Just in time to coincide with the big-screen debut of Thor comes a direct-to-Blu-ray animated companion piece entitled Thor: Tales of Asgard, rated PG-13, due out in stores tomorrow, and it just might be Marvel's best effort yet in this format. Telling the tale of Thor and Loki as best friends and brothers on the cusp of manhood going on their first real quest with the Warriors Three, screenwriter Greg Johnson has crafted a story that subverts a bit of what you might expect from a teen Thor movie while staying true to the spirit of Asgardian high adventure. We got to chat with Johnson about the project, and he gave us some insight into what went into the creation of this chapter in the history of the God of Thunder.
Be warned, some mild spoilers lie within.
Q. How did you come to be involved with this project? What was the genesis of it?
Greg Johnson, screenwriter of Thor: Tales of Asgard: Thankfully I’ve always had a good working relationship with the folks at Marvel. I’d written several of the animated features for them, and when this one came up, I was thrilled to be asked to write it. Knowing that this film would be centered in Asgard was a great draw for me, since I really wanted the chance to play around in that world. And the idea of exploring some of Thor’s younger years was also exciting. The goal was to introduce Thor to new audiences in a way that would help form emotional attachments to the character. So Marvel’s Craig Kyle and I read the Son of Asgard books as inspiration, and then started talking story. Pretty soon we had something we both felt could play as a feature.
Q. Were you always a Thor fan, or is he relatively new to you?
Johnson: I’ve always loved Norse Mythology, and was naturally drawn to Marvel’s old Tales of Asgard books – more so than the Donald Blake stories. I guess it’s that Lord of the Rings vibe they have – what writer wouldn’t want to write in that milieu? So I was familiar with the basic relationships, which is why I found the approach to this film so exciting – it gave us a chance to examine some of those relationships in a way that had never been shown before.
Q. It's always a little dangerous telling stories about teenage versions of established characters, as it runs the risk of becoming too cutesy or obnoxious or pandering. Was that a concern for you? What steps did you take to avoid that trap?
Johnson: Thankfully everyone at Marvel wanted to make the same movie I did, one that wasn’t using Young Thor as a gimmick. We all saw this as an opportunity to tell a real story about the kind of life experiences that went into forging such a beloved character. The title isn’t Teen Thor or Young Thor for a reason – we didn’t want the focus there. This is about the life-altering decisions, consequences, and responsibilities of these characters, and the journey that changes them forever. Thor and Loki being on the verge of adulthood, pushing against the boundaries, making mistakes and realizing the costs – are all things we can all relate to – or at least recognize. And that is just good stuff to mine for a story.
Q. It's very impressive how you resisted the temptation to vilify Loki, as he's so firmly established as Thor's archenemy. The fact that we see Thor and Loki thick as thieves in this story is refreshing. Was it hard to resist making Loki a bit more sinister?
Johnson: Not at all. In fact, starting Thor and Loki out as friends is one of the things I was most excited about exploring. It opened up the story-telling so much, because this movie didn’t have to center around Loki’s hatred of Thor. Traditionally, if you put Loki in a Thor movie, he becomes your villain. How refreshing to have them on the same side, brothers looking out for each other, as they face a threat they both must fight. This approach also allowed us to start hinting at the darker aspects of Loki, and in fact, insinuate that Thor himself might bear some responsibility for the kind of person Loki grows up to be. But in the timeline of our movie, Thor and Loki make for a great, albeit complex, team, and I would love to see more of it.
Q. How did you go about developing the antagonism in this story? There aren't really any straight villains here – another refreshing thing. Everything seems to spring from Thor's mistakes rather than any nefarious plotting.
Johnson: From the earliest conversations, Tales of Asgard was to be a quest movie, with an inexperienced hero venturing into dangerous lands and situations for the first time. We wanted Thor to create a mess of things because of his arrogance, and then allow him to learn and grow from it, then get himself out of it. Imposing a villain’s agenda into that arc seemed at odds with what this movie was meant to be. That said, we do end up with a villain of sorts, and to me, the most interesting villains are the ones with very personal agendas, particularly agendas that we can understand, and in fact, sympathize with.
