Thor was a project that had been tossed around as far back as 1990 (if we don't count his appearance in the TV movie The Incredible Hulk Returns in 1988), when Sam Raimi expressed interest but couldn't get 20th Century Fox to bite. It almost made it to television on UPN, before eventually landing at Sony Pictures at the end of 2004 with David S. Goyer negotiating to write and direct. In 2006 the rights were sold to Paramount Pictures and from there reverted back to Marvel Studios. Mark Protosevich wrote a draft that would have cost $300 million to finance and then Matthew Vaughn was hired in August 2007 to direct and rewrite the script, bringing the projected costs more in line with the $150 million that Marvel was willing to pay.
Then Iron Man hit on May 2, 2008 and was a blockbuster success, but Vaughn's holding deal expired that month and he was released. Finally, in September, 2008, word leaked that Kenneth Branagh had entered negotiations to direct Thor, and in December Branagh confirmed that he had been hired. However, the original announced release date, July 16, 2010 was impossible to reach, so it was bumped back to June 17, 2011 before finally settling on May 20 to provide more time between its release and that of Captain America: The First Avenger in July.
Relative newcomer, Chris Hemsworth was then cast as Thor and Tom Hiddleston (with whom Branagh had worked on the BBC series Wallander) was signed to play Loki. By July, 2010, Natalie Portman was on board as Jane Foster and the rest of the cast fell into place. The biggest news from that point was the casting of Sir Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Idris Elba as Heimdall, Asgard's gatekeeper. Ray Stevenson, who had recently played Frank Castle in the box office disaster Punisher: War Zone, appeared as Volstagg, along with Jaimie Alexander as Sif, Tadanobu Asano as Hogun, Josh Dallas as Fandral, and Colm Feore as the Frost Giant King Laufey. The earthly cast was rounded out with Stellan Skarsgard as researcher Dr. Erik Selvig, Kat Dennings as Jane Foster's assistant Darcy Lewis, and the return of Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson.
Then, in a very interesting consultation, The Science & Entertainment Exchange (who worked with the creators of the Watchmen film adaptation and the television series Fringe) introduced Branagh and some of the creative staff to a group of physicists (Sean Carroll, Kevin Hand, Jim Hartle, and physics student Kevin Hickerson) to provide a realistic scientific background, which led to changing Jane Foster to a particle physicist and introducing the concept of the Rainbow Bridge, Bifrost, actually being an Einstein-Rosen bridge, or a controlled wormhole.
Principal photography began on January 11, 2010 and finished on May 6, the day before Iron Man 2 was released. The next year was spent developing the beautiful and sometimes astonishing visual effects (including gigantic practical sets to go along with the CGI enhancements) for what would be Marvel's most ambitious, and potentially risky, film so far. The Incredible Hulk had at least centered on a character known all over the world, and Iron Man featured popular performers and a story grounded in moderate realism. In both cases, the shared Marvel Universe was one of science and technology.
Thor is all about mythology, magic, and monsters, with fresh faces as the lead hero and villain and a director best known for Shakespearean drama. There was much hand-wringing among fans concerned that there was no way to make Thor work in Iron Man's world. On the plus side, however, Marvel's Thor is not the same Thor from Norse mythology. Marvel's Thor sprang from the minds of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, and Kirby is the main influence on the design work here.
These aren't just Vikings; these are Space Vikings, with all the technology and sci-fi grandeur that that implies. Buttressing the story with scientific theories and jargon helped to establish that what mortals call magic is really just advanced technology for the Asgardians. And in what was maybe the most daring choice of all, the filmmakers chose to spend more than half of the film in Asgard and the land of the Frost Giants, Jotunheim.
The story begins while Thor and Loki are children, with Odin telling the tale of how he defeated King Laufey of the Frost Giants in AD 965, before leaping to the present with adult Thor about to be made king of Asgard. Needless to say, Loki works his mischief and the day is disrupted. But not only is it disrupted, Thor is provided with motivation, goaded along by Loki, to break the centuries long truce with the Frost Giants in revenge for breaking into Asgard and interrupting his big day.
This leads Thor to invade Jotunheim with Loki, Sif, and the Warriors Three, and our first major Marvel fantasy action sequence, filled with swords, spears, maces, and hammers – plus lots of giants and a gigantic troll/dog thing that unfortunately shows a distinct lack of imagination on the designers' parts – is under way.
There's a lot to like here, but also a lot that could distance an audience. Luckily, Branagh is excellent when it comes to directing actors and the central conflict of this film is all about the relationship between Thor, Odin, and Loki. Everything else is kind of a distraction, but is played fairly loose, so it never gets too far afield from what is becoming a trademark Marvel Universe feel. Things are treated seriously, but with a modicum of self-aware humor. When these characters experience something outside of the norm, they react with charm and wit.
In a Marvel Studios film, even the most serious of subjects is approached without overwhelming doom and gloom. When there is darkness, it is always balanced by light – and light is the preferred mode. If a character like Batman showed up in a Marvel film, he would be mocked, his head would get rubbed, and somebody would try to cheer him up.
The strongest element of Thor is the fact that Loki, while being an awesome villain, isn't completely villainous. He twists and turns, lying and cheating and gloating over his enemies, but it is all to force his father to take him seriously. Even after the truth of his origins are revealed. Only in the final moments, when he is desperately trying to validate himself in Odin's eye (heh, see what I did there?) that he really
loses control and veers over to pure evil.
Loki's journey is just as strong as Thor's when all is said and done.
Thor is cast down to earth to learn humility. Of course, Odin doesn't explain that to him, he simply casts him out, then tosses his hammer, Mjolnir, down after him with a little spell that makes it impossible to pick up unless one is truly worthy of the power of Thor. So Thor's arc is all about becoming humanized and realizing that genocidal rage and war are things to be avoided.
And that it's cool to serve someone breakfast sometimes – especially if they're hung over.
Sacrificing himself and the things he loves allows Thor to be reborn and come face to face with his brother in a final battle that costs Thor what he values most. It's all very satisfying, although it doesn't quite bring everything home in the end. There's a romanticism to the conclusion that is more soppy melodrama than we've seen from other Marvel Studios films so far; although it does vaguely echo Banner's final moments in The Incredible Hulk, with our hero isolated and longing for something, and someone, lost to them.
Thor's final domestic box office total was $181 million, just barely over its production budget, but it brought in nearly $269 million overseas, making the nearly $450 million total haul the third most successful Marvel Studios release to date. Critically, it is solidly in the standard Marvel range of reaction, garnering a 77% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. That score was markedly lower amongst White Supremacists, who objected to Idris Elba's casting as a black Norse god and attempted to organize a boycott of the film.
It had no effect.
Meanwhile, once the credits have rolled, we get our next Nick Fury appearance in a short scene between Samuel Jackson and Stellan Skarsgard that serves to introduce a mysterious artifact of unimaginable power: The Tesseract – or the Cosmic Cube, for the comics fans out there. And oh yes, Loki's not gone after all. This is our first real glimpse at just what may be on the way with The Avengers, as the scene was actually directed by Joss Whedon. However, the Tesseract would next be seen in Captain America: The First Avenger in just a couple of short months.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.