Nowadays, the character of Thor is one of the mainstays of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, having been a part of The Avengers, and having a fourth movie of his own on the way in 2022, with Taika Waititi taking the helm again. The God of Thunder’s journey from a four colour printed comic book page to live action, however, has been a rather lengthy and difficult one, and his various appearances on the big screen could have been very different.
The first actor to portray Thor was Eric Allan Kramer, in the made-for-TV movie The Incredible Hulk Returns, aired in May 1988, starring alongside Bill Bixby’s David Banner and Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk; Steve Levitt played Donald Blake, Thor’s human alter ego in the comics. It was the first time a live action crossover between Marvel superheroes occurred, and the thinking was to use the TV movie as a backdoor pilot for a possible Thor series.
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However, after having been impressed by Darkman, Stan Lee contacted Sam Raimi and he suggested them working together on a potential Thor movie, which is likely to have been one of the reasons the TV series failed to happen. The pair put together a pitch to 20th Century Fox, but the execs seemed not to ‘get’ the character of Thor, and also just felt comic books would fail to make good movies; this was back in 1991, and it would be a further 11 years until Raimi got to bring a different Marvel superhero – Spider-Man – to the big screen.
The next attempt to try and bring Thor to life came in 1997, when Avi Arad took control of the ailing Marvel Comics. He had recently set up Marvel Studios, which he used to make deals where the rights to Marvel’s characters were licenced out for live action productions; Arad had previously made a deal with 20th Century Fox in 1993, when he was President and CEO of Marvel Films, for a Hollywood blockbuster to be made of the X-Men, and it was the success of Bryan Singer’s adaptation in 2000 which sparked interest in Marvel’s other properties.
At one stage, it was intended for Thor to make his debut on television, with UPN holding talks; Tyler Mane – Sabretooth in X-Men – was in mind to play the lead, but the project fell through. The project had stalled temporarily, with the next movement being in 2004, when the rights for a cinematic feature film were bought by Sony Pictures Entertainment, and David S. Goyer – who had previously written the Blade trilogy, and the forthcoming Batman Begins – entered talks for scripting and directing duties; this continued until 2005, but Goyer was by now no longer interested.
In 2006, Marvel Studios made an agreement for Paramount Pictures to distribute a slate of movies which Marvel had in development, with the rights to the Thor movie re-acquired from Sony Pictures. Mark Protosevich – a long-standing fan of the Thor comics – was signed to write the script, before a director was even attached to the project. Once complete, it was estimated that the draft Protosevich had delivered was going to cost somewhere in the region of $300 million to be able to produce.
Protosevich‘s Thor was planned to be an entirely standalone movie, set in Viking times, bringing in a great deal of Norse mythology. The story follows some similar beats to the film as released in 2011, with Loki finding out that he is really the son of the King of the Frost Giants; Thor is cast out of Asgard by Odin, and banished to Midgard (Earth), stripped of all his powers; he then learns that only he who is truly worthy can wield Mjölnir; and Loki plots against his own people, to have the Frost Giants attack Asgard.
August 2007 saw Matthew Vaughn being picked up to direct Protosevich‘s Thor script, and he soon set about trimming it down, so that the budget would be a more achievable – but still very ambitious – $150 million. Vaughn had been down to direct X-Men: The Last Stand in 2005, but dropped out just two weeks prior to principal photography got underway. Vaughn’s work on developing the film came to an end in May 2008, after his holding deal ran out, meaning a new director was required; both Guillermo del Toro and D.J. Caruso were in discussions to take the helm.
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In the meantime, Marvel Studios appears to have had a clear change of creative direction, as they were looking to deliver a linked universe, with all of their film projects forming part of a greater whole, instead of each one standing in isolation. As a part of this shift, driven largely through the success of Iron Man, it was decided to have Thor’s story take place partly on contemporary Earth, rather than setting it amongst Vikings instead; Protosevich recalled Marvel being reluctant during its initial discussions with him to do this, concerned it might be too reminiscent of Hercules In New York.
Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski took up the writing duties on Marvel’s Thor comic book in 2007, revitalising the character during a phase when the publication was felt to be ailing somewhat; Straczynski also brought back to the comic the Donald Blake character, who had been discarded. Due to the success of Straczynski’s run on the title, it was decided to bring him on board, and he wrote a detailed storyline for the film, using Protosevich‘s earlier work as the starting point of a plot featuring a contemporary setting. All this groundwork was carried out ahead of Kenneth Branagh being announced as the new director in late 2008.
At some point in proceedings, Donald Blake was also part of the revised story, with it appearing that the intention was to have Thor being banished to Earth by Odin in the mortal and frail form of Blake, a disabled medical student, until he could prove himself worthy to wield Mjölnir, restoring him fully to his Asgardian self. However, the character of Blake was to be excised by the time of the final draft by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne, with Blake becoming just the unseen ex of Jane Foster, his name being written on a sticker affixed to a shirt that was borrowed by Thor, in a nod to fans of the comic.
