Drawing from Norse mythology as well as the nearly fifty-year history of the popular Marvel Comics character for inspiration, "Thor" focuses on the origin story of the proud warrior-prince, played by Australian actor, Chris Hemsworth, ("Star Trek") whose reckless arrogance results in him being banished from his celestial home-world of Asgard by his father, the all-powerful god, Odin. (Sir Anthony Hopkins)
With a plethora of source material to pull from, Producer Kevin Feige admitted that the script had been in development for many years and had gone through several incarnations. "Forty-five plus years ago, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put together our great sort-of mythology," he said. "We're six-hundred plus issues into it now, and we sat with six hundred issues and said: 'what story do we tell?"
Deciding on the right story wasn't the only challenge the production faced. Before the cameras could start rolling, Branagh and the producers needed to find a human actor who could believably portray the God of Thunder -- someone with immense physicality who could also act toe to toe with Sir Anthony Hopkins.
"It was really a privilege to see how he embodied all of that. Then, ultimately, when he takes his shirt off, there's also a 'Wow' factor that can not be denied," Branagh said of Chris Hemsworth's turn as the god of thunder, adding, "As Louis D'Esposito, Co-President of Marvel said when we looked at [the film] a few weeks ago when we were finishing it up, he said: 'My God, he looks good in 3D.'"
For Hemsworth, the most difficult aspect of becoming a God was the diet. "The most uncomfortable thing was the eating," he said. "I had to force feed myself. You know, twenty chicken breasts and rice and steak, and all very boring, sort-of plain things. That was the most exhaustive part of the whole film actually."
Directing a 3D visual effects laden film was a new challenge for Branagh, a director (and stage and screen actor) known primarily for his cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare's plays.
"People sometimes ask me, well, how did you do it? And I say, 'Have you seen the credits at the end? There's seven minutes of them. See all of those names? That's how I did it,'" he said, laughing. "I think Marvel, you know, are on sort of the cutting edge of things, I am pleased to say, so the whole of the process, from day one through to the end was an expanded possibility with the visual effects. It was a bit of preparation, but frankly it was new opportunities every day."
When asked about the differences between directing Shakespeare and a big budget comic book movie, Branagh explained that scale was important, but he also highlighted several current events.
"We've just seen about two billion people watch a Royal family at work, you know. I would say that it is Shakespearean, but it's global, I suppose, that we're interested in what goes on in the corridors of power, whether it is the White House or whether it's Buckingham Palace," he said.
While much was being made of "Thor's" Shakespearean connections, Sir Anthony Hopkins credited John Wayne and Westerns like "Shane" and "Lawman" for inspiration in his approach to the role of Odin. The accomplished actor referenced his influences when describing a scene where he confronts his mortal enemy, after his eldest son, Thor, thoughtlessly commits an act of war.
"I was taking from an idea of a Western negotiation. I have those points of reference because I was a fan of all those early Western movies."
As a boy growing up in Belfast, Ireland, Branagh said he connected to Thor's primitive quality. "I liked his wild quality. I liked the Viking at the center of it. That's what I saw when I saw those images in the comic books."
Writer, Zack Stentz echoed his own appreciation for the comic in a different way. "I think the issues that were my favorites were always the, you know, the kind of, putting Thor and Loki together. That goes all the way back to Norse mythology. There's just something very primal and awesome about putting a strong man and a clever man together and at odds with each other."
To play the villainous Loki, Thor's ambitious brother, the production cast British actor, Tom Hiddleston. "I think there are no villains in this world, there are just misunderstood heroes. And Loki definitely -- I think Loki thinks he is the hero," Hiddleston said.
"Tom is a great actor, there's no doubt about it. But make no mistake, Tom, like Loki, wants to be Thor," producer Kevin Feige said. "He was up for it, he actually auditioned for Thor, right?"
"I didn't actually want to be Thor," corrected Hiddleston. "Like every other English-speaking actor over six-foot who has got blonde hair, I went up for the part of Thor, but I'm not built like a house, like the man to my right," he said, nodding at Hemsworth, "There's no way in Odin's Asgard I could have delivered what Chris has done. It was always meant to be this way, I think."
Asked what the impetus was for signing on to what is essentially a comic book movie, Hopkins immediately said that it was to work with Branagh. "He just pushed the right buttons to get me to give of my best. I really valued that because I'd gotten lazy and he's one of the best directors I've worked with."
When the possibility of a sequel was raised, The Powers That Be were tight-lipped. "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," said Feige. "Don Payne is working on story ideas for a part two. We've got various options with Ken to discuss coming back, but right now the focus is on the first one."
With "The Avengers" scheduled for release next year, Hiddleston was clearly reluctant to say too much. "I think a red dot will fall on my forehead if I give any more information about Loki and 'The Avengers,'" he said before confirming that his character would indeed appear in the coming ensemble film. "I think the thing that sort looks like a challenge is actually the reason it will work. As in, how could one movie contain so many different flavors and colors and characters. I think that Joss Whedon has probably made that a strength."
Towards the end of the conference, each of the actors were asked if there were other Marvel characters that they would like to play. Jaimie Alexander ('Nurse Jackie,' 'Love and Other Drugs') who portrays the warrior goddess Sif in the film spoke up first. "Oh, I have one. X-23!" she said, enthusiastically.
"I would like a stab at Luke Cage," said Idris Elba, ('The Wire,' 'The Losers') who plays the all-powerful Asgardian guardian, Heimdall.
For his part, Sir Anthony Hopkins seemed content to continue playing Odin. "I'd love to do another one, you know, it was so unexpected to be in a movie like this and I like the unexpected."
"Thor" arrives in theaters May 5