BEVERLY HILLS (Reuters) - "Thor", the first of several superheroes debuting on movie screens this summer, hits U.S. theaters on Friday with out-sized hopes resting on the Norse deity's expansive shoulders.
Hollywood is praying that the God of Thunder and Marvel Comics staple will electrify a dismal 2011 box office, and squeeze more life out of a superhero genre that -- with some of the most iconic characters already established franchises -- is beginning to look tired.
"Thor" might seem an unlikely candidate to resuscitate the North American box office. The founding member of the original Avengers vanquishes his foes with a magical war hammer and the ability to call down thunder and lightning.
But with most of the marquee Marvel and DC Comics pantheon already committed to film, Hollywood is reaching ever deeper into the barrel to fish out new action hero franchises.
The challenge for classically-trained British film director Kenneth Branagh -- more usually associated with Shakespeare -- was to make sure his first venture into the world of the 3D action genre stood above the fray.
"It flips the usual superhero story. It isn't the ordinary man who's bitten by a spider and acquires supernatural powers," Branagh told Reuters in an interview.
"Here we have a superhero with those powers -- a God indeed -- who has to lose everything and engage with our audience," he said.
From the looks of things, "Thor" commands an edge in avoiding me-too status. It boasts Oscar-winning actor Anthony Hopkins, and fellow Oscar winner and fanboy favorite Natalie Portman.
It's also among the first out the gate, beating "Green Lantern", an X-Men prequel and "Captain America" to the punch, and is one of the few originals in a summer movie season packed with sequels like "Fast Five" and "Hangover 2".
"As Marvel said to me when I joined up: 'this is our most difficult property'. There's so many ways for this to go wrong: too kitschy, too campy, too broad comedy, too sci-fi," said Branagh, adding that he relished the challenge of doing a movie so completely out of his comfort zone.
In Branagh's version of the comic classic, the son of Odin, played by beefy Australian newcomer Chris Hemsworth, incurs his father's wrath by rekindling an ancient conflict, is stripped of his powers, and brought literally down to earth. Aided by Portman's scientist Jane Foster, he grapples with a newfound mortality and ultimately wins redemption.
Shot in 3D, the film is packed with pyrotechnics and full-contact violence. But some may question whether Thor -- unlike "Spider-Man" and "Iron Man" before it -- has the mega fanbase to recoup a reported $150 million budget.
Hemsworth is a relative unknown when stacked up against the likes of Christian Bale ("The Dark Knight") or "Iron Man" Robert Downey Jr. His character also speaks in stilted, archaic tones -- a marked contrast to Ryan Reynold's wise-cracking, all-American "Green Lantern".
This year is off to a sputtering start, with 2011 North American ticket sales down 18 percent from the same time last year, at $2.7 billion.
Branagh, who burst into the American consciousness with his 1993 take on Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing", waves off Hollywood's wider concerns.
"I'm immune to the idea of how to second-guess what an audience would spend its money on. I can only come from the position of what I think is right for the story, and sometimes in the past I've got that right, and sometimes I've been wrong," he said.
And he doesn't rule out a second go at it.
"Thor" has already pulled in $93 million after being released in Australia, Britain, France, South Korea, and dozens of other countries, ahead of North America .
But "Fast Five," the fifth entry in the "Fast and the Furious" street-racing franchise, raced to the biggest opening of the year at the North American box office last weekend, with an estimated $83.6 million in ticket sales.
"As thrilled as we are with the way it ('Thor') seems to be going now, it will be a few weeks before we understand the financial and creative fate of the movie. There are a thousand tales to tell. We'll wait and see," Branagh said.
Editing by Jill Serjeant