When you’re drawing up a list of potential directors for a big, nay, massive sci-fi action adventure film, Kenneth Branagh – better known for his period romps – is probably not the first person on your list. He’s probably not even in the top 50.
But then, that’s what makes Marvel Studios so unique. Having taken the producing reins on the movie adaptations of their prized stable of comic book heroes, they’ve consistently paired odd-choice directors with their properties to thrilling effect.
Jon Favreau and Iron Man . Louis Leterrier and The Incredible Hulk . Both courageous couplings reaped surprising, entertaining results. And now Marvel wanted to do the same with one of their most high profile characters – Norse god Thor. So who did they call? Well, Kenneth Branagh, of course...
For Branagh, the appeal was all in the story. “It’s a chance to tell a big story on a big scale,” he told MTV in 2008. “It’s a human story right in the centre of a big epic scenario.”
Famous as a Shakespeare-loving multi-hyphenate actor-director, Belfast-born Branagh had spent much of his pre- Thor career crafting loving film adaptations of the Bard’s greatest tragedies.
Which is where Marvel’s stroke of genius came in. Marvel chief Kevin Feige understood that the dynastic struggles depicted in the universe of Thor weren’t all that thematically different from the issues trickling through the veins of Shakespeare’s works. How so? Well, let’s get back to the comics...
Thor, or The Mighty Thor if you will, made his debut in the pages of Marvel Comics in 1962’s Journey Into Mystery . A muscular man-hero based on the god of Norse legend, Thor had his own awesome weapon (hammer Mjolnir), a red cape to challenge Superman’s, wings on his helmet and a take-charge attitude.
Stan Lee came up with the concept after searching for a hero who wasn’t just a human with super powers. "How do you make someone stronger than the strongest person?” he posited. “It finally came to me: Don't make him human - make him a god.”
By 1966, Journey Into Mystery had been retitled Thor , and the Thorverse was beginning to take shape. Thor, a tempestuous boy who needs to learn humility, is cast out of Asgard by his father (and king) Odin. On Earth, he lands in the disabled body of med student Donald Blake. Meanwhile, brother Loki attempts to destroy Thor once and for all.
“I definitely had a passion for Thor,” Branagh reveals. “I didn’t have a huge history with the comic books, but I loved what this story represented.
“I loved its epic scale, the colour, the grandeur of it, the fact that it travelled across space, all the vivid contrasts in the runs of the comics, and the blood and guts of it. And, paradoxically, there is a great human story at the centre of a story about Gods.” Time for a movie, then...
Direct To The Point
Branagh, of course, really wasn’t first on Hollywood's list to direct Thor . That honour instead went to Sam Raimi, who met with Stan Lee and 20th Century Fox with a pitch in the early 1990s. Sadly, it was a pitch so bonkers that neither understood quite what Raimi was trying to do with Thor .
It wasn’t until September 2008 that Kenneth Branagh signed on to direct the adap – after David S. Goyer, Matthew Vaughn and D.J. Caruso all considered then bailed on the project.
“What’s exciting is that Kevin and Marvel are so determined that we have to deliver spectacle,” Branagh enthused, “not only in the execution of visual effects, but also in the concept of visual effects, really trying to push the envelope, every time.”
At the tail end of 2008, Branagh was still being guarded about just who he’d be casting in the titular role. “There’s been lots of talk - I sound like a politician - but we are too early at this stage,” he said.
“We’re getting the story and the visual effects together and all of that is very exciting. Someone sensational is going to play the part but it is early days.” In May 2009, relative unknown Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth bagged the role...
Hems Worth It
“There’s a lot of pressure with something that has existed for so many years before you were involved and already has a fan base,” Hemsworth says of shrugging into the metal bodysuit of Thor.
“But, you don’t let that affect the way you approach the film. For me, you do it as well as you can whatever it is, whether it’s a small film or whether it’s something like this here. But it’s as exciting and daunting as each other.”
Before Thor , Hemsworth’s most high profile role lasted mere minutes. He appeared in the opening scene of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek , playing the doomed father of future Captain Kirk. Thor , though, would be a whole new kettle of fish. Or chicken breasts.
“It was a lot of protein shakes and chicken breast, a lot of calories, a lot of food, a lot of working out and trying to get as much rest as you can,” Hemsworth says of preparing for the role.
“That’s the other 1/3 of the equation. I put on 20 pounds and lost a lot of it since shooting purely from not eating that amount.” Now he needed a love interest...
