Thor: Kenneth Branagh’s Comeback

In 1962, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced The Mighty Thor to readers of Marvel Comics, launching a new era of action-adventure with their take on the hammer-wielding Norse god.

Conflicts that have driven human drama since the beginning of time. A son impatient to prove his worth to his father. A lethally resentful brother; and a woman who helps a man see the world anew. Royal bloodlines, a deadly vendetta, pride that goes before a fall—stories worth telling.

A founding member of the super hero team “The Avengers,” Thor emerged from the same Marvel Comics bullpen that had previously given rise to Iron Man, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men and Spiderman.

“Thor” producer and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige remembers, “Stan Lee tells the story that after he and Jack Kirby created these other heroes, they thought, ‘Let’s do a god—and let’s bring a god down!’ And in a brilliant move, he looked at Norse mythology—a lot of people were familiar with the Greek and Roman mythologies, not so much with the Norse. When you read those stories, it’s like the best of the Marvel Comics, because it’s people who are very human, despite their powers—despite their calling down the storm, the thunder and the lightning. They have family issues, in the two brothers fighting, Thor and Loki. It’s a family drama, and they’re just as flawed as any of us, or any of the Marvel heroes. That’s what makes the Marvel characters so relatable.

Cosmic Level
“On film, we’ve explored a lot of the ground-based Marvel heroes,” Feige continues. “But it’s called the Marvel universe for a reason. It’s a big place, and we’re going to a cosmic level with ‘Thor.’

It was the larger-than-life Thor that captivated director Kenneth Branagh as a boy growing up in 1960s Belfast. “It rained a lot in Northern Ireland and could sometimes seem grayish,” Branagh recalls. “The color of the Marvel Comics covers would pop out from the book shelves, and The Mighty Thor was the one I was always drawn to.

“I liked its primal qualities, the connection to something ancient, the weaponry, the Stonehenge feel of the lettering, and the character’s sheer physical heft. He’s the first in line to fulfill that cliché of never asking anybody else to do what he wouldn’t do himself.  Half the time you’ve got to try and stop him from doing something you might never consider.”

It is that very determined and headstrong nature that stands between Thor and succeeding his father as the King of Asgard. A celebrated physique and success in battle are not enough to prepare the prince for leading his people—flashes of anger, shortsighted decisions, rash actions, these are things that will prove the ultimate downfall to a king. They are also the traits that can and do make for the self-destruction of a human, even without the weight of a crown hanging in the balance.

Human Dimension

“The success of the Marvel connection with Norse mythology is an understanding that the human dimension at the center of epic tales is the glue that holds everything together,” observes Branagh, who knows a thing or two about mythic tales, having made his reputation interpreting (as performer, theatrical director and filmmaker) Shakespeare’s stories of royal family intrigue. “There’s an exhilaration, a visceral kind of enjoyment in seeing those kinds of characters go through the same things we do.”

Producer Feige opine, “When characters respond to situations the way one would, when they’re thrust into overwhelming situations and just can’t deal with it very easily, when there are trials and tribulations to overcome just like all of us deal with all the time—that’s real, that’s relatable.

So it doesn’t matter if you’re a billionaire weapons manufacturer, or the son of Odin, if you’ve got these problems or issues to overcome—even character flaws deep within yourself—that makes you, essentially, one of us.

There are a lot of fun things that Stan and Jack did in the early Thor comics—that Walt Simonson brought to life later—that J. Michael Straczynski has done an amazing job handling in the recent comics. He has taken the myths and brought them home. You may have heard of Thor, Loki, Odin–what you didn’t know is that they’re real.

And that if you could get intergalactic transportation, and bust through a few dimensions and other spatial rifts in the process, you would come upon them. That’s the concept that has been developed and has been brought to this adaptation.”

J. Michael Straczynski, the screenwriter of Clint Eastwood’s 2008 “Changeling,” and writer of Marvel’s Thor comic from July 2007 until November 2009, was thrilled that Branagh was chosen to direct the hero’s picture debut: “With his classical training and his grounding in language, Ken has the ability to make this both lofty and accessible. He can bring these gods down to where a person can understand them.”

