Pairing renowned Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet and Henry V) with a Hollywood blockbuster about a hammer-happy god, in a franchise that includes Marvel stablemates Iron Man, the upcoming Captain America and The Avengers, seems like a bit of a stretch. However, the more your probe the history of both Branagh and Thor, the less strange the partnership seems.
While Branagh’s content has often been British or European, his cinematic sensibilities have tended decidedly towards Hollywood: big films with big stars, big emotion, and epic visuals and scores – the most successful example being Much Ado About Nothing (1993), which paved the way for the ‘90s ‘Shakespeare on film’ revival. Branagh has also been consistently drawn to storytelling on the mythopoeic scale, from Shakespeare to Mozart’s Magic Flute to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: primal emotional struggles, worked out on screen by kings, noblemen and monsters.
When I ask Branagh where this taste for the epic comes from, I half expect him to recount tales – as he has elsewhere – of a childhood growing up in an extended working-class family in Belfast, Ireland, with plenty of time around the hearth listening to improbable yarns. Instead he points to a childhood diet of Hollywood films, courtesy of television and trips to the cinema with his parents. “I really felt the big screen ‘thing’ as a small child. [Films like] The Sound Of Music, and The Great Escape; Lawrence of Arabia; the Bond films – that kind of sensorially overwhelming picture.”
Thor is definitely cinema on a large scale: an effects-laden intergalactic epic based on the Marvel character created in the 1960s, and loosely based on Norse mythology. A fan of the comics as a child, Branagh was so taken by the idea of adapting them for the big screen that he petitioned Marvel Studios for the job.
“[I remember] this moment of being in a newspaper shop in Belfast on a Sunday, and seeing a very brightly-coloured magazine up on a rack – and it was Thor. The thing I chiefly remember is the title treatment – it was like the pillars of Stone Henge, great big obelisks of rock. There was something about it that was going, ‘MASSIVE!’” he says, throwing his arms and his eyes wide, in mock disbelief. “I wasn’t obsessive about [the Thor comics] by any means,” he admits, “but the colour saturation and the angles [appealed to me] – all stuff we tried to capture in the movie.”
His vision for Thor, based largely on recent editions of the comics, conceptualises Asgard as a distant planet, and its rulers a dynasty of super-powered beings typically mistaken by humans for gods. The film deals with what happens when Asgard’s king, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), banishes his eldest son Thor (Aussie expat Chris Hemsworth) to Earth, as a punishment for his pride and disobediance. Stranded in the New Mexico desert, our hot-headed young killing machine meets a beautiful young astrophysicist (Natalie Portman) who teaches him the value of life.
One of Branagh’s early ‘anchor images’ for Thor was “the warriors riding horses across the rainbow bridge in outer-space”. He pauses, seeing my eyebrows rise, and concedes, “Even to say it, it feels like you’ve taken some drugs (laughs). I thought, you know, if I could just negotiate this so that people don’t scream ‘Oh, it’s so operatic!’ – and if I could get those two guys on that rainbow bridge fighting, at the end – both of those images are very distinct, potentially original [achievements]. They’re kinds of images that have been touched on in the comics, but if we could do that on film, in 3D, with big music – well, that’s cinema!”
Branagh has always taken risks with his directorial choices – and it must be said, they haven’t always paid off. His last commercial hit, Frankenstein, was eviscerated by most film critics – and conversely, his last critical success, the four-hour Hamlet, didn’t make a dent at the box office. “I dunno – you challenge yourself, don’t you?” he says of his choices. “[British director] Peter Brook calls it the ‘uninformed hunch’: the little voice inside that says ‘that’s the thing to do’ – even though the other voice might be saying, ‘You’re mad, you’re mad! They’ll hate you! You’re gonna get that wrong’ You’re not experienced enough!’ You just go ‘Oh fuck it!’ Life should be full of adventures.”
Thor is out not in cinemas everywhere.