An 'audacious and bizzare' departure for director Kenneth Branagh - but it's not as bad as it looks

The last time Kenneth Branagh bit off more than he normally chews was his Robert De Niro-starring take on Frankenstein, 17 years ago. But even that was drawn from a classic text.

Branagh’s latest movie is a comic book-based tale about a Norse god-cum-superhero who likes to beat up evildoers with a magical hammer named Mjolnir. As another big-budget bonanza from the Marvel Studios production line, Thor is business as usual. As Branagh’s follow-up to Sleuth and As You Like It, it’s audacious and bizarre.

But there’s a Kenneth Branagh film lurking somewhere within Thor’s bulldozing script and flashy CGI vistas. The Belfast-born director was perhaps recruited because of his knack for adapting Shakespeare, as there’s more than a touch of the Bard about Thor’s (former Home and Away star, Chris Hemsworth) relationship with his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins – magnetic as ever), the ruler of their home realm of Asgard, and in the simmering rivalry between the big guy and his scheming, jealous foster-brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston – suitably slimy).

The film ticks all the boxes you’d expect from a Marvel summer blockbuster. Thor is loud, intense and packed with nods to the fanboys. Jeremy Renner makes an uncredited appearance as master marksman Hawkeye, and there’s the obligatory post-credits Samuel L Jackson cameo as SHIELD boss Nick Fury.

And yes, don’t worry – Stan Lee is in there, too. Thor also follows Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 in helping to set up 2012’s The Avengers, which will gather together a gang of superheroes for an Expendables-style romp.

The plot, for those of you who care about such things, concerns Thor’s banishment to Earth as punishment for sparking a war between Asgard and the ice planet of Jotunheim. Meanwhile, Loki wants to get his hands on his brother’s all-powerful hammer (never mind Shakespeare – Thor is positively Freudian).

But Branagh brings a surprising lightness of touch to the relentless sequences of inter-dimensional travel and the battles with computer-generated 'Frost Giants'.

Amongst the supporting cast is Lisburn-born Ray Stevenson, essaying his second Marvel character, after the titular antihero of Punisher: War Zone. Here, he plays the portly warrior Volstagg, a kind-of comic-relief figure – though Thor himself is hardly serious. Once on Earth, Hemsworth’s Nordic beefcake does the whole fish-out-of-water (or god-out-of-Asgard) thing, bellowing absurdities in antiquated English and falling for Natalie Portman’s plucky scientist.

Thor may not mean a lot to the casual viewer – he’s a B-list character, for sure – but the film should be engaging even for non-nerds. Branagh marshals the 3D action with aplomb, and there’s enough broad humour and likeable performances to distract you from the paper-thin story.

Whether you spent your childhood immersed in the Marvel Comics universe or didn't (this writer is somewhere in between), Thor should provide a couple of hours’ solid entertainment. And the door is not so much left open for a sequel as hammered off its very hinges.