Another summer season begins with another blockbuster adaptation of a Marvel comic book and the launch of yet another superhero franchise. First published in 1962, Stan Lee’s comic book about the Norse god Thor never quite matched the success of his illustrious comrades, Spider-Man and Iron Man. Nevertheless, the mid-year marketplace requires a constant supply of new material, so the hammer-wielding behemoth has been given a complicated origin story, a cast of star actors and a shiny 3D veneer.

The opening sequence, set in New Mexico, has astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her mentor Dr. Erik Sevig (Stellan Skarsgard) and student intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) investigating a strange cosmic phenomenon deep in the desert. As the three boffins stare in disbelief at a funnel of coloured light descending from the heavens, a bearded, muscular stranger named Thor (Chris Hemsworth) lands in the sand.

From there, the story ships back and forth beween Earth and the realm of Asgard, where Thor’s father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), fills in aeons of back story in growling, kingly voiceover. On the day Thor is set to ascend to Odin’s throne, ahead of his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the impetuous young prince picks a fight with Asgard’s mortal enemies The Frost Giants, led by the sneering Laufey (Colm Feore). When Odin intervenes to stop a war breaking out, the burly god of thunder throws a noisy tantrum and is punished for it.

Stripped of his super-powers and banished to Earth Thor must find his magical hammer Mjolnir, make nice with the toothsome Jane, reconcile with his father and battle the investigating government and an all-powerful metal contraption known as The Destroyer before he can reclaim his rightful place in Asgard.

If Thor sounds busy, that’s because it is, breathlessly so. The constant shifts between the earthly and celestial realms make for a lot of unnecessary repetitions, as the differences between worlds are repeatedly reinforced. Thor proves a deeply unlikeable protagonist for most of the story, partly because the character is bellicose and brattish but partly because Hemsworth is a bit of a ham. The arrogant warrior’s conversion to burnished hero, central to the plot, is unconvincingly swift and simplistically played. Thor at least has the benefit of having his name over the door; his supporting players including Renee Russo as Queen Frigga, Idris Elba as gatekeeper Heimdall and an entire quintet of loyal soldiers are either clumsily introduced or remain anonymous.

The action brightens when Thor arrives in the sunny New Mexican desert, but what faces him is a series of anti-climactic fight scenes, more inter-dimensional pinball and lots of time spent establishing a sequel. With the focus on eye-popping visuals, the romance between the superhero and Portman’s goofy scientist is not given the time or space to develop, their supposed attraction limited to significant glances in crowded rooms and cute aphorisms yelled across exploding streets.

Complain all you want about 3D, it’s like Canute railing against the pounding surf. When employed correctly the technology brings something new and immersive to the cinema experience but Thor was not filmed in 3D, the effect was added later in post-production. The result is muddy, under-lit photography, juddering camera movement and over-processed special effects. Ultimately, audiences respond to stories and performances, not stuff flying indiscriminately at their heads.

Perhaps the sole surprise in Thor is that it was directed by Kenneth Branagh. The Shakespearean specialist knows his way around an epic tale but he is unable to invest the quieter passages with any weight and the results are a uneven mix of special effects fireworks and dramatic damp squibs. When a $150 million 3D blockbuster calls to mind the wobbly pantomime of Mike Hodge’s 1980s kitsch-fest Flash Gordon, someone is bound to get hammered.

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