When Marvel announced that Kenneth Branagh would be directing the Thor movie, it earned more than a few raised eyebrows.
Branagh? The guy who taught us not to be afraid of William Shakespeare? What's he doing making a comic book movie?
In retrospect, however, Branagh made an excellent choice—seizing upon the film's mythic themes of kings and scoundrels, fathers and sons, and power lost and gained that highlighted a number of famous Shakespeare pieces. Who better to handle that than a proper Shakespearean?
William Shakespeare punched Branagh's ticket to fame and fortune way back in 1989, when he starred in and directed a new version of Henry V that turned into a sensation.
Before then, he had mainly worked on the stage. Born in Belfast and raised in England, he quickly made a name for himself in the British theater, scoring major successes with the likes of Twelfth Night, Hamlet and As You Like It.
But then came Henry V, which he adapted to film from a stage version he had starred in back in 1984. It was a big deal for a number of reasons: mainly its ability to make the stodgy text seem fresh and exciting, and its grimy updating of the story to match a post-Falklands Great Britain.
Why was that such a big deal, you ask? Well the last version of Henry V that caused such a stir was Laurence Olivier's in 1944. That one was intended to boost British morale during WW II, and its happy, fairy-tale atmosphere reflected a population that had had its fill of dark and gritty. It was so well regarded that people kind of considered it Olivier's play, which made Branagh's big screen splash a little cheeky (as the Brits say).
Success forgives everything, though, and regardless of any perceived cheek, the Branagh version of the play became an instant classic.
The director parlayed that into an increasing number of films, and surprised everyone by being equally adept at more modern stories as he was at Shakespeare. Sure, he stuck close to the Bard by producing equally well-regarded versions of Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing, but he also helmed the likes of the Hitchcock-ian thriller Dead Again, a turgid version of Frankenstein, a Jack Ryan reboot, a film version of the opera The Magic Flute, and the recent Disney live-action take on Cinderella as well.
He's acted plenty too, not only in his own films, but in other people's movies like Othello and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (where he kind of stole the show). But it's directing he's mostly known for, and it doesn't look like he's going to spend any less time behind the camera than he does in front of it.
When he came on to Thor, Marvel Studios had already sunk a lot of time and money into it. Matthew Vaughn, who was onboard to direct, dropped out because of development problems and Guillermo Del Toro passed as well.
Branagh gave the Studio the same artistic legitimacy as those other directors, along with the right creative vision to match what they wanted to do. He also brought that sense of older grandeur to the movie without losing the modern touch, something he had done quite well with the Shakespeare adaptions…and which Thor desperately needed if it was going to work.
You can see its connections to Shakespeare, and in the kind of older epic storytelling that the mythic Thor came from. The film is centered on an ancient kingdom existing alongside the modern world, complete with politics, enemies, royal schemes and a hotheaded young prince getting a little too big for his britches. Anyone who's read Richard III or the Henry plays can spot the same ideas a mile away, and thematically, the film sticks pretty close to those thespian roots.
But like the rest of Branagh's canon, it doesn't feel limited to it. This is a comic book movie, after all, so Branagh adds plenty of action. There's light comedy in the interaction between Thor and Jane and her friends. There's coffee-cup smashing.
Thor became a big hit, and made the god of thunder a big part not only of the Avengers, but the whole Marvel game plan in general. They owe that to trusting a guy who could see the links between older and more modern storytelling, and the ambition to push both of them a little further than people expected.
Citizen Ken could do it, and the Marvel Universe is a little bit better as a result.
There are three names on the final script for Thor, but IMDB lists six other names accredited with this bad boy…which is Hollywood-ese for "it took them a long time to crank it out."
The Thor saga started at least twenty years before the movie hit screens when director Sam Raimi pitched a Thor movie to 20th Century Fox. They passed—but don't worry: Raimi eventually kicked the superhero movie genre into overdrive by directing the first three Spider-Man movies over at Sony.
After the first X-Men movie turned into a hit in 2000, Hollywood expressed new interest in Thor. Anything from the capes-and-tights department suddenly became gold once the studios realized they could make money with it.
But Thor proved a tough nut to crack, mostly because Thor didn't follow the playbook as far as other superheroes went. The project thrashed around for another eight years until the success of Iron Man made it clear that this superhero needed to be part of that universe.
That's a roundabout way of saying that this story went through a lot of changes in twenty years. The exact placement of who did what is the subject of Hollywood secrecy.
