Kenneth Branagh explains why Thor really is like Shakespeare...and the royal wedding

The director, writers, and cast of Thor recently sat down to explain why Thor is the first superhero that's actually science fiction, how to make an Asgardian prince relatable, and what lies ahead for the characters in future movies.

Cast members Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Thomas Hiddleston (Loki), Anthony Hopkins (Odin), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Jaimie Alexander (Sif), and Kat Dennings (Darcy) were joined by director Kenneth Branagh, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, and writers Zack Stentz, Ashley Miller, and Don Payne for a press conference this past Sunday, to discuss the new film. Here are the highlights from those conversations, including some minor spoilers for Thor and The Avengers.

The Avengers and beyond

Before we get to Thor, let's quickly sort through the discussion of future Marvel movies. With Tom Hiddleston now confirmed to be reprising his role as Loki in The Avengers, he explained that internal tension between the various Avengers will be a key part of the movie:

The thing that looks like a challenge is actually the reason it'll work. As in how can one movie contain so many different flavors and colors and characters? And I think Joss Whedon has probably made that his strength. And the conflict between each of them will be something that will be expanded on, I think.

Chris Hemsworth agreed, pointing out that it isn't really the actors' job to give the characters equal roles:

We don't balance all the other characters. That's just the writer and Joss Whedon, who's the writer and director, his job is to navigate that. And like [Anthony Hopkins] was saying, we come in and do our bit. And that's sort of all you can really concern yourself with. But I definitely think it'll be an interesting combination. And as Tom said, why it will work is that conflict in those larger than life characters and egos clashing, I think there'll be some great tension there.

As for a Thor sequel, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige said plans are in motion:

When we embark on this we've got 600 plus issues, we've got a thousand years of mythology, we have other stories we'd like to tell. The audience will tell us whether they want to see those other stories, but we have to be prepared for that if we should get the call. So Don Payne is working on story ideas for a Part Two, we've got various options with [director Kenneth Branagh] to discuss coming [back]. Right now the focus is on the first one, but Don is slowly but surely thinking about where to take the character next should we be so lucky.

All the actors suggested that they would be up for appearing in Thor 2. Anthony Hopkins, in particular, said that he loved working with Kenneth Branagh - and Hopkins credited this movie with renewing his enthusiasm for acting. Kat Dennings said it would be cool for her character, the newly created human sidekick Darcy, to become more integrated into the larger Thor universe, perhaps being transformed into something else or getting to visit Asgard.

The actors were also asked what other Marvel characters they might like to play. Idris Elba, who plays the Asgardian gatekeeper Heimdall in the movie, said he would "like a stab at Luke Cage at some point", adding himself to a rapidly growing list of actors who have expressed interest in the character. Sif actress Jaimie Alexander went for a much deeper cut by choosing X-23, the female clone of Wolverine to whom she bears a distinct physical resemblance. Hopkins meanwhile joked that he could play Odin's twin brother, who could visit Earth and be a Fifth Columnist type, though he readily admitted this was all just an excuse to get him out of the Asgard soundstages and let him go on location to New Mexico.

Why Kenneth Branagh wanted to direct Thor

And now, onto Thor itself. Director Kenneth Branagh began by explaining his take on Thor and what he found interesting about the character:

For me it was the primitive quality. I liked his wild quality. I like the Viking at the center of it, that's what I saw when I saw those images on a comic book. That he was volatile, I thought that would be dangerous in telling a movie, that he's not too smooth. He's not too slick and one of the things that we were trying to achieve in the telling of the story was that it could feel, you know, in the moment. That there could be some kind of, you know, danger - genuine danger.

Branagh readily admitted that there isn't a whole lot in his Shakespeare-filled filmography that would suggest he could handle a big action movie like Thor. He explained that when he first spoke to Marvel Studios executive Kevin Feige about the project, he wondered whether he need to first take a crash course on visual effects or 3D, but Feige told him to just find an actor who could play Thor, and things would fall into place. Branagh said they needed someone who could project the "innate charming confidence" of Thor, and they found that in star Chris Hemsworth. For his part, Hemsworth explained how he prepared for the role and how he came to grips with playing a warrior god:

I started with the comic books; and, you know, but I didn't read all - however many of them - there are thousands of them, 40 or 50 years' worth. But I certainly read enough to get a sense of who he was and the world he was from. And then I read some things on Norse mythology and this fatalistic view they have that everything's preordained and that leads the Vikings into this fearless attitude in battle and with their lives. They certainly back their opinions, I think, and they're not swayed easy. And that spoke volumes to me about the character. But on set, it was just about making it truthful and finding a way, a simpler way that I could relate to it - instead of thinking, "How do I play a powerful god?" it became about scenes between fathers and sons and brothers. And you personalize that, and that helps ground the story, I think, for an audience. And then we can relate to it and hopefully an audience can, too.

