'Thor' at 10: How Kenneth Branagh and Chris Hemsworth made the Marvel Cinematic Universe possible

His former "friends from work" like Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff may be gone, but Thor is still an active part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Chris Hemsworth is reprising his role as the Asgardian god in Taika Waititi's Thor: Love and Thunder, which will roll out as part of Marvel's just-announced Phase 4 lineup on May 25, 2022. That makes Thor the only O.G. Avenger to get a fourth solo movie, as both Tony and Steve tapped out at three. (Although it's looking like Captain America will eventually return to the big screen with Anthony Mackie carrying the shield.)

Flash back 10 years to when the first Thor film premiered in theaters on May 6, 2011 and few would have predicted that Hemsworth could boast to headlining more standalone MCU movies than Robert Downey Jr. Despite the popularity of both Iron Man movies, Marvel was widely perceived to be gambling its future on a comic book character few moviegoers knew, played by an Australian actor who had never carried a Hollywood blockbuster.

And few felt the potential risk of failure as acutely as Thor director Kenneth Branagh. "There was real concern," the actor and filmmaker told Yahoo Entertainment in 2019. "[Marvel] felt that if they didn’t get that one right, it was going to be really, really difficult for the expansion of that tone across the rest of what they planned.” (Watch our video interview above.)

Chris Hemsworth, Stellan Skarsgard and Kenneth Branagh on the set of 2011's 'Thor' (Photo: Zade Rosenthal/©Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Chris Hemsworth, Stellan Skarsgard and Kenneth Branagh on the set of 2011's 'Thor' (Photo: Zade Rosenthal/Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Considering his background as a pre-eminent Shakespearean thespian and dramatist, Branagh may have seemed like an odd choice to direct a fantasy-laden adventure that took the MCU into the cosmos for the very first time. But the filmmaker says that Marvel was specifically seeking someone who could bring dramatic weight to what otherwise could have been a silly space spectacle.

"The terror was, 'Don't let it be like Fabio,'" he recalls with a laugh. "I was aware that [Marvel executives] Kevin Feige, Louis D'Esposito and Victoria Alonso knew that Thor was critical to them, to tonally find a way to sit alongside Robert's brilliant Tony Stark and Captain America. This new dimension, the fantastical space adventure, needed to find its starting place."

Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in 'Thor' (Photo: Zade Rosenthal/©Paramount Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)
Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in 'Thor' (Photo: Zade Rosenthal/©Paramount Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

Casting Thor — whose previous live-action appearances were limited to Vincent D'Onofrio's Adventures in Babysitting cameo and Eric Allan Kramer's supporting turn in the 1988 TV movie The Incredible Hulk Returns — was another key part of the movie's puzzle. While Hemsworth was a leading candidate from the beginning, Branagh and Feige also toyed with the idea of casting Tom Hiddleston, whose audition tape has been preserved for the ages. Ultimately, Hiddleston was chosen to play Loki, and Hemsworth picked up Thor's hammer, Mjölnir, for the first time.

"I remember Kevin Feige pacing around the table on a Saturday morning when we decided we were going to ask Chris and Tom," Branagh recalls. "We made the same calls the same morning within two minutes of each other. Kevin said, 'These will be the most important calls we make.' And they were because who knew what amazing chemistry they would have!" And much like his onscreen brother, Loki is still an important part of the MCU — to the point where he's come back from the dead to headline a Disney+ series, which debuts June 9.

And it's not just the Thunder god and the trickster who have endured over the past decade. Thor also provided the launching pad for such familiar MCU faces as Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye (who just wrapped his own Disney+ series), Stellan Skarsgård's Erik Selvig and Kat Dennings's Darcy Lewis, who got mixed up in the events of WandaVision. And then there's Natalie Portman's Jane Foster, Thor's former love interest and apparent successor in Love and Thunder.

While Thor didn't generate the same level of critical acclaim as Iron Man's inaugural outing, the movie's $450 million worldwide gross bought Marvel the runway to build up to The Avengers, which fully realized the MCU. And it's fair to say that the character struggled to find his place in the evolving franchise after his introduction. Hemsworth's performance is notably more earnest and restrained in Joss Whedon's two Avengers pictures, and the famously troubled 2013 sequel, Thor: The Dark World. Once Waititi came aboard the franchise with 2017's Ragnarok, Thor got a much-needed comic refresh that transformed him into the cheeky warrior he is now.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor in the character's first Marvel movie (Photo: Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Chris Hemsworth as Thor in the character's first Marvel movie (Photo: Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Branagh loves the later, funnier Thor, but stands by his decision to keep the comedy at bay in his movie. "I always think if you're going to have humor that is undercutting, you have to set it up against something," the director explains. "You've got to set up a mythology and the kind of dynastic architecture that allows for people to understand high stakes and emotional content. In the first one, you'd be erring more on the side of trying to establish some sense of legitimacy of the science in as far as you can."

There's one other way that Thor is unlike any Marvel movie made since: Branagh devised a visual style that makes room for lots of Dutch angles — where the camera is tilted to one side so that the image appears slanted instead of horizontal.

Natalie Portman and Hemsworth in one of the many dutch angle shots seen in 'Thor' (Photo: Marvel/YouTube)
Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth in one of the many Dutch angle shots seen in 'Thor' (Photo: Marvel/YouTube)

It's a flourish that some have since criticized, but definitely ensures that Thor will forever be identified as a Kenneth Branagh film. "It's as simple as this," he says of his divisive choice. "I read the comic books and all I saw were the images in those angles. I like big foreground faces and making things or people look bigger, and having more things in the frame. For me it was an attempt to find the dynamism of the comic books... [because] that's how I would read them. I know quite a few people weren't crazy about it, but I'm so glad we did it. It has quite a distinctive look, doesn't it?"

Thor is currently streaming on Disney+.

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