Of the final names on the screenplay, two of them—Ashley Edward Millar and Zack Stentz —were partners know for working mostly on television. That included shows like Fringe and Andromeda, as well as the movie X-Men: First Class (which also hit theaters in 2011).
The last name, Don Payne, also had a background with superheroes, having worked on Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and the bomb My Super Ex-Girlfriend.
The waters get even muddier when Kenneth Branagh finally came on to direct. The team brought in some physicists to "advise" the production…and to make some of the Asgard awesomeness make sense. (Hollywood is awesome.) (Source)
That necessitated further changes to the script: changing Jane from a nurse to a scientist, for instance, and ensuring that Asgard's various doo-dads had at least some grounding in science as discussed in the film.
It was quite a hash, but it all came out right in the end. Considering all of the elements involved and Thor's one-of-a-kind status among all things superhero, we shouldn't have been surprised.
Paramount Pictures technically distributed the film, and Disney owns the rights to the Marvel character—but Thor never left his home. Marvel Studios, created in the 1990s to help push movie versions of the famous comic book line, is the company behind that mighty onscreen hammer.
Back in the 1990's, Marvel didn't have its own production company. It was simply interested in licensing the rights to their character to different studios in hopes of getting a film made.
It wasn't working out so well, and comic book characters in general were entering a twilight era thanks to the giant stink lines of Joel Schumacher's Batman films. But Marvel still ran their bunch of superheroes up the flagpole to see who would bite.
Some of them did. It started with the modest success of Blade over at New Line in 1998, and then quickly blossomed with the X-Men franchise at Fox starting in 2000. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films, featuring Tobey Maguire as everyone's favorite wall-crawler, became a massive hit starting back in 2002, and superhero movies suddenly were everywhere.
Not all of them were well loved (Fantastic Four movies, we're looking at you), but they established the Marvel canon as a viable franchise and help revitalize superheroes as a movie genre.
Now here's the funny part. Besides a few of the big names—Spidey, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and the Incredible Hulk—Hollywood didn't think any of the other Marvel heroes were worth owning. And the purchasing rights to the characters included a clause that said those characters reverted back to Marvel Studios if no one made a movie on them.
By the time 2008 rolled around, the rights to most of Marvel's characters had come back to them…including the likes of Thor, Captain America, the Black Widow and Iron Man. Marvel, thinking that everyone else was nuts for not doing right by those characters, decided to produce their own film.
The results surprised even them. Their first effort out of the block was Iron Man, starring Robert Downey, Jr. as billionaire superhero Tony Stark. It became a monster hit, and the character went from being second-tier space filler into one of Marvel's most recognizable heroes.
Here's where it gets really funky. With the profits from Iron Man, Marvel naturally invested in Iron Man 2, but they also latched to a throwaway cookie at the end of the first film that hinted at a larger universe beyond Tony Stark. (Source)
It wasn't supposed to be a big deal—just a throwaway gag to the hard-core comic geeks—but with the movie raking in the bucks, it offered some options beyond another series of increasingly lazy sequels.
Thor was a part of that, as was Captain America: The First Avenger. They both showed up in 2011, and while they featured separate superheroes, they made it abundantly clear that they shared the same universe as Iron Man.
That came to a head with 2012's The Avengers, which brought together all three superheroes—along with the Hulk and a gaggle of other buddies—to defend the Earth from Loki and a whole gaggle of alien invaders. The film grossed over $1.5 billion world-wide…enough to land it at #3 on the all-time list (though it's since been bumped a couple of notches) and suddenly "shared universe" was the order of the day.
Marvel Studios has been quick to capitalize on that, with a slew of sequels for their core characters, a host of spin-off movies featuring the likes of Ant-Man and The Guardians of the Galaxy, and so many future movies planned that "Marvel" is now almost a genre unto itself.
Other studios have attempted to follow, with Warners awkwardly lurching a DC shared universe forward, and the X-Men franchise getting a shot in the arm with the likes of First Class. Even the Star Wars franchise has gotten in on the action with Rogue One.
They're all playing follow-the-leader on this one: created by a calculated risk with a studio that had more faith in its characters than anyone else in Hollywood…and reaped the rewards accordingly.
Thor arrived when Hollywood was seriously falling in love with 3D. (Giant take-all-your-money monster hits like Avatar and Alice in Wonderland will do that for you.)
That meant filming with digital cameras: ones that didn't use any film and instead caught all the shots on a hard drive. That made it easier to get that whole 3-D thing going, as well as adding the staggering number of computer effects shots they needed to get the whole thing to work.
