It's April, 2010 and Marvel President of Production Kevin Feige is standing inside a production stage in Manhattan Beach for the upcoming film "Thor," a Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures production. A member of the press asked him if he could share a hint or two about their plans for Comic-Con International that summer.
Feige responded, "As in the past, if we can't do something that's among the best things at Comic-Con, we won't do anything. We have to keep topping ourselves."
Three months later in San Diego, Marvel showed a five-minute clip package from "Thor" to fans, firmly cementing the studio's seriousness in cementing the Asgardian epic as the next franchise series from Marvel Studios. There were plenty of skeptics prior to that moment, with critics and fans alike wondering exactly how Marvel planned to bring Thor, a god with heavy Norse trappings, to a mainstream audience. How would the character stand alongside more "traditional" super heroes like Iron Man and Captain America? With a single five-minute long trailer, Marvel showed everyone in attendance. This moment was followed by an assembling of heroes, as the entire cast of "Avengers" appeared on stage, including Thor himself Chris Hemsworth, to raucous applause. It truly was among the best moments at Comic-Con.
I'll admit, I was one of those skeptics prior to being invited to the set. Sure, when Marvel announced the film would be directed by Kenneth Branagh, whose films include some of the greatest adaptations of Shakespeare's work on the silver screen, it challenged the assumptions many, including myself, had made about the film, but it wasn't until I saw it for my own two eyes that I got it - on the silver screen, Thor is an instantly iconic super hero who'll loom tall, figuratively and physically, next to the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and the rest of the Avengers.
On this afternoon in April, Feige and Co-Producer Craig Kyle took a group of select press on a tour of sound stages in their Manhattan Beach facility.
First stop was the art department, filled with a massive amount of production art and models, each of which laid out the look of the film. Asgard was instantly recognizable as a distinct and grand work, comprised of massive spires made out of gold, intricate designs and statues like you've only seen in books about ancient mythology - oh, and Marvel comic books, naturally.
"The fun and scary thing about 'Thor' is you can go a million different directions with the look of Asgard," Feige said. "It could have been 'Lord of the Rings,' it could have been anything, but we've chosen very specifically a Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson vibe for this movie.
"We didn't want to be scared of things like big helmets and capes. We've got them in this movie and they look awesome on film," continued Feige. "There really is a sense here that we're creating another world, and we're going to take the audience to that world. I think we have a very good conceit for the movie and the way the movie opens leads them in to it. Is Loki going to have a giant helmet with horns on it? Yes!"
He also noted that while the aesthetic for Asgard and its inhabitants was influenced the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comics and Walt Simonson's legendary run on the title, their Earthbound story was inspired by the more recent comic book work of J. Michael Straczynski.
And yes, it's true, Marvel did not shy away from any of the stronger design elements found in the comics. If you've seen the pictures online of Thor or clips of the Destroyer, or when you finally get to see the Frost Giants - these massive, blue creatures with terrifying red eyes - you can tell Marvel was not shy with their design decisions. In fact, they embraced them entirely.
Feige explained there's a Viking-esque quality to Asgard, but with a twist. Asgard wasn't inspired by the early Vikings they met, the Vikings were inspired by the Asgardians. And while the Vikings mimicked those designs, they didn't have the abilities to truly replicate Asgard on Earth. Thus the Asgard seen in "Thor" is unique unto itself.
We made our way around the room, looking at designs for Thor, Odin, Loki, Sif, Volstagg and various sets like Odin's Throne Room, a massive chamber filled with gold laden columns and walls, with intricate carvings in the floor and a metallic feel throughout. And of course that monumental throne, which attendees of Comic-Con got a good look at. A 9-foot tall Destroyer maquette stood on one side of the room, an imposing, metallic figure. Certainly a "darker" image of Asgardian design than seen in other aspects of the film.
One of the challenges Feige spoke about was how each and every Norse god had to look absolutely amazing, a task which primarily fell to Alexandra Byrne, an Academy Award winning costume designer who, even with that pedigree Feige said had a daunting task "[Alex] can't hide from the brilliant colors and wild looks of the comics," Feige said. "She had to embrace that. It's a tough, tough road, but we all think she's done a great job the way she and Bo [Welch, Production Designer] have really embraced the Kirby and Simonson work and even the more recent stuff in the JMS run. That's what happens when Marvel takes on their properties - we can't strip them out of the colors or costumes that people expect. We can't hide from that stuff. We know why people love our books - it's because of the look and how wonderful our stories have been. The challenge is, you just have to do it right and find out how to bring everyone in."
