Hiring British actor/writer/director triple threat Kenneth Branagh was a savvy move on Marvel Studios’ part. Thor is one of Marvel’s more … esoteric characters (which is truly saying something) what with being a magical alien Norse god who lives in another dimensional plane and uses a literal rainbow bridge to travel to Midgard aka. Earth. Thor was the first big non-Iron Man Marvel film (everyone ignores The Incredible Hulk) so there was a lot riding on it to do well and further expand the MCU.
By recognizing Thor’s complicated family drama as Shakespearean in nature and drawing upon his vast experience in acting and adapting Shakespeare (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, As You Like It), Branagh pulled off one hell of a feat in grounding Thor in terms modern audiences would connect with and understand. The familial space drama aspect definitely clicked with audiences. Thor, starring Chris Hemsworth (The Perfect Getaway), Natalie Portman (Black Swan) and Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs), opened in May 2011 and made $449 million worldwide. The film attracted new fans, kept Marvel and comics fans happy, and solidified Loki as pop culture’s favorite new Draco In Leather Pants, crowning Tom Hiddleston as the Internet’s New Boyfriend.
While Branagh opted not to return to direct the Thor sequel, he did choose to try his hand at the franchise business with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Released in January 2014, the film was Paramount’s attempt to reboot the Jack Ryan franchise, starring Chris Pine (Star Trek), Keira Knightley (Atonement) and Branagh as the Russian villain. But alas poor Yorick, Shadow Recruit was doomed to become yet another casualty of Hollywood’s full-throttle strip-mining of intellectual property and determination to reanimate franchises from the dead. While the film did make $135 million worldwide on a $60 million budget, it only made $50 million domestically, which was not a good sign for a potential all-American spy hero franchise. In the light of day, Shadow Recruit was nowhere near as bad as other blockbuster attempts in recent years (cough, cough, RIPD/The Lone Ranger/the entire Transformers franchise cough, cough). It was simply average and generic enough to not leave much of an impact, good or bad.
Branagh went back to Disney to gain some studio goodwill by directing Cinderella, starring Lily James (Downton Abbey), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Richard Madden (Game of Thrones). I don’t believe anyone thought Cinderella would be bad per se, but the frothy, colorful fairytale exceeded everyone’s expectations and helped to further fuel Disney’s gung ho determination to make live action adaptations of all their animated classics. The film succeeded in giving its traditionally passive and flat heroine a backstory, personality and agency to a degree, while making the “evil” step-mother and the prince more rounded and developed characters. Released in March 2015, Cinderella was a smash, making $543 million worldwide on a $95 million budget. Branagh’s adaptation of the beloved fairytale was like a lush storybook come to life, and is destined to become a classic childhood film and watched in very heavy rotation by children generations hence.
All of that Cinderella cash gave him the juice to tackle a remake of Murder on the Orient Express, famed mystery novelist Agatha Christie’s masterpiece. If one strips the Imagine Dragons song out of the trailer (I’m all for anachronistic song usage in trailers but that was noooooooot the right song), it makes a very impressive case as an awards player for 2017. I could definitely see multiple nominations for the cast, which includes Willem Dafoe (Platoon), Penelope Cruz (Volver), Michelle Pfeiffer (Scarface), Derek Jacobi (Gosford Park), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton), Josh Gad (Frozen), and Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal), with Branagh playing detective Hercule Poirot himself (HOLY MUSTACHE!!!!). I don’t know how he puts up with the magnificent furry prosthetics on his face. If I were him, I would be ripping it off as soon as every scene ended. Murder on the Orient Express will be released November 10, 2017.
Verdict: 8/10 Branagh was in no career slump directorial or otherwise prior to Thor, but the film provided him with a springboard into the new era of intellectual property-based filmmaking dawning at the beginning of the 2010s. He is an example of a director who walks the very delicate and tricky line of making studio fair while pursuing potential awards projects and non-franchise or IP-based films, a rare accomplishment in the volatile film industry these days. The projects he has in development reflect this balance. Branagh is attached to adapt Eoin Colfer’s popular YA series Artemis Fowl, which has been lying in development limbo for years at Disney. If he could crack the series, Artemis Fowl could be a potential hit, but there is a large chance of the series becoming yet another Beautiful Creatures or Percy Jackson. Branagh is also slated to star in and helm Keeper of the Diary for Fox Searchlight. He will play Anne Frank’s father Otto Frank, who in the aftermath of World War II is struggling to find a publisher for his daughter’s diary and is aided by young junior editor Barbara Zimmerman, who would become the founder of the New York Review of Books.