Branagh Meets Comic-Book Hero

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Byline: Chris Lee

What drew a Shakespearean master to a flashy blockbuster about Viking mythology?

You'd be forgiven for wondering what precisely is up with Kenneth Branagh directing Marvel Studios' new superhero flick Thor, a flashy $150 million mashup of Viking lore and good old-fashioned caped crusading. Yes, acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company and adapting the Bard's classics for screen looks impressive on the resume. But simultaneously directing and starring in Hamlet and Henry V isn't the same as directing a summer blockbuster with comic-book characters who freeze one another with devastating ice lasers.

It all raises certain questions Shakespeare might have asked, were he working in Hollywood: Why doth Branagh direct the tale of the thunder god with giant hammer? Fie! Turns out that growing up in Belfast in the '60s, Branagh was captivated by Marvel's The Mighty Thor comic book like no other American cultural offering. "These larger-than-life characters in mountainous landscapes and in space--I enjoyed that weird connection," the director says, sipp-ing tea on a bench at the Fox films studio lot in Los Angeles.

It was the comic book's intersection with his personal interest in classical literature that compelled the filmmaker to unleash his inner Michael Bay. Branagh worked closely with screenwriters for two years to develop the movie's fraternal rivalry: Thor (portrayed by chiseled Australian movie newcomer Chris Hemsworth) and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) vie for the affections of their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins as god-king of the magical realm of Asgard). A power struggle for the throne notwithstanding, Thor's hotheadedness--specifically, his gusto to bang heads with the Asgardians' nemeses the "frost giants"--results in the thunder boy's exile to Earth. Stripped of all magic virility there, he encounters Natalie Portman's astrophysicist character and the spark of romance ignites.

"It's an archetypal and mythic ideal: the great walking amongst the common," Branagh explains. "There's a coming-of-age story, a prodigal-son story, the journey from arrogance to humility. That classical structure for me means a timeless and invisible connection between the contemporary and the traditional."

Catching himself in the act of sounding grandiloquent, the director outlines his trepidations about Thor. "How do you have fun with something you want to also take seriously? How not to pander with something too superficial that second-guesses a youthful audience? …