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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Thor' an action flick with brains and brawn

Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios. Chris Hemsworth stars as Thor and  Natalie Portman stars as Jane Foster in "Thor."

Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios. Chris Hemsworth stars as Thor and Natalie Portman stars as Jane Foster in "Thor."

Thor (PG-13)

3 1/2 stars out of 4

In much the same manner as the first "Iron Man," "Thor" proves that it is entirely possible to make an action movie with brains as well as brawn without sacrificing mass audience appeal. It is the third in what will likely turn out to be a decades-long franchise consisting of literally dozen of films based on "The Avengers" comic books.

"Thor" -- according to most Thor-lore aficionados -- presented the most difficult of all of "The Avengers" page-to-screen adaptations, and based on the relatively convoluted plot, they were right. Laced throughout all of the 3-D CGI effects, explosions and battle scenes is a plot that could have gone horribly wrong very easily. But it didn't, and for that everyone can thank Kenneth Branagh.

A classically-trained Shakespearean actor, writer and director, Branagh keenly recognized the striking similarities between Thor and the Bard and framed the film mostly as a quasi-tragedy with action flourishes instead of the other way around. Whether intended or not, Branagh's movie also bears more than a passing resemblance to the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "King Arthur." Some may view "Thor" as just another summer popcorn movie, but its gourmet popcorn.

What many don't know -- and what may get people who avoid action films religiously to give this flick a shot -- is that "Thor" didn't start as a comic book but rather as a work of Nordic mythology that dates back to the 7th century, or according to some sources, the year 1 AD. Were you aware that the fifth day of the week is named after Thor (Thor's Day)? This is a character with a rich and storied history and just how Branagh and his three screenwriters retooled it for the present day without major force-fitting is nothing less than remarkable.

Despite having a nearly foolproof lead character and an ingenious plot, getting a high-budget project like "Thor" green-lit usually involves casting a major star in the title role and that didn't happen here. Known mostly (make that barely) as Captain Kirk's quickly killed-off father in the recent "Star Trek" reboot, Australian Chris Hemsworth brings with him a ripped physique and Brad Pitt-ish good looks but also next-to-zero name recognition. All of that will change at approximately noon Eastern today. Hemsworth's pectorals, long flaxen locks and deft comic timing will deservedly catapult him into superstardom.

Branagh also took a big gamble in the casting of unknown Tom Hiddleston as Loki; Thor's adopted brother and another mythological figure that has an equally complicated history. Loki is often identified as the God of Mischief who has the ability to shape-shift. Even though given ample opportunity, Hiddleston never seizes the chance to overreach or overly broaden his performance. Even when the movie's over, we're still not exactly sure what Loki has done or will do. Hiddleston's is a supremely measured and understated rendering. He should be on everyone's short list for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

Perhaps realizing they couldn't get away with a total no-name cast, Branagh and the producers pegged rock-solid character actor Stellan Skarsgard, Jeremy Renner (as future "Avengers" character Hawkeye) and Oscar-winners Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins.

Not surprisingly, Hopkins delivers his usual high-octane gravitas as Thor's father King Odin while lending the character just a hint of King Lear brio, despondence and melancholy. As one of the few bright spots in last month's "Your Highness," Portman again leaves little doubt she is a highly capable and bankable action performer who here plays a scientist that falls for Thor -- but not too quickly.

As with the two "Iron Man" flicks, Marvel Comics and Paramount seize the opportunity to whet fans' appetites by including a post-credit scene previewing the next installment in "The Avengers" saga. In this case it's for "Captain America: The First Avenger," which is scheduled for a July 22 release. (Paramount)