Q. Turning the Warriors Three into skilled liars rather than actual adventurers seems like a pretty risky choice, but it worked well for the story. What was the thinking there?
Johnson: I think it works for this story because there’s never any doubt that the Warriors Three can actually fight. It’s like in that moment when Sif demands an answer as they’re facing a horde of Frost Giants, “You CAN fight, can’t you?” Fandral says with a shrug, “Yes, if we must.” But to me, these characters are so much more interesting when they’re held prisoner by their own vices; Volstagg’s appetite, Hogun’s bleak outlook on life, and Fandral’s preoccupation with women. They’ve simply attached great importance to their predilections, well above risking their lives. But when push comes to shove, these guys can bring it.
Q. Sif's role could have easily been a trite love interest, but it's very subtly played here in favor of showing her torn between becoming one of Brunhilde's Valkyries and standing alongside her friends in Asgard. Was there a temptation to ratchet up the teen-angst tension between Sif and Thor at all?
Johnson: A lot of serious questions are posed to teenagers nearing adulthood; including what kind of person they are, what kind of potential they have, and what kind of path they should take. The pettiness of traditional teen-angst just didn’t seem to fit in. Sif sees Thor for who he can be, and is willing to risk their relationship in order to get him to see it, too. She’s one of the most honest, level-headed characters in the film, and her relationship with Thor is the catalyst for his change. Those are mature themes, yet they feel organic to the journey our characters embark upon.
Q. Loki's unexpected "Attention, Wenches!" line to the Valkyries cracked up everybody in the room as we were watching it, and it brought to mind Clarence Boddicker's similar, more infamous line in "Robocop." Is that one of those lines you can make yourself laugh with when you write it?
Johnson: I think the reason why “Attention, Wenches” is funny is that it rings true to who Loki is in our film. He’s royalty, after all, living in a male-dominated world. And even though he’s surrounded by a bunch of armed warrior women who hate men, it’s perfectly natural for Loki to call them wenches while thinking nothing of it. But yes, that line got flagged early on and repeated often in the Halls of Marvel.
Q. How tricky was it to incorporate actual death into the story, complete with much of it being at the hands of our hero, even accidentally? Was there any threat of censorship or requests to soften it up a bit?
Johnson: I think one of the unique aspects of Tales of Asgard is that we actually do deal with the ramifications of an enemy’s death. We could have easily had Thor fighting against the Frost Giants, and dispatching them left and right because they’re monsters out to kill our heroes. But, in keeping true to Thor’s inexperience with such matters outside of the arena back home, when a Frost Giant dies at his hand, it wrecks him. That’s a pivotal moment in Thor’s growth as a man. And even though having a PG-13 rating allows us to deal with death much more freely than in television animation, we didn’t want it to be gratuitous.
Q. Could you view this as an official prequel to the "Thor" live action movie? Was there any pressure to tweak things to be more in line with the movie – such as maybe changing Heimdall's look?
Johnson: This will be surprising, but I actually started writing Thor: Tales of Asgard in August of 07, and turned in the final draft about two months later. It was originally slated to hit shelves before Planet Hulk, but it made sense to delay it in order to coincide with the release of the live action Thor movie. So the animated film was already completed when the live action film was still in development. Though there are definite differences in the two movies, including how Yggdrasil (the World Tree) is portrayed, Thor: Tales of Asgard can fit somewhat unofficially into the prequel category.
Q. This might be the best Marvel direct-to-DVD movie yet. What sorts of things have you learned about what did and didn't work for previous Marvel animated films that you applied to make this film as good as it is?
Johnson: I think what I’ve learned – or at least have had reinforced – Is that believable personal stories, no matter where they take place, are what makes or breaks the experience. The intimate journeys, if compelling, anchor you emotionally through all the spectacle of a big, high-stakes movie. Doctor Strange was another film I wrote where the growth of the character was the engine driving the movie, and I think the experience is better for it.