vendettas."
Tales of royal intrigue, clanging metal and sibling betrayal were perfect training wheels for the youngster who'd become a signature figure of the Shakespearean stage.