Branagh said that he didn't feel constrained by having to work in the larger Marvel movie universe, saying that he largely trusted that to Feige and writers Zack Stentz, Ashley Miller, and Don Payne to sort all that out. He pointed out that moviemaking is a collaborative process anyway and you never have absolute control, so incorporating a few elements from Iron Man or doing setup work for The Avengers was just an extension of that. Feige stressed that all the comics-friendly surprises and cameos in Thor are all intended to be organic to the requirement of the plot and not simply bolted on, perhaps implicitly acknowledging one of the most pervasive criticisms of Iron Man 2.

Feige noted that he's particularly excited for Thor because it's the first Marvel movie that's overtly science fiction, with lots of alien worlds and cosmic vistas. He explained the particular challenges of translating a tricky character like Thor into a movie with mass appeal:

All the characters have their own challenges of course. Thor is a particular challenge because he's from another world. We haven't done a Superman-type character who is from other worlds. In our cosmic side of the [comics] universe we do, but in terms of the [movie] characters Thor is unique in that regard. He also is unique in that he is based in part on Norse mythology, so you have a big melting pot of a lot of different ideas, which 45 plus years ago Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put together into our great sort of mythology.

The writers argued this is the first time we've seen a superhero movie like Thor, and they think that's partially a reflection of what's cool about Marvel Studios - they don't have to convince the executives that a cosmic, slightly out there character like Thor is cool and deserves his own movie — and that means there isn't the pressure to dumb the character down, to make him more palatable to mass audiences.

Thor is also the origin of Loki

Tom Hiddleston's Loki also came up for quite a bit of discussion. Kevin Feige said the movie is an origin story for both Thor and Loki. Branagh said that Loki has to keep wearing multiple masks, and everything he does is veiled in multiple levels of lies and ambiguities, and it required careful attention to keep track of what was really going on in Loki's head. He listed some of the questions they had to grapple with:

"Is he bad, does he have a plan, does he love his brother, does he hate his brother, hate his father, is this happening before our very eyes, how does he truly react to the secrets and lies that emerge in the course of the story?"

The writers pointed out that Loki is actually right about a lot of things, particularly the fact that Thor starts the movie as a jerk who is unfit to succeed their father as king. The problem is that Loki continually makes the mistake of going a step too far, and in fact his attempt to put Thor out of the way forever is instead what triggers his redemption. Hiddleston pointed out that Loki definitely doesn't see himself as the villain:

I think Loki thinks he is the hero. There's an aspect of Loki that is, essentially, that if you boil this film down to its barest elements, it's about a father and two sons. And both those sons are two brothers competing for the love and affection and pride of their father, Odin, played by Tony here. And I think there's just sort of a deeply misguided intention within Loki. And he has a kind of a damage within him. He just goes about getting that pride in the wrong way.

Finally, there's the fact that this movie isn't just about superheroes or gods or fathers and sons...it's also, on a fundamental level, about royalty. Kenneth Branagh offered an interesting take on why the princely side of Thor's character could connect with audiences, comparing it to the recent hubbub over the real-life royal wedding. Indeed, used this as the connective tissue to explain why William Shakespeare and Stan Lee aren't so different after all:

We've just seen about two billion people watch a royal family at work, you know? And so I would say that it is Shakespearean, but it's also global, I suppose. That we're interested in what goes on in the corridors of power whether it's the White House or whether it's Buckingham Palace. And so Shakespeare was interested in the lives of the medieval royal families, but he also raided the Roman myths and the Greek myths for the same purpose. And I think Stan Lee went to the myths that Shakespeare hadn't used. You know, [they both] recognized that they contain briefly told, very condensed stories that I think are very universal in their application.

I think the connection, if there is one, is that the stakes are high. So in something like Henry IV or Henry V, where the young prince is a reckless man who falls into bad company: could that prince be the king? [In Thor], our flawed hero who must earn the right to be king, but I think what's key is the stakes. There it's Europe and England in power and here it's the universe. It's when that family has problems everybody else is affected, so if Thor throws a fit and is yelling at his father and is banished, suddenly the worlds are unstable. And what it means is if the actors take those stakes seriously it is passionate and it is, you know, very intense. And I suppose that kind of a observation of ordinary human - although they're gods - frailties in people in positions of power is an obsession of great storytellers including Shakespeare and including the Marvel universe.

Thor opens in the United States on May 6.