Feige expands on why Branagh was Marvel’s choice: “As has been pointed out by minds far greater than mine, comic books are modern-day mythology, and Ken Branagh is someone who can adapt literature in a way that no one else can. He is, at heart, a gifted storyteller, and that’s what we wanted, someone who can tell the story. Centuries ago, these tales were handed down around the fires—it’s really sort of the same today, only the fire is the light of the projector.”

The comic books were the key source material for everyone involved in the production, but as the project underwent its transformation from the four-color page to the motion picture screen, other works of literature also became touchstones for the filmmakers, Team Thor and the actors. Those involved in pre-production—and later, the actors given the task of breathing life into the Marvel characters—were given reference materials on the Vikings and Norse mythology along with their armload of comic books, with several novels thrown in for good measure (Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, for one).

Chris Hemsworth, the Aussie cast as Thor, explains, “It was like a college course—I got books about people finding themselves and then coming to terms with the reality of their existence. Ken knew that these were relative to the story we were going to tell.”

“Thor’s nearly invulnerable,” offers screenwriter Ashley Edward Miller. “He’s supernaturally strong, he has the ability to fly and he is gifted with a great hammer that controls the storms. As the prince and golden boy, he’s never heard the word ‘no,’ and he’s been allowed to do practically everything he’s ever wanted to do. Now, at the point in the other stories where the hero is bitten by a spider or hit by a gamma blast, Thor is stripped of every quality and possession that makes him what he believes he is. And on top of that, he is banished to a strange place. That makes him a displaced prince who is now a pauper—and so, he’s one of us.”

One of us if we were built and look like…a god, walking around a desert in New Mexico…the very desert where a certain research scientist, Jane Foster, is conducting fieldwork on some unexplainable phenomena in the night sky. “Jane is very focused on her research,” says Natalie Portman, who plays the esoteric scientist. “She’s probably on the fringe of astrophysics, because she believes in things that a lot of her colleagues might find nutty. His arrival seems to demonstrate things she supposes to be true.

“At first, Jane thinks of Thor as a study subject,” the actress continues. “Apart from her own research team, he’s the only witness to this extraordinary event they’ve observed in the night sky over the New Mexico plains, so he’s important to her work. Slowly, she starts to relate to him and, well, her emotions start to get the better of her—then she faces that ever-present challenge for any scientist or academic involved in research—remaining objective.”

Much like his character, who comes to appreciate his time as a stranger in this strange land, Hemsworth savored the smaller, non-heroic interchanges that help to transform the fallen prince: “‘Thor’ is full of big moments, some huge action and pyrotechnics, but some of my favorites are the sequences between Thor and Jane – normal, everyday conversations. We shot those scenes in New Mexico, with a beautiful backdrop of mountains. Now, we had to wait until the snow melted, but it created a beautiful environment. These were the scenes where the character research, the books on looking at existence and coming into your own, paid off. And getting to play these with Natalie…well, sort of dream time for me.”

This is not Thor’s attitude, however, when he lands—first with an explosion, and then with a thud of Jane’s careering SUV—on Earth. But living among humans, who seemed irrelevant from his lofty perch in his home planet of Asgard, is a revelation for Thor. Of course, nobody knows who he is—in fact, Jane and her crew believe him to be a slightly odd (and perhaps homeless) desert nomad.

“Thor learns through Jane Foster how much humans are capable of,” says screenwriter Zack Stentz. “It’s one of the best facets of human nature—when we find ourselves pushed to the wall and all hope is lost, that sometimes, that’s when we find the measure of who we are—those can be our greatest moments. This is where Thor is transformed, this is his journey. He is this close to packing it in, because he’s not who he used to be. But then, he discovers what he can be.”

Hemsworth agrees and comments, “It’s all about Thor learning humility. He comes in as a brash young guy with a ton of power at his fingertips. When he goes against his father, he’s punished by being sent to Earth to learn a lesson, on equal terms with other earthlings—as a mortal.
“Ken said very early on that fathers and sons are what this is about,” Hemsworth continues. “The backdrop is a film about gods, but at the core, it’s about human beings.”