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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.
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