With the movie version of Thor following what happens when Thor’s banished from Asgard, only for him to fall into the path of Earth scientist Jane Foster, Kevin Feige was nervous.
“We wanted to do the female scientist character that is rife with examples that didn’t go so well in genre movies,” he says. Key to getting the character right would be landing the right actress. And in Natalie Portman, they got their girl.
“That was something that made us comfortable even doing that idea, once she agreed to do it,” Feige says. Adds Branagh: “And, she was so game. She was up for it. She was very passionate about it, so it was cool.”
For Portman, the role presented a unique opportunity to craft a character herself. “I signed on to do it before there was a script,” she reveals. “And Ken, who's amazing, who is so incredible, was like, ‘You can really help create this character.’” Which meant a lot of research...
From the outset, Portman knew Thor wouldn’t be your usual comic book action movie. For a start, she had a reading list.
“I got to read all of these biographies of female scientists like Rosalind Franklin who actually discovered the DNA double helix but didn't get the credit for it,” she recalls.
“The struggles they had and the way that they thought – I was like, ‘What a great opportunity, in a very big movie that is going to be seen by a lot of people, to have a woman as a scientist.’”
Branagh himself felt that research was pivotal in creating characters that were believable and grounded.
“You may see none of that [ research ] in Jane Foster, but it just smacks like a peg into the ground of a different kind of reality. Let’s make it special, let’s make it our own. You’ll find you put your arms around the part that way.” There was still one pivotal role left to fill...
God Of Gods
For the role of Odin, king of the Asgards, as enigmatic as he is charismatic, Branagh knew he’d have to cast somebody with serious heft. Lucky for him, the perfect person agreed to take on the role – Anthony Hopkins.
According to Branagh, having Hopkins on set was a joy. “He told lots of great war stories about his time as a young actor,” the director says. “His first film performance was Lion In Winter , when he was about 30 and he was on-screen with Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole and Timothy Dalton and he was just talking about his first time in films.
“He loved seeing the boys at the beginning and these great careers that they’re about to have. So, that was exciting.” With Hopkins and co all dressed up in some seriously shiny outfits, though, tone was going to be an issue...
Considering Thor takes place partly in a polished, glistening city of gods, and partly on Earth, Branagh was aware that the whole film could easily devolve into a hammy, cheesy mess.
“You’re right to say that it’s a tricky tonal issue,” Branagh admits. “We always talked early on, I’m there for what it’s worth to try and guide the tone. I was passionate that we should have a contemporary earth sequence to the movie.
“I believe, they do in the comics, that we can live in both places and people can travel maybe to both places potentially and that we can [ finesse ] the tone.
"[ We've ] got to stay very honest and very truthful, and I hope we do. Tone was always, always kind of the key issue.” Then there was the bigger picture to consider...
Thor ’s ambitions didn’t end with the film itself, of course. As well as being a stand-alone introduction to our hammer-wielding hero, Thor would also be a part of the Marvel movies jigsaw, linked up in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to Captain America and Iron Man – all in preparation for 2012’s The Avengers .
For Branagh, though, that was all part of the fun of contributing to such an extravagant, intricate universe.
“The fun thing is when you know, and you go and see Iron Man 2 , you get a couple of lines saying, 'Clark has to get down to New Mexico. We have a little bit of a problem down there.’ You know we’re the problem!” Branagh says.
“We’ve got a couple of little nods heading Joe [ Johnston’s ] way with our picture. I got thrilled when I went to see the set the other week so what was nice is, at least I didn’t feel, you may have done it so brilliantly I didn’t notice, but I didn’t feel I had to think about it at all. It was Thor -centric.”
Thor opens in the UK on Friday 29 April. Word of mouth from early screenings and Easter Monday previews (as well as our own review ) has been mostly positive.
Even if the film turns out to be a flop at the box office (hint: it won’t), Branagh’s thrilled that he’s had the opportunity to bring his own distinct style to a big budget blockbuster.
“This amount of interest in your film ahead of time, that's rare, that's thrilling,” he tells The Telegraph . “Are you expecting it to please everyone? No. Are you expecting it to entertain everyone? Yes. And maybe they'll argue about everything they argue about anyway.”
Thor may represent a change in direction for the usually more traditional director, but Branagh remains a total movie nerd at heart.
“I’m a movie geek. I’m there every weekend, totally and utterly for pleasure. It’s one of the things I do, my wife and I are there, some popcorn and it’s nice. It’s a nice thing to do.”