Producer Craig Kyle later expanded on that line of thought, explaining that they did struggle during pre-production with costume design on "Thor." "We were thinking about Thor as a super hero first. One of our designers pointed out how he's a warrior first, and when he gets to Earth he becomes a super hero," explained Kyle. "We always knew we weren't going to make it a warrior story, but with the costume, we hadn't taken that hard line approach. Early on, a designer came in, Charlie Wen, who came in with a design we never ended up using in the movie, but he nailed the direction that spoke to the language of Asgardian style. Charlie and Alex together, with a very talented team, used this one design that became the palette of Asgard. We were terrified, because we knew we had to nail that costume, and as Kevin often brings up, it's the first time there's a cape in a Marvel movie."
Kyle continued, "There was a point, too, where we had different artists working on different characters, but the problem was, when you lined up the different characters, you couldn't see them as a group. So, we had to thin out the team. When we finally got Thor right, it changed everyone else's design."
And looking at the designs on display, I was convinced. While each character certainly has their own unique appearance - Thor looked nothing like Loki who looked nothing like Volstagg - there were unifying design elements, grand ideas that fans will come to know as "Asgardian."
When asked if there were any particular science fiction films that contributed the look of "Thor," Kyle explained that there wasn't any need to look at other films for inspiration when given the designs in the comics as reference. When they did look at other films, it was to make sure they weren't repeating anything that had come previously.
"It's hard to do ice and not have people see the Fortress of Solitude, but if you think we don't think that every time we look at ice, you're crazy," explained Kyle. "'Superman's' a classic. We are always chasing Kirby and Simonson. We shouldn't be looking elsewhere unless it's a, '"That kinda looks like...' We want it to speak to its own. If it looks too familiar, we're doomed. The upside is, we're not trying to hit a genre. We're trying to capitalize on what we've built over the past seven [now eight] years."
If it hadn't already been made clear from Feige and Kyle's words, it was clear from looking around that a lot of reverence was being shown towards the comics imagery, with covers from early issues of "Journey Into Mystery" and "Thor" found on the walls of the art department. But that respect and admiration was seen not limited to the production design side, but also from the visual effects houses hoping to work on "Thor." Kyle noted, "There was an early test that we got from a house that was bidding on the movie, and if you grabbed a frame of one of the lighting strike tests, it said 'Krakka-Boom!' inside there! It may have been a tad too much, but it was pretty cool!"
As we made our way through the production area, we found ourselves in a smaller office housing a massive model of a small New Mexico town. For those of you who stuck around after the final credits of "Iron Man 2," you know a certain hammer was discovered in the middle of the desert. This model had a number of very typical small town style buildings in it, a massive crater in the middle of the desert where the hammer fell and numerous model trucks and vans with S.H.I.E.L.D. logos on them. Feige noted Marvel actually built a town on a Santa Fe ranch in the New Mexico desert rather than film in an existing town. "The only reason to build a town like this instead of shooting in a town like this is to tear it down," said Feige.
Before we were off to visit the first of our many sets, Feige answered questions about the use of the Bifrost, or Rainbow Bridge, in "Thor." He confirmed the Bridge's existence in the film, though it differs from it's four-color depiction. "In the comics, it's literally a rainbow that extends out from Asgard and pops down on Earth," explained Feige. "We're not necessarily doing that. We're not having the big hard solid lines of colors; we're saying it's some sort of energy, almost a solid quartz bridge that as the light catches it and flows through it, you get some of that rainbow-esque quality to it. At the end of the bridge, in our film, you come to Heimdall's Observatory. Heimdall guards it, he uses his sword to control it, it begins to spin and it blasts you through space/time to get you where you're going. It's a sort of wormhole portal travel device."
Just before we made our way out to set, Feige told us we had just missed Stan Lee. The comic book legend had been there just the day before to film his cameo. When asked if Stan's in Asgard, since everything being filmed in Manhattan Beach was on an Asgardian set, he wouldn't say.
