The Norse gods are off to a decent, though not divine, start in "Thor," the latest movie in Marvel Comics' big-screen expansion of its superhero pantheon.
Held to a more brisk running time than some superhero epics that swell to Elizabethan stage proportions, "Thor" nevertheless manages to cram in a lot of Shakespearean intrigue.
Director Kenneth Branagh, whose big-screen Shakespeare adaptations include "Hamlet" and "Henry V," pits father against son and brother against brother, with loads of palatial pride, envy, rivalry and resentment driving the action.
The human part of the equation often is where "Thor" comes up short, as in the puny humans of whom the god, played by statuesque Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, supposedly becomes so fond.
Fresh off her Academy Award win for "Black Swan," Natalie Portman as Thor's mortal love interest is a surprisingly insubstantial presence. We have to be told by a colleague that Portman's Jane Foster is a "master physicist," but there's little in the actress' demeanor to make you believe it.
Thor is the god who fell to Earth, but why he wants to stay among these little Earthlings never feels genuine, given the far cooler place he calls home.
That place is Asgard, the dwelling of superpowered beings who, in Marvel's reworking of mythology, became objects of worship among the ancient Norsemen.
Hemsworth's Thor is in line to inherit the throne from his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), over his scheming brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). But after Thor defies his dad and leads a mission of revenge against old enemies on the ice planet Jotunheim, Odin strips his cocky son of his power and his mighty hammer, banishing him to Earth to learn some humility.
In the New Mexico desert, Thor falls in with scientist Jane, her mentor (Stellan Skarsgard) and their wisecracking assistant (Kat Dennings, who keeps the movie lively with her comic timing and delivery).
The Asgard sets are impressive, but while the celestial setting of this heavenly dominion gleams, it often looks fake, even cartoonish. "Harry Potter" and "The Lord of the Rings" have presented much better fantasy lands.
The action sequences also are muddled at times, though an armored guy smashing things with a giant hammer certainly is a fresh take on superhero violence.
The plot - credited to three screenwriters and two story developers, among them Marvel Comics scribe J. Michael Straczynski - is a bit unfocused, since it not only has to relate Thor's journey but also help set up next year's superhero ensemble tale "The Avengers."
That film will team Thor with Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man, Mark Ruffalo's Incredible Hulk, Chris Evans' Captain America and other Marvel heroes.
The bridge in "Thor" is Clark Gregg, reprising his "Iron Man" role as Agent Coulson, an operative for SHIELD, the outfit that assembles the superhero dream team (stick through the "Thor" end-credits for a teaser featuring a prominent member of "The Avengers" cast).
While Jane, Coulson and the other humans gradually learn who Thor is and what he's capable of, battles rage on among the Asgardians (Ray Stevenson as one of Thor's raucous comrades and Idris Elba as the realm's vigilant gatekeeper are standouts) and the frost giants of Jotunheim (with Colm Feore as their coolly menacing leader).
It's a lot to pack into one movie, particularly when the battle expands to Earth, where an Asgard weapon is unleashed. The story flits fickly back and forth, but Hemsworth has true star power, a regal presence that helps keep the disparate elements stitched together.
He's also quite funny, tossing off imperious quips with charm and roguish slyness. And there are beefcake moments where his rippling musculature puts the bare-chested wolf pack of the "Twilight" flicks to shame.
Born to superhuman power, Thor can naturally do things that Downey's guy in a metal suit or Evans' soldier on super-steroids could only dream of. So it'll be interesting to see how Marvel overseers and "Avengers" director Joss Whedon handle the division of labor among the superhero squad.
Thor certainly does humble down to a more collegial attitude in his debut run, but "The Avengers" should make for some engaging alpha-male, or alpha-Marvel, dynamics.
"Thor," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence. Running time: 113 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.