Straczynski and Protosevich both received a ‘Story By’ credit on the film, with the former making a cameo appearance in the movie, in addition to comic book writer and artist Walter ‘Walt’ Simonson, and – of course – Stan ‘The Man’ Lee, who had joked about wanting to play the role of Odin; in fact, the part had been linked with Brian Blessed, and Mel Gibson had also been under consideration. Jessica Biel had been an early choice for Lady Sif, with it having been reported she was the producers’ pick during pre-production; Diora Baird said that she had an audition, apparently for that role.
When it came to Loki, Jim Carrey had reportedly been a long-standing candidate in Marvel’s eyes, seemingly going all the way back to earlier attempts at making a Thor movie. Charlie Cox – who went on to play Daredevil on Netflix – went up for the part, and had an audition. Although Tom Hiddleston was the one to bag the role, he had originally auditioned for Thor, with the search for the God of Thunder having all manner of names attached to it. When the movie was announced, Tyler Mane expressed his interest, after being in the frame for the mooted TV movie back in 2000.
After it appeared Donald Blake would be a part of the movie, Kevin McKidd’s name was touted, and he confirmed that he had been in talks; although it was variously said he would be playing Blake or Thor, it seems plausible it could have been a dual role, with McKidd taking on both characters. One of the most unlikely candidates to portray Thor was WWE star Paul Levesque, who wrestled under the alias of Triple H (or Hunter Hearst Helmsley), and had been a vampire in 2004’s Blade: Trinity. Brad Pitt’s name was bandied about in connection to the lead as well.
A former WWE wrestler, James Preston Rogers, put himself up for contention, with an online petition also being set up to support him getting the part. Daniel Craig was claimed to have been Matthew Vaughn’s pick as Thor, and it was widely reported in October 2008 he had been offered the chance to sign on, but turned it down as he was already playing James Bond, and did not want to take on another franchise; it was, however, debunked in a November 2008 interview, where Craig said that he had only been joking, and he actually had no idea about the movie.
Channing Tatum was linked with both the roles of Thor and Captain America, and met with director Branagh, but said in 2009 that he was no longer in the running for the former, as he believed that Marvel were seeking to cast “someone more Nordic-looking”. A range of other actors also went up for the part, including Charlie Hunnam and Joel Kinnaman, but they failed to make the final shortlist, which consisted of a total of just three people: Alexander Skarsgård, Liam Hemsworth, and his brother Chris.
Skarsgård was thought to be favourite, meeting with both Branagh and head of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige on several occasions; he also said that he even got as far as trying on the costume for an audition. Skarsgård‘s father Stellan did, however, land a role in Thor, as Professor Erik Selvig. Chris Hemsworth read for Thor, but a casting director ruled him out of the running early on, so he failed to get as far as doing a screen test; his younger sibling Liam did manage to do a test, but Feige ultimately passed.
The elder Hemsworth’s inclusion in the final three was all thanks to William Ward, partner and co-founder of ROAR Management, persuading Feige to give his client another chance. After doing an audition for Feige, the recording of Hemsworth’s performance was shown to Branagh later on, who had final say in the casting. Hemsworth – whose turn playing George Kirk in Star Trek was in cinemas at the time of his casting – also won a further role the very same week, in Red Dawn. Liam Hemsworth did, however, play Thor in a cameo as an Asgardian actor in Thor: Ragnarok.
The relatively late appointment of its director, along with delays to the casting, meant Thor’s US release was pushed back, from July 16th 2010 until May 6th 2011 (although its opening in the UK was to be on April 27th). Branagh saw a clear parallel between Thor and Shakespeare’s depiction of Henry V, and there were also a few similarities with the tale of the Prodigal Son. Thor was noteworthy for being the last Marvel movie to be shot entirely on 35mm film, along with the first to be released in 3-D (although it was converted to 3-D in post-production, after being made in 2-D).
Thor’s importance in the overall MCU cannot be overstated, as it included or set up many elements that would continue to run through the ‘Infinity Saga’, and beyond. Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D. both receive prominent roles in the movie, setting up the groundwork for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. on TV. Kat Dennings’ Darcy Lewis would go on to feature in WandaVision. Thor also saw the first appearance of Jeremy Renner as Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton, whose very own series is set to debut on Disney+ in late 2021.
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The movie’s post-credits scene featured the Tesseract – or the ‘Cosmic Cube’ – which went on to play a big part in both Captain America: The First Avenger and the first Avengers film, as well as setting up the foundation for introduction of the Infinity Stones in later Marvel releases. Erik Selvig would appear several more times, including under the thrall of Loki, with the God of Mischief getting his own Disney+ show, set for its debut in June 2021. Importantly, Thor took audiences off-world for the first time, introducing aliens into the MCU, and paving the way for Guardians Of The Galaxy.
Turning a virtually impossible-to-sell movie concept into an A-list superhero, Thor has made a major contribution to the monumental success of the MCU, helping it along during its formative period, and leading to Thor being the only Marvel character to have racked up four solo films, with the release of 2022’s Thor: Love And Thunder. Without doubt, over the last decade, Thor has proven himself truly worthy.
Thor was first released in the UK on 27th April 2011.