Thor: It's Hammer Time for Kenneth Branagh

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Jaimie Alexander and Kenneth Branagh on the set of Thor. Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios

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 résumé. 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, sipping 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? And how do you do it all without trying to wedge in some secret art film?" Branagh asks.

But then Branagh's installation at the helm of a summer-event film reflects Hollywood's go-to strategy for the moneymaking comic-book genre. In recent years, studios have made a parlor game of hiring art-house auteurs to adapt superhero fare, in a bid to conjoin impressionistic filmmaking with mass appeal. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon director Ang Lee tried (and fizzled at the box office) with 2003's The Hulk. Meantime, Christopher Nolan, the director of Memento, resurrected a certain Gotham City hero franchise with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight to the tune of a combined $1.37 billion worldwide.

Nowhere has the practice gotten more traction than at Marvel Studios, the operation responsible for Robert Downey Jr.'s ascendancy as Iron Man. To hear it from Marvel production chief Kevin Feige, Branagh beat the contenders specifically because of his experience reworking Shakespeare. "The subject can be dry in a high-school-English-class kind of way," Feige says. "But Ken brought it to life … He's been able to put Thor and Loki and Odin onscreen the same way—humanizing them without getting lost among the costumes and the special effects and traveling through the universe."

Harvey Weinstein, who became chummy with Branagh last year when he was filming Weinstein Co.'s upcoming drama My Week With Marilyn, points out a common misconception about Branagh. "People look at Ken and because he's done so much Shakespeare over the years, they forget he's a kid born in Belfast," says Weinstein, who is producing Branagh's next directorial effort, the historical sports drama The Boys in the Boat. "He did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. He's a man of the people. And his Shakespeare is man-of-the-people kind."

On a recent morning, Branagh is hunkered down in a darkened movie-studio editing bay, wholly consumed with finishing Thor. A phalanx of computer-generated frost giants repeatedly flashes across a bank of digital monitors before him—icy ghoulies who rain havoc down on a tribe of ancient Norsemen. The filmmaker mulls the fate of 16 frames of footage. To cut or not to cut? That is the question.

"This is not meant to be pompous, portentous museum entertainment," Branagh says. "To work in Hollywood, to work on this kind of scale? Nothing blasé in my attitude. The desire is to entertain, to be absolutely of now and in the moment, and to find balance and originality in that."

Thor: It's Hammer Time for Kenneth Branagh | Culture