And with that, it was time to make our way to Heimdall's Observatory. Again, the intricate Asgardian design was evident everywhere you looked, with etchings on every wall in the orb-like enclosure. Feige stood at the center of the room, atop Heimdall's control center. "This is one of Bo Welch's crowning achievements, where we're standing right now," said Feige. "Bo has done a tremendous job. There was almost a year of prep on this movie - remember, we pushed the release date for a variety of reasons, [including] a 'Spider-Man' movie that's not going to come out any more. But we're glad we did because it gave us time to do things like this and to really continue the design and prep process for almost a full year, more than we've ever had before. If any film could use it, it's 'Thor,' because we're figuring out the world and defining the costumes. This movie isn't just one Batcave or one X-Mansion; it's a half dozen to a dozen Asgardian realms and sets."
Kyle expanded how exactly Heimdall's Observatory works. "Once you step inside [the observatory], you basically tell Heimdall where you want to go. The sword Heimdall uses is not only used to defend Asgard, but it's also the key to this device. We looked at Tony Stark and that movie - Iron Man had holograms and was stepping inside virtual worlds. Asgardians have kind of 'been there, done that' when it comes to that kind of stuff. So for them to send you across the universe, it's as easy as turning a key. It's why it's a system of gears and wheels. It's a machine. Their technology is only as sophisticated as it needs to be to do extraordinary things.
"Once you've said where you're going to go, the outside of this building begins to spin around while the inside is stable and the Rainbow Bridge pumps energy inside this place," continued Kyle. "Then this major steeple that fills up the top here begins to lower, and it points in the direction of the destination you choose to go to. You step out on the edge and boom! You're fired across the universe."
It was at this point that Feige had to leave us, but he ran down the list of actors and sets we'd see that day, including Ray Stevenson (Volstagg), Josh Dallas (Fandral), Tadanobu Asano (Hogun), Jaimie Alexander (Sif), Colm Feore (Ymir, the Frost Giant), Tom Hiddleston (Loki, though not in helmet during our visit) and of course director Kenneth Branagh. "Thor is not here today," said Feige. "Do not judge the Thor double as Thor. When Chris is Thor, well, let me just say there are certain individuals who begin questioning their sexuality."
Look for those interviews elsewhere on CBR today.
Before he left, Feige acknowledged the skepticism that's been heard about bringing the Asgardian to the silver screen. "['Thor'] is a hard one," said Feige. "When you walk around 'Captain America' or 'Iron Man,' you can get it. With 'Thor,' what you're seeing is only 30% of what the movie will be. This ['Thor'] is the big question mark and to me, that makes it the most exciting. I like it when people don't exactly know what we're going to do. I liked it when people said, 'Iron Man's the B-Team. You're calling out the B-Team!' We knew it wasn't. We knew it was going to be great. And that holds true for 'Thor.' It's great, being able to stand in sets like this having done almost 18 Marvel movies at this point, to know, here's another one that will redefine us and at least raise the bar of what a comic book movie is, for both people who've read comics and those who haven't."
We left behind Heimdall's Observatory and made our way to an ice planet - well, actually another stage in Manhattan Beach where production was currently assembled. It was a massive hangar-like building and as we sat at one end of the, to our left was a massive raised stage, taking up the entire room, looking like numerous small icebergs atop pneumatic systems that moved them around. At the far end of the sound stage was Director Kenneth Branagh and the production team, guiding the scene we were about to watch. Surrounding the entire stage was a massive green screen, a common sight in productions of this sort. We certainly weren't in Asgard any more.
On our end of the sound stage was assembled the Warrior's Three (Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun), Sif and Loki. Suddenly Ray Stevenson, wearing a fat suit, armor and a long beard and wig, picked up Josh Dallas (also in full armor). You'd think Dallas weighed nothing the way Stevenson threw him over his shoulders. With the shout of "Action!, the group - yes, with Dallas on Stevenson's backs - began walking, carefully, across the moving ice plane. Wind machines blew our heroes around as they jumped from one moving piece of this ice planet to another. They scream out occasionally to one another as they make their way quickly towards the far end of the sound stage. "Cut!" That was it.
