Chris Hemsworth stars in "Thor." (Marvel Studios )
Think of "Thor" as the ultimate Superhero Smackdown.
In one corner is the canny Kenny B., a.k.a. Kenneth Branagh, a director still best known for superior Shakespearean productions like "Henry V," "Hamlet" and "Much Ado About Nothing," a man not usually associated with comic book adaptations.
In the other corner are the mighty monarchs of Marvel Entertainment, a well-oiled mass entertainment machine boasting ownership of more than 8,000 comic book characters and more than $6.1 billion in worldwide box office grosses.
So how did the match turn out? Was Kenny B. sucker-punched and steam-rollered by the commercial demands of the Marvel mastodons, or did the crafty creator bring a touch of class to Marvel's story set amid the all-powerful gods and goddesses of Norse mythology?
Believe it or not, all this commotion ends in a draw.
For despite all the hype, despite the $150-million budget, despite a post-shooting 3-D conversion, despite stars like Oscar winners Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins and hunky young Australian Chris Hemsworth as the God of Thunder himself, what we have here is an aesthetic standoff between predictable elements and unexpected ones. "Thor" has its strengths, but it is finally something of a mishmash with designs on being more interesting than it manages to be.
Part of "Thor's" artistic confusion and lack of unity can be attributed to its having not only two different settings but two completely different tones, which in turn may be partly because of it having no fewer than five credited writers (screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Don Payne, story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich).
The first setting is the fictional town of Puente Antiguo, N.M., where feisty astrophysicist Jane Foster (Portman) and a pair of scientific colleagues (Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) are tracking some wacky atmospheric phenomenon in the nighttime desert sky when Jane accidentally whacks Thor with her pickup truck. "Do me a favor," Jane says to the man on the ground, "and don't be dead." Talk about your cute meets.
To explain how the Norse God of Thunder ended up disoriented in the American desert, the film takes us for an extended interlude to the magical world of Asgard, home of Thor, his father, King Odin, (Hopkins) and Thor's clever brother Loki (fine young British actor Tom Hiddleston).
Though he is the heir to Odin's throne, Thor on his home turf is revealed to be a violence-prone warrior with serious anger management problems. When Asgard's traditional enemies, the tall and troublesome Frost Giants, cause difficulty, Thor is all for teaching them and their malevolent King Laufey (Colm Feore) a lesson they won't forget.
This does not work out as planned, and the big guy and his mighty hammer Mjolnir end up banished to Earth, where Thor no longer has special powers and has to walk around saying things like "I need sustenance" when he gets hungry.
Anchored by a solid performance by Hopkins, who has said the story energized him, the Asgard sections are "Thor's" most substantial, with Branagh likely having had something Shakespearean in mind with his portrayal of the conflict between an unbending father and his headstrong son.
Back on Earth, the plot is not in such good shape, with every derivative thing that happens to the scientists investigating Thor playing like it happened better in another movie. Sidekicks Skarsgard and Dennings are not impressive, and Portman, who goes all giggly at the sight of Thor's admittedly impressive body, is not going to be winning a second Oscar for this role. Only Hemsworth, displaying a playful sense of humor, flourishes.
"Thor's" extensive special effects are also a mixed bag. Some elements, like the Rainbow Bridge that leads to the "Beam me up, Scotty" machinery that connects Asgard and Earth, are fun, while other shots of Asgard make it look like Apple's futurist 1984 Super Bowl ad on steroids.
This random quality extends to a lot of the movie. For every weak element, like a generic killer robot called the Destroyer, there is a strong one, like "The Wire's" Idris Elba, a long way from Stringer Bell and the mean streets of Baltimore, effectively playing the all-seeing gatekeeper Heimdall.
One aspect of "Thor" that touches a sore spot is the recurrence of Marvel's awkward and greedy attempts to build audience and pound the drum for future films like "The Avengers" (Marvel's upcoming movie that will unite many of its marquee characters) by linking its superheroes to the mysterious crime fighters of S.H.I.E.L.D. One of their operatives has a part in the film, and there is the by-now obligatory clip of random S.H.I.E.L.D. footage after the credits.
"The Avengers" doesn't come out for a year, and I'm already feeling overhyped.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for scenes of intense sci-fi action and violence
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: In general release