People get a little aghast when I say that Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is my favourite Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, but there’s something about the operatic, orchestral grandeur of Asgard contrasted with Thor’s deadpan, hilarious arrival on earth that is an irresistible flavour and calls back to classic adventure films of the 90’s that saw fish-out-of-water protagonists up to the same shenanigans (think the sea and feeling of Spielberg’s Hook, or the like). The world-building up there in the cosmic realm is still just some of the best eye candy the studio ever put out in their superhero romps, and no one blasted into the leading man scene quite like Chris Hemsworth did with his broad, knowingly silly and very heartfelt performance. The Avengers entries seem to earn all the love and they’re fun, but I like the solo outings that leave breathing room to focus on one of these heroes at a time, and really get to know them. Thor’s transformation from a proud, boorish and naive strongman who knows but one form of diplomacy (hit em with his hammer) into a wise, compassionate being worthy of the crown is just a great arc to see unfold. Throw in Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard and priceless Kat Dennings as the most utterly charming human ‘sidekick brigade’ the universe has to offer and the whole thing becomes an almost instant classic. Branagh is a Shakespearean veteran, and every hint of that instinct is on display in the theatrical showmanship of Asgard, in the performances of Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston as scheming Loki, Anthony Hopkins as godly Odin and terrific Idris Elba as celestial gatekeeper Heimdall, who steals every scene. On earth-side Natalie Portman is adorable and blooms with both romantic yearning and genuine smarts, Kat Dennings takes the concept of comic relief and runs with it so deftly she almost walks away with that portion of the film. Clark Gregg fleshes out his glib Agent Coulson character, Jeremy Renner does his first badass turn as Hawkeye, Colm Feore is icily menacing as Laufi, king of the fearsome Ice Giants, while Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas and Jaime Alexander fill in as Thor’s rowdy warrior entourage, mistaken for Robin Hood, Jackie Chan and Xena when they stroll down Main Street after arriving nonchalantly on earth to help the god of thunder do battle with a giant fire-stuffed tin man sent by spiteful Loki. There’s something so thrilling about this picture though, from the chemistry between Thor and Portman’s Jane to the camaraderie he has with Skarsgard’s Professor Selvig to the larger than life, tripped out and gorgeous visuals of Asgard set to a banger of a score by Patrick Doyle, it all just works so damn well and is the one chapter in the MCU canon that works best as a stand-alone film all its own. Another!!