"It's no surprise to learn that back in Ireland, young Kenneth Branagh -- who would grow up to direct film adaptations of Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V -- fell under the spell of tales about royal family intrigue, ancient rivalry and clanging battlefields. What is unexpected, though, is that epic of obsession was by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, not William Shakespeare.
'Growing up, my single comic book passion was Thor,' says the 49-year-old actor and filmmaker who surprised many industry observers by taking on the director's job on the big-budget adaptation of the Marvel Comics thunder god. 'From my time in Belfast as a kid, that's the first time I came across that comic, really, exclusively, I don't know why, but it struck a chord. I was drawn to it. I liked all the dynastic drama.'
For the uninitiated, the Marvel character Thor first appeared in the August 1962 issue of 'Journey into Mystery' (it was a big summer for Marvel -- the first Spider-Man comic book hits stands that same month) as an odd mix of Norse myth and Marvel's distinctive brand of wildly kinetic cosmic melodrama.
With his winged helmet, magic hammer and odd old English diction, he fought evil aliens, ancient wizards and costumed crooks and even teamed up with Hercules in Marvel's no-borders brand of mythology.
Thor, due in 2011, is filming now in Santa Fe, N.M., and stars newcomer Chris Hemsworth (who played the doomed father of James T. Kirk in last year's Star Trek) will carry the magical hammer of Thor in the film, with Natalie Portman playing his mortal love, Jane Foster. Anthony Hopkins is Odin, Thor's father, and Tom Hiddleston plays the thunder god's duplicitous brother, Loki.
For both Branagh and upstart Marvel Studios (which arrived with a splash in Hollywood in 2008 with Iron Man) the cinematic mash-up of Viking deity and 21st century do-gooder will be a singular challenge in Hollywood's crowded superhero sector.
The story is split between Asgard, the majestic and eternal home of the Norse gods, and the modern world, which Branagh says he views more as an opportunity than a challenge.
'Inspired by the comic book world both pictorially and compositionally at once, we've tried to find a way to make a virtue and a celebration of the distinction between the worlds that exist in the film but absolutely make them live in the same world,' Branagh said. 'It's about finding the framing style, the color palette, finding the texture and the amount of camera movement that helps celebrate and express the differences and the distinctions in those worlds. If it succeeds, it will mark this film as different.... The combination of the primitive and the sophisticated, the ancient and the modern, I think that potentially is the exciting fusion, the exciting tension in the film.'
It was a different sort of tension that put the film in headlines this week. Gatecrasher, a report in the New York Daily News gossip column, quoted unnamed sources that painted a picture of a sour movie set, with Hopkins making it clear to the crew that he thinks little of 26-year-old Hemsworth's acting skills and Branagh growing frustrated with the Oscar-winning elder's pessimism and complaints.
Hopkins was said to be outraged by the report. The 72-year-old Welsh actor issued this statement: 'I am having the time of my life making Thor with Ken and Chris. They have made every day immensely fun and collaborative, and we're all puzzled that someone would fabricate a story suggesting otherwise. I'm proud to say that Thor has been one of the great experiences of my career.'
Branagh,meanwhile, went on at length about the esprit de corps of his cast, which also includes Rene Russo, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson and Stellan Skarsgård.
There will also be elements that will move forward with Marvel Studios unprecedented plan to create a unified universe of heroes and stories that spreads across films, including the upcoming Captain America movie in 2011 and Iron Man 2, which arrives May 7 as one of the most anticipated movies of 2010.
'It's going very, very well,' Branagh said Wednesday. 'We're in New Meixco now where we have a contemporary Earth part of our story. I guess we're two-thirds of the way through the story and at this stage of the game what's surprising and delighting me is the way the cast, the ensemble, has fused together. It's kind of an interesting combination of very young and very experienced people and the double-up of that, it seems to me, is there is a lot of fire in the movie. It doesn't take itself too seriously, it doesn't try to be too solemn.'
Branagh made a point to praise Hopkins as 'an extraordinary actor with his Celtic passion and incredible technique' and said he has been a binding force for the film on the set and will do the same on the screen. The cast that plays Asgard's royal family are 'people who can embody larger-than-life characters but retain at the center a natural, recognizable, human dynamic ... and these people run the universe.'
Young Hemsworth will also star as Thor in the planned Avengers movie, the superhero team film where (if the current casting plan holds) the Aussie newcomer will have to hold his own with far more experienced peers -- Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man; Edward Norton Jr. as the Hulk's alter ego, Bruce Banner; and Chris Evans as Captain America.
Wednesday was a big day for Marvel Studios because director Jon Favreau wrapped up Iron Man 2. Kevin Feige, Marvel Studio's president and producer on Thor, was in a celebratory mood, but it was split with with anger over the New York Daily News reports, which Feige called 'garbage'.
Feige said the plan to meld the Marvel Universe on the silver screen will move forward dramatically now and he said there are some surprises in Iron Man 2 that set up an unexpected bond to the Captain America movie that director Joe Johnston is doing early work on now in England.
'Now many of the pieces are in place ... with Iron Man 2 finished and Thor more than halfway done, that lattice work is being built.'
Feige said Branagh is proving to be the ideal choice for Thor -- the executive knew he would be after seeing the buoyant and accessible Much Ado About Nothing, which made Shakespeare fun and funny even to 'comic book fans like me,' Feige said. He added: 'You could actually laugh and understand all of it.'"