Comic book superhero summer begins with one of the lesser-known Marvel characters, surprisingly and cleverly directed by Kenneth Branagh, one of Britain's most distinguished Shakespearean interpreters ("As You Like It," "Love's Labour's Lost").

Following an ancient, epic war, the serene, heavenly Norse homeland Asgard has finally achieved a tentative armistice with the ominous Frost Giants of desolate, frozen Jotunheim. But when that peace is impetuously threatened by Thor (Chris Hemsworth), headstrong heir to the throne of wise, weary Odin (Anthony Hopkins), he is stripped of his mighty hammer Mjolnir and banished to live among humans to learn to harness his anger and develop humility.

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In the guise of a bearded stranger, Thor lands (literally) in New Mexico, hitting an SUV belonging to astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and Jane's mentor, Dr. Erik Sevig (Stellan Skarsgard), who are investigating an inexplicable atmospheric disturbance. Like a fish-out-of-water, it's a shock as brawling Thor realizes his mere mortality. While he's determined to retrieve his hammer and re-claim his throne, the opposition mounts, including Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) from the shadowy government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and Thor's duplicitous younger half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who unleashes the fearsome Destroyer.

Screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne, working from an origin story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich, along with Branagh and production designer Bo Welch, have created three opulent, dazzling, vastly different FX realms - Asgard, Midgard (Earth) and Jotunheim - connected by a dazzling, interdimensional, celestial portal. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos uses odd angles to make scenes look like they were ripped from comic books. And hunky Aussie newcomer Chris Hemsworth seems perfect as the God of Thunder, even if the arc of his journey from arrogant Viking Prince to thoughtful hero is too quickly developed.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Thor" is a fun, adventurous, engrossing 8. Paramount Pictures is cultivating fantastical Marvel characters like Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor and upcoming Captain America to join franchise forces next year as "The Avengers."