This year's comic book superhero assault on the big screen starts with Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh who brings some brains to the brute brawn of the mighty Norse god. Desmond Sampson reports.
All hail the new movie superhero. The latest comic book-to-screen adaptation from the Marvel stable - which in past years has given us the Spider-Man and Iron Man franchises - is Thor, the legendary tale of the hammer-wielding Norse god of thunder and lightning.
After his first film and its origin story, he'll be joining Captain America, Iron Man and others in Marvel's dream team, The Avengers set to follow next year. Too much of a good thing?
No, says Kenneth Branagh, celebrated British thespian and Thor's seemingly unlikely director. He says, there's a simple explanation for the ongoing fascination with comic book superheroes.
"They're just damn good stories which are a lot of fun to watch because of the spectacle, the action and the emotion that they contain," he suggests, animatedly. "Also, the subject matter, which can contain the fantastical, science fiction, action and adventure, naturally lends itself to the use of special effects. So, potentially, you can harness the latest technology, whether it's 3D - like with Thor - or some other medium like CGI, to create stunning visuals and great action sequences.
"I also think there's an element of the public being obsessed by the great and the good - whether it be kings, queens, superheroes or celebrities - and wanting to peek behind closed doors at these people, who appear to have everything, and take delight in realising that these so-called perfect people also have their share of problems and aren't always happy."
Branagh admits it was that very mix of the supernatural, science fiction, action adventure and fantasy which first ignited his passion for comic books - particularly Thor - as a child.
"Thor just seemed to jump off the shelf because of its primal qualities and the character's sheer physical heft," he recalls, smiling. "The first ever image I saw of him, he had arms as thick as tree trunks! I found that image so arresting.
"But the thing about Thor that I think is different from most other superheroes like Superman or Spider-Man, who are more thoughtful and measured, is he has a genuine connection to something very primitive - the Viking in there is strong. That kind of brute force is both terrifying and exhilarating, I think."
Directing Thor with its estimated US$150 million ($193 million) budget allowed Branagh to flex his own movie-making muscles - the closest he had got to a big-budget genre picture was his 1994 Frankenstein.
"So, having the chance to direct Thor has been a huge thrill because not only is it something I grew up with and loved, but also it's the type of film where I could get to shoot the sort of scenes I've only ever dreamed of doing previously - ones which you can only do in big-budget films on this scale."
One such scene is when Thor, along with his brother Loki and fellow warrior colleagues Volstagg, Sif, Hogun and Fandral, charge across a supernatural bridge which links their kingdom, Asgard, with their bitterest enemies' kingdom of Jotunheim, hell-bent on exacting revenge from the Frost Giants for their treacherous actions.
"That's an image that's been in my mind, for many years," acknowledges Branagh, with boyish enthusiasm. "I've always wanted to see the six of them galloping across the Rainbow Bridge, in outer space, shot in 3D and accompanied by Patrick Doyle's music. With this movie I knew that I'd finally have a chance to do it."
It's the beginning of a spectacular battle sequence between the two realms, featuring stunning special effects. But, as you'd expect from Branagh, given his theatrical background, Thor is much more than just another superhero action adventure. Instead, there's a dark undercurrent, elements of tragedy, farce and a classic Shakespearean twist, with a hero falling from grace and then having to redeem himself, making Thor a literate - if not literal - tale of the Norse god.
It's also why Branagh insisted on having heavyweights like Anthony Hopkins, as King Odin and Natalie Portman, as Jane Foster - the brilliant, beautiful astrophysicist, who acts as Thor's love interest on Earth.
He also cast rising stars like Tom Hiddlestone, his sidekick from the Swedish detective series Wallander, as Thor's jealous brother Loki, The Wire's Idris Elba as the all-seeing, all-hearing gatekeeper Heimdall and Australian Chris Hemsworth n the title role - albeit bigger, beefier version of the actor who played Kim Hyde in Home and Away.
"It was great to have Thor's character arc, rather just play a beefcake," chuckles Hemsworth. "When I read the part I was instantly excited because not only did it mean being a kick-ass superhero, in a big Hollywood production, but there were all these other elements, like his character development. As an actor, that makes it much more challenging and appealing to do, although it felt a bit weird being a superhero and having Kenneth Branagh getting me to do Shakespearean-like soliloquies"
Not that Thor is a deep, dark study of a superhero's psyche. Instead, there are just as many crazy, comedic moments as introspective ones - especially when Thor finds himself stranded on earth and tries to fit in.
"I actually came into the project when there was a version of the script that was set on Viking Earth and, for me, that seemed a bad idea," reveals Branagh. "I thought we'd end up with a film that would be too solemn, because it completely removed the possibility of the fun to be had from putting a fish out of water - or a god among earthlings, in this case.
"By changing the script - by banishing him to Earth - it meant we could put him in situations that were comedic, like having him smash his cup when he doesn't get his coffee quick enough or being amused by the actions of earthlings. It also allowed us to create a romance that would have to be broken up when he returns to Asgard. That was appealing, because it opened up so many possibilities, including the chance for a sequel," he enthuses.
Branagh's child-like glee is infectious and you sense that the experience of making Thor has left an indelible impression upon him. He concedes as much when he reveals that filming the blockbuster has transformed his view of film-making.
"When I was doing this I talked to Jon Favreau, who directed Iron Man and he warned me that once you've done one of these huge productions it's very hard to go back to the little pictures," reveals Branagh. "He's right, because after seeing what's possible, it's really reignited my passion for film-making and acting. I feel rejuvenated, like anything is possible."
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins
When and where: Opens at cinemas on April 28