It’s hard to believe nowadays, but back in 2009, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was far from a sure thing. Iron Man had been a huge hit, but The Incredible Hulk had a much more lukewarm reception. So when acting legend Kenneth Branagh was hired to direct Thor, it was made clear to him that the importance of finding the right tone and the right cast was paramount. Essentially, the future of the MCU would live or die based on how much audiences connected with the God of Thunder.
Branagh sat down with us for an extended interview on the most recent episode of Collider Connected in anticipation of the release of his Disney+ movie Artemis Fowl, and he recalled how Thor was important to the future of the MCU:
“There was no question that tonally Thor was critical after the massive success of the brilliant Iron Man from Mr. Favreau and Robert [Downey Jr.], and then slightly less successful in their terms The Incredible Hulk. Thor became critical to being the sort of tonal bridge—featuring literally a rainbow bridge as well—between as it were the Earthbound and space-bound and fantasy-bound parts of the Marvel universe. So there was a kind of connective matrix that Thor, Asgard, the Nine Realms and everything that it involved could provide inside that large Marvel Cinematic Universe that was enormously important that couldn’t be done by the brilliant Captain America, because it wasn’t the same material. This was the one that said, ‘Is there a fantastical future?’”
Beyond that, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and Co. were also planning The Avengers and a storyline that hinged on the strained relationship between Thor and Loki. So casting these roles, Feige told Branagh, was the most important decision the company would make:
“I’ll never forget the moment that we cast those two boys [Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston]. It was like a sort of meditation or a sort of incantation… Kevin Feige must’ve walked around this long oval table a hundred times on that Saturday morning as I kept sort of saying, ‘I think we should call them.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yeah, I think we should call them.’… and I knew how profoundly serious that decision was. Kevin said, ‘We’ll never make a more important decision in this company than what’s happening in this room, Saturday morning at 10:30, when you pick up the phone to Chris Hemsworth and then Tom Hiddleston. It’s either going to work or it’s not. Good luck.’”
Obviously the decision turned out to be the correct one, as Thor and Loki became fan-favorite characters thanks to the performances of Hemsworth and Hiddleston. To be honest, I never considered just how important Thor was to the MCU—if that movie hadn’t worked, it would’ve been impossible to introduce Thanos or the Infinity Gems, or get into the really weird stuff like Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange.
As for why Branagh didn’t return for Thor: The Dark World, the filmmaker says he needed a “re-charge” after spending three years of his life making the first movie:
“The way things work, there was a version of events where… sometimes with these stories I like to plan them as trilogies, but it’s much harder in this world for that to work out because the stakes are so high you’ve gotta really see how the first one does. When the first one was finished, essentially it had been three fantastic years of my life, but I needed to recharge on something else. I was too close to the glass on that one, so I would definitely never say never again because it changed my life and changed my career and I’m profoundly grateful for it. I wasn’t ready to go straight into another one, but I like the idea of… I’d love to be planning something that was a three-parter in movie terms. That hasn’t come along yet but maybe it will.”
Watch what Branagh had to say below: