Kenneth Branagh for “Thor”

Kenneth Branagh is an intriguing if only somewhat surprising choice as the director of Thor, arguably the most ambitious project yet from Marvel films (that is, until Avengers). The classically-trained actor-turned-director is best known for his Shakespeare adaptations of Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet, though he also strayed into blockbuster territory on 1994’s Frankenstein.

The director screened a few minutes of “Thor” footage for the Comic-Con crowd last week and was met with very positive responses, which must be a bit of relief for a project that has been viewed with some level of skepticism since it was first announced.

Shortly after the viewing, Branagh sat with press to discuss Thor. First off, we asked him what the project has enabled him to do as director that he hasn’t had the chance to do in his other work. “Spend some money,” says Branagh with a chuckle. “Not carte blanche, but [Marvel President] Kevin Feige’s so determined that we have to deliver a spectacle in the execution of visual effects and concept of visual effects, to really push the envelope every time. It all costs money and at some point we have to have difficult conversations in that way, but basically the prime thing is how can we make this the best it can be on the scale that it has to have.”

Branagh is a fan of the “Thor” comics and felt the storyline was a natural fit. “I don’t have a huge history with comic books, but definitely a passion for Thor,” says Branagh. “I loved what this kind of story represented and I loved its epic scale and the color and the grandeur and the fact that it travels across space and all the vivid contrasts in the runs of the comics. I loved the blood and guts of it. Paradoxically, it’s got a great human story at the center of a story about gods.”

Even as the story travels across dimensions and tells the tales of gods, the director found it important to keep the story grounded in some level of reality. “In terms of a kind of military thing and a reality about death and violence, a film like ‘Gladiator’ has a feet-in-the-ground quality that I think is very impressive. We just decided we would always take seriously the idea of violence and military training and the fitness for being a king.”

One additional challenge for the directors currently handling projects in the Avengers cannon is keeping things in line so that they ultimately connect for Joss Whedon’s “Avengers” project. “There is the integration of story elements,” says Branagh. “For instance, you saw how Thor interacts with S.H.I.E.L.D. I think you’ll see that we have the chance with various parts of it to just expand out. I think you’re going to find it’s going to add up into something that belongs, but also has a very distinct flavor. An important thing we wanted to do today and in this piece was [explain] a question I’ve been getting since way back, which is, ‘How the hell does Thor fit remotely into the Avengers thing?’ I think it can live there but also, I hope, bring a pretty exotic thing that I think is going to be much more present in the film.”

Thor opens nationwide May 6th, 2011.