Of the three movies Marvel planned to roll out for the Hall H dog and pony show at the Comic-Con International: San Diego, the biggest question marks surrounded "Thor."
I still maintain, as I wrote in a previous story, that "Captain America: The First Avenger" is the fulcrum to the onscreen Marvel Universe, with Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Cap the single most crucial casting element. But the story of the God of Thunder is the X factor in the entire thing, the most complicated piece of the Avengers puzzle.
Can Chris Hemsworth parlay his brief appearance in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" into a charismatic turn as the Son of Odin? Will Natalie Portman do a better job in this big-budget, effects-heavy production than she did with the "Star Wars" prequels? And how in the name of Heimdall's Beard will you tie the world of Asgard to the real-world environment the cinematic Marvel U occupies?
All these questions have put Kenneth Branagh, the director of the movie, right in the crosshairs. The Oscar-nominated filmmaker concedes his picture is the toughest sell of all the linked Marvel productions.
"I think you're right to say that it's a tricky tonal issue," Branagh said during an interview in San Diego. "We always talked early on about [that]...I'm there, for what it's worth, to try and guide the tone and say, 'hey, I think we can make this film.'
Branagh made believers out of a lot of skeptics in San Diego with a sizzle reel that was cookin' with gas. It's amazing how quickly the mood and general enthusiasm for a movie project can change. The past few months, a cloud of negativity had been floating above "Thor" that would make Schleprock proud. There were rumors of Sir Anthony Hopkins and Chris Hemsworth locking horns on set, and early pictures of Hopkins in his full Odin-ness made the Oscar winner look like a member of the house band at Ming the Merciless' lair.
But by the time The Destroyer showed up near the end of the five-minute trailer that debuted at the Marvel panel at SDCC, you could feel much of the pessimism around "Thor" dissipate like the vapor trails of a spell from The Enchantress.
[If you haven't seen the footage yet, it's been leaked all over the Web. Click here to view it before it gets yanked.]
The trailer is action-packed, but the key sequence comes at the beginning, when the All-Father dresses down his headstrong warrior of a son and banishes him to Earth. Screenwriters Ashley Miller and Don Payne's story is essentially about the conflict between a father and son -- who happen to be Gods.
It's Shakespearean high drama, and who better to handle the delicate touch needed to handle the 'Thee's, Thou's and For Asgard!' pomposity than the guy who at 23 was the youngest actor in the history of the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company to star in "Henry V"?
"No question about that," says Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige about Branagh's extensive experience with the Bard playing a part in his hire. "But what it really was...knowing that background, knowing the amazing work he's done, what I didn't know, and what it took the phone calls and meetings we had to know, is what a fan he was of Thor. What a fan he was of this genre, of these kinds of movies. "
Feige recounted how several years ago, when he first met with Branagh to discuss helming the project, they spent most of the conversation instead geeking out over the new Bond movie. He may be Hollywood's go-to guy for adapting Shakespeare, but it turns out Branagh is a big fan of summer spectacles.
"I'm a movie geek. I’m there every weekend," he said. "My wife and I are there, eating popcorn ... it's nice. It's a nice thing to do."
The "Thor" trailer also indicated that the film's structure is blending the otherworldly, majestic tales of Asgard that Kirby & Lee ran wild with in the 60s with the modern-day grittiness of "The Ultimates."
"I was passionate that we should have a contemporary Earth sequence to the movie," Branagh said. "They do in the comics, they live in both places, and people can travel to both places, potentially. [I felt] that we can find the tone. Got to stay very honest, very truthful, and I think, I hope, we're doing that."
Fan expectations and the unique...demands of the Marvel movies make working on these films a unique experience. Multiply all that by a thousand and you may have an idea of what Chris Hemsworth is experiencing. He's well aware that letting his hair grow and getting pumped beyond belief is only a small part of the job.
"There's a lot of pressure with something that's existed for so many years before you were involved and already has a fan base, but you don't let it affect the way you approach the film," Hemsworth said. "For me, I approached it as you do it the best you can, whether it's a small film or something big like this. It's exciting and daunting."
The actor credits his director with helping him understand the complexities of his character. In the movie, Thor is a brash, egocentric warrior who is in desperate need to be put in his place. When his father does just that, his personal journey begins. When asked how he would describe Branagh, Hemsworth used one word."Brilliant. It's the most amount of character development and discussion on scenes and back story that I've ever had," he said.
Natalie Portman, who plays Jane Foster, concurred.
"He is an absolute master. The attention he gives to character on a movie of this size, is absolutely remarkable, because it's very easy to get lost in needing to do special effects, and cover all of this action, and people often forget those parts," Portman said.
It's hard not to take that remark as a thinly veiled jab at George Lucas and his work directing the three "Star Wars" prequels. Unlike Lucas, who takes a technician's approach to filmmaking, Portman said Branagh was much more involved with the actors.
"He would usually ask a question. And in answering it, you came up with what your character's going through," she pointed out. "But he led you to that answer, but the fact that you had to come up with it yourself really made it part of you. And he has like, infinite ideas for how to attack something."
Co-star Cat Denning, who plays Foster's lab assistant, said Branagh was in complete control on set. "He...he's just so gifted. There isn't one moment that wasn't explained thoroughly."
"Ken and I discussed [character motivation] alto very early on, because we both read a lot of the comics," said Tom Hiddleston, who plays Thor's half-brother and archenemy Loki. "There was the sort of Agent of Chaos who would go down to earth who would turn whales into sea serpents and flowers into dragons, and whole streets of cars in NY into ice cream."
"[Loki] was essentially the younger brother who was never going to be king, and he wished that he could. So all of his...stuff comes from wanting to please his father. Ken and I decided we wanted to root all of his mischief in a truthful, psychological damage."
"Thor" mashes together elements from the comic's 40+ year history, like 'the truth of Loki's lineage' that Hiddleston teases plays a key part in the film. Familiar faces such as the Warriors Three and Lady Sif show up -- and reportedly, so does Dr. Don Blake in some fashion -- but the movie takes many liberties.
Portman's character is a scientist here, not a nurse as she was in the comics. One of the pivotal figures in the movie is S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson, who was created as basically a throwaway character in the first "Iron Man" movie.
"I was a little intimidated in taking this character from "Iron Man" and putting it into the world of "Thor,"" admitted actor Clark Gregg. "...And having it still feel like the same guy that the audience was just starting to get to know, and still work in that movie with a different director. I came to feel that Ken was exactly the right choice for "Thor" and that world.Gregg said the fact that, like Jon Favreau, Branagh is an actor as well as a director, is a huge help in spearheading an ambitious comic book movie. It also doesn't hurt that the wisecracking Branagh shares Favreau's knack for running a loose set.
But that doesn't mean he doesn't require secrecy. Asked to provide context for the scene in the trailer where Coulson is interrogating Thor, Gregg, chose his words very carefully, for fear of reprisal from the notoriously secretive Marvel team.
"I'm trying to figure out what I can say before I'm evaporated from space by the Marvel satellite," Gregg joked. "The hammer we know shows up, and the crater from its impact. That’s what I'm sent to figure out. I'm not sure that the person who shows up looking for the hammer, I don't think we're really clear who that is right away. It's a miracle I'm not dead right now!"