Kyle later explained what we saw. Thor and the others were on an ice planet, filled with frost giants, where Thor "brought a nuclear blast of lightning to a gun fight," and the collateral damage is what we witnessed happening to his friends. "Thor's made the situation far worse by what he's done to strike back," explained Kyle. "It's why he's not here right now. He's cut off from his friends who, along with numerous Frost Giants not on the set today, are running, trying not to fall through the cracks and to their deaths."
The scene was repeated numerous times, sometimes following all the actors as they made their way across the set, taking a moment for a close-up reaction or two at other times. This scene, beautifully rendered in the first "Thor" trailer you'll see later today, is incredibly impressive with finished effects, frost giants and a fully realized world.
In between watching the cast and crew shoot different scenes, we were given a chance to hold the various weapons the Asgardians wield in the movie, including Hogun's mace, Volstagg's axe and Thor's hammer, Mjolnir. Some had metal elements, while others were made of polymer, but the one thing you quickly learned about each piece is that every one has very real weight and heft. If you see an actor appear to be really working with a weapon in the film, it's likely because they're that heavy!
Leaving behind the self-destructing ice planet, we made our way to two more sets - Odin's Throne Room and Odin's Vault. The Vault was actually in the process of being torn down, but each room was, again, filled with intricately detailed design work, massive columns and walls with carvings on everything. The Throne Room was easily the biggest set we visited, with the capacity to be filled with over 300 extras. While the throne and other elements had already been removed, on the floor we could still see a huge carving, with columns surrounding the room and massive gold leaf doors - the likes of which are seen throughout Asgard - still standing at one end. The doors had an etching on them that's inspired by a piece or Norse art, one of many connections between Norse mythology and the world Marvel was creating on screen.
The Throne Room appears as if it were cast from gold, an effect achieved by using by using special paint that costs $1,000 a gallon. When the lights are set to full brightness, the walls become very bright; when the lights are dimmed, they turn almost black.
As our visit wound down, Kyle filled us in a bit on the overall Marvel Universe of films and what they're ramping up to. "We look at each one of these movies as a different kind of super hero story," said Kyle. "It's not just about a guy in a costume who saves the girl. 'Iron Man's' kind of that classic James Bond type of action hero. 'Thor' is a science fiction epic. 'Captain America' will have a lot of a period feel to it and 'Avengers' is a disaster film. The Marvel Universe is such a wide one and we don't want people to think they've ever got a handle on it."
Kyle went on to admit that those wildly different stories do present some real challenges when crafting the story. "That Thor and Tony Stark have to get together at some point and debate the universe together, that was a brain buster for us. The fact that these universes have to all meet and make sense is tough."
And as fans can already guess from the bonus scenes in "Iron Man," "Incredible Hulk" and "Iron Man 2" showcasing Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), S.H.I.E.L.D. is the glue that binds this film universe. "S.H.I.E.L.D. is absolutely the mortar that brings this all together," explained Kyle. "If something happens, they know. When a hammer falls out of the sky in the Marvel Universe, who's the first one to find it?"
Oh, and for those of you curious if Chris Hemsworth's beard is a prosthetic or genuine, Kyle confirmed it was real. "Chris is someone who felt the beard helped his age and it helps the masculinity of the character. It's a real bear and it's groomed every day by trained professionals," joked Kyle.
As you'll see in the trailer, set to debut at 4:00 PM Pacific today, Asgard will become a real place - a world that's part science fiction, part fantasy, with high-reaching spires and buildings unlike anything you've ever glimpsed. Director Kenneth Branagh and crew use breathtaking visual effects to bring to life a universe where Asgardians battle horrific, menacing frost giants on an ice planet about to be destroyed. Then there's the imposing Thor, vanquished to Earth on a journey of self-discovery where he encounters Natalie Portman's Jane Foster, his first contact with the modern human race. We see a Destroyer wreaking havoc on a small desert town and a power struggle between brothers and father. And when it comes to action, there's thunder and lightning and a hammer that truly is a crusher. "Thor" is the story of a boy becoming a man and ultimately a hero, but the real question is whether "Thor" will be a hero at the box office like its "Iron Man" predecessors. After viewing the trailer later today, I'm pretty certain even the skeptics will rethink their stance.
"Thor" arrives in theaters May 6, 2011.