Thor, Kenneth Branagh, 114 mins (12A)

Kenneth Branagh's comic-book caper is jolly and boisterous with a starry cast, even if the exiled god of thunder doesn't crack many jokes

The new Marvel superhero epic Thor is an altogether wholesome affair – which means, alas, that we don't get the notorious post-coital exchange between the God of Thunder and the fair maiden: "I'm Thor!" – "Me too, but I had tho much fun."

Thor could have used a few more lines in that vein, given what's on offer in the script. Arriving on Earth, and searching for his mythical hammer Mjolnir, Thor bellows, "Hammer! Hammer!" – and someone replies, "Yes, we can tell you're hammered!" As they say in Norway, "Bøøm bøøm!"

Steeped as he is in Shakespearean cadences, Kenneth Branagh probably never dreamt he'd direct a film in which the show-stopping line is: "Oh. My. God." Nor, most likely, did Natalie Portman ever expect to deliver it. Still, everyone has to earn a living, and Thor is jolly, boisterous, and altogether honorably executed.

The original Thor strip, launched in 1962, was a bizarre stew of superhero action and Norse legend, pumped up with yea-verily dialogue and proto-psychedelic cosmology. In the film, the thunder god gets a little hubristic in battling a race of Frost Giants and is exiled from the divine realm Asgard by his father Odin – played by Anthony Hopkins with flowing white hair, golden eyepatch and imperious boom. Shunted down a galactic wormhole to Earth, Thor is befriended by scientist Jane Foster (Portman), whose field of research seems to consist of driving around the desert in an SUV shouting at tornadoes. Meanwhile, back home, Thor's scheming brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is out to usurp Odin's throne. What can I tell you, it's a whole saga.

The film is bizarrely overpopulated, its supporting cast stretching from here to Valhalla. The bewildered Jane – cheerfully pitched by Portman at the edge of screwball comedy – has two colleague-cum-confidants. The Scandinavian one (Stellan Skarsgard) is there mainly to reminisce about the old myths and doggedly go out on the razzle with his new buddy. (Quoth Thor: "We drank, we fought – he made his ancestors proud!") The other's job (Kat Dennings) is to make hipster wisecracks from under a woolly hat: imagine Joan Cusack playing the one with glasses in Scooby-Doo.

Among the immortals, there's a swashbuckling band of sidekicks: a noble-browed warrior goddess who could be fresh out of Roedean; an Errol Flynn type who goes into battle with a merry "Ha ha HA!"; a brooding Asian warrior (Japanese star Tadanobu Asano) who seems to be sulking at having only three lines; and a bulky bearded cove who's essentially the Brian Blessed of the team, but who doesn't do nearly the amount of Falstaffian quaffing you'd expect. Idris Elba, with a deep voice and a deeper basilisk gaze, is downright scary as the guardian of a cosmic tollbooth.

Thor himself, played by Chris Hemsworth, comes across as an affable Australian surf bum who's been taking diction lessons from Ian McKellen. Naturally, he's upstaged by his evil brother (Hiddleston, far from the polite family tiffs of Archipelago). Hiddleston's Loki is quite low-key, actually, and to good effect: no fiendish eye-rolling, but much dignified scowling under a horned helmet.

Brisk and unfussy, Thor feels bracingly old-fashioned, like a belated follow-up to the Superman cycle. The 3D feels flat at times, and after a while, you stop noticing it. But the look is distinctive. Haris Zambarloukos photographs the mythic doings in a heroic style suggestive of old sci-fi paperback covers with a dash of Leni Riefenstahl – which is pretty close to the look created by the great Jack Kirby.

The real star of the show, however, is production designer Bo Welch, whose Asgard is a magnificent celestial sprawl; the banqueting hall where the gods carouse, a gilded chamber laden with fruit and foliage, resembles the lobby of a modish Dubai hotel. I also liked the Rainbow Bridge connecting the different realms, here imagined as a rippling plank of fibre optics.

As Marvel adaptations go, Thor is not as classy as Spider-Man or Iron Man; but it's less overwrought than the X-Men films, less cynically disposable than Fantastic Four, and far more enjoyable than Ang Lee's Hulk. You can't honestly see why it took someone as heavyweight as Branagh to tackle Thor, but he does it with swagger and good cheer. Think of it as a fancy RSC panto, without the ruffs.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney locks swords with 13 Assassins, the new action epic from Japanese cult god Takashi Miike

Film Choice

The Russians are coming! Must-see art-house movie of the moment is How I Ended This Summer, a gripping yarn of two men's psychological duel on a remote Arctic island. Russian cinema of the past is displayed in Kino!, a mammoth overview at London's BFI Southbank, spearheaded by Eisenstein's legendary Battleship Potemkin.

Also Showing: 01/05/2011

Cedar Rapids (87 mins, 15)

It used to be that in Hollywood a fellow from the country might be naïve, but he wouldn't be an idiot; think Jimmy Stewart's Jefferson Smith or Gary Cooper's Longfellow Deeds, both for Frank Capra, characters who gave the city slickers a run for their money. Today, a naïf is also an imbecile; and the comedy goes south. The Hangover's Ed Helms plays a small-town insurance salesman, whose arrested development is exposed on his first trip away from home, to an insurance convention. Rather than a battle between cynicism and innocence, or a satire on one of society's most reviled trades, we're given a competition between Helms and John C Reilly to see whose blubbering and crudity, respectively, can most make us squirm. It's not worth the premium.

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