As Branagh explains:
"We came to feel that in our case 3-D could be the very good friend of story and character for a different kind of experience." (Source)
So everything was shiny and new on the Thor set, taking advantage of a recent technological advancement to help all those flying hammers and space vistas really pop out of the screen.
But in addition to the new-fangled computer magic, Branagh used a number of more old-fashioned techniques to bring the story to life. Mainly, he paid very close attention to the look and the feel or comic books, and set about to craft his movie in their image.
Some of his techniques are obvious, like basing the visual look of Asgard on classic comic book artists like Jack Kirby (more on that in the Setting section). But others are subtler. For example, notice how he frames a lot of his shots at an angle, like here.
That's not a mistake…or a sneaky way of getting in a close-up. Comic books do the exact same thing in their frames, it helps add a dynamic feeling to all the biffs and the pows, as we as drawing the reader's eye quite naturally to the next frame.
It makes things feel action-oriented, even when people are just sitting around talking, and it preserves the sense of reading a comic book, even though you're staring at a gigantic screen. That's why you hire directors like Branagh for movies like these: the man pays attention.
Hitchcock had Bernard Herrmann. Spielberg had John Williams. And Kenneth Branagh has Patrick Doyle…the good-luck music charm from the early days who has never left his side.
Doyle was born in Scotland, and studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, which landed him an early gig at Renaissance Productions (a.k.a. Kenneth Branagh's Big Box of Shakespearean Theater). He composed a lot of music to accompany Branagh's theatrical productions, and when Citizen Ken made the leap to movies, he took Doyle with him.
It started really early, with a TV production of Twelfth Night in 1988. Henry V followed in 1989, and Doyle quickly parlayed that into a full-bore career in film composition.
He didn't limited himself to Branagh's films, of course: composing music for the likes of Donnie Brasco, Bridget Jones's Diary and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (all of which remain surprisingly Branagh-free).
But Our Man Pat is nothing if not loyal, and whenever Branagh has called, he's answered. Their work together includes the likes of Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Mark Shelley's Frankenstein, and the live-action version of Cinderella. Naturally when Thor came along, Branagh tasked him with composing a full suite of Music for Bashing Frost Giants.
Doyle took some loose cues for Richard Wagner, the bombastic (and disturbingly racist) opera composer responsible for "Ride of the Valkyries," among others. He nails the thunderous sense of Wagner here, with its grand sweeping gestures and echoes of cities in the clouds.
But he skews more positive that Wagner's fearsome pounding, adding a grace and an elegance that you might not expect from a summer popcorn flick. It fit the material like a glove, and while it might not be the most popular Marvel soundtrack, it certainly gave this film's hero a theme he deserved.
Doyle hasn't stopped, of course. In addition to composing music for more Branagh joints —including Cinderella and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit—he's handled other big projects like Pixar's Brave and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
The man's in demand, but he's clearly not going to forget about the director who first brought him to the film fame party.
Thor first appeared in Journey into Mystery #83. This bad boy was written in August 1962, which placed him right at the heart of Marvel's Silver Age Renaissance.
He got in on the ground floor, more or less, so when Marvel's characters began to get really popular in the comic book world, Thor was right there to bask in the glory, and became a founding member of The Avengers a year later in 1963.
Before this movie, though, his appeal remained largely limited to comic book fans. They responded to the modern updating of old mythology, the dynamic storylines that weren't afraid to take chances, and the presence of writers and artists who became legends in the field: Jack Kirby, Neal Adams and John Buscema.
That left him as a niche figure…but one with a very dedicated base. And while he appeared outside of comics—in a few cartoons, an oblique reference in the movie Adventures in Babysitting, and a not-especially good TV movie called The Incredible Hulk Returns—he didn't have nearly the profile of Spider-Man, Superman and some of the more popular comic book characters out there.
That changed with this movie. Thor became a big hit, making a star out of Chris Hemsworth and introducing a whole legion of new fans to the God of Thunder.
As such, his profile has gone way up, and today it's not unusual to see plenty of Thor toys, fanfic sites, and tumblr pages chock full of fan love.
Thor cosplayers show up at every big convention…and with the presence of a female Thor in the comics of late, the gals can get in on the action too. That's part and parcel with superheroes these days, but with the Marvel Cinematic Universe firing on all cylinders—and with Hemsworth onboard for at least six movies and maybe more, it's safe to say that Thor's fans will have plenty to keep them occupied before this god runs out of thunder. (Source)