Sure, there are "dark elves" in "Thor: The Dark World," opening Friday. And yes, director Alan Taylor is perhaps best known for the HBO fantasy series "Game of Thrones." But this latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn't "Game of Thor": Despite the fantasy trappings, it's a science-fiction adventure like its immediate predecessors "The Avengers," "Iron Man 3" and, for that matter, the original "Thor" (2011). There are horses, but there are spaceships. There are swords, but there are space bazookas. Seriously, how "Game of Thrones" can it be with space bazookas?
Yet as Taylor remembers his part in the long slog toward finding a director to succeed the previous film's Shakespearean stalwart, Kenneth Branagh, "Game of Thrones" was on Marvel Studios' mind. "They had talked to at least two other directors from 'Game of Thrones,' because clearly they have a thing for that show," he says by phone from London, where the movie had a red-carpet premiere Oct. 22 and opened Wednesday.
Taylor, along with fellow "Thrones"-man Brian Kirk and others, was in the first round of consideration before the studio announced in October 2011 it had chosen "Monster" director Patty Jenkins, who'd guided Charlize Theron to an Academy Award. "I thought, 'That's a really cool choice -- a radical, out-of-the-box choice,'" Taylor recalls. But by early December, Jenkins had left over reported creative differences. "I got another call," Taylor says, "saying that they were looking for a director for 'Thor 2,' which was all very confusing for me because I thought that had been all settled. And it happened I had just finished the season of 'Game of Thrones' just as they were looking for a director for the second time. So I missed the drama."
Fate of the universe at stake
He found plenty in "Thor: The Dark World," in which the fate of the universe itself is at stake. With Earth, Asgard and the other "Nine Realms" converging in a once-every-few-millennia alignment, Marvel Comics' Norse-god superhero Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finally acknowledges his feelings for mortal astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) after two years apart; comes to the sad realization his trickster-god brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), may be beyond redemption; and battles the nihilistic Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who wants the universe returned to the void before existence. And, of course, there are daddy issues with Odin (Anthony Hopkins).
"It was obviously sad that Ken wasn't coming back," the Syosset-reared Portman, also calling from London, says of Branagh, who in the interim starred in and was executive producer of season three of the BBC crime drama "Wallander"; codirected "Macbeth" at a British arts festival; and co-stars in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," being released in January. "I don't want to compare them," she says of the two directors, "like this one is more this and that one is more that. They're both wonderful in their own ways and Alan ... comes from a background in philosophy, so every decision for a character and for the story has philosophical background to it, which is really interesting to be around."'
'She's like a thoroughbred'
For his part, Taylor says, "I was anxious to meet Natalie since she came on late, after we'd been shooting for a while, because her schedule was very tight. There was no warm-up time and we just had to go right into it. And she was great. She was laughing and enjoying herself -- she's like a thoroughbred, very responsive to any directorial input and able to nail it with no fuss at all."
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art alum Hiddleston -- who starred opposite Branagh in two three-episode seasons of "Wallander" -- says he "completely understood Kenneth's reasons" for bowing out. "It was simply that there were many, many other things that he wanted to do and he felt that he had poured himself into the first film -- that he'd put all his eggs in that basket and hadn't saved anything up for a sequel."
Having seen Taylor's work on "Game of Thrones," he adds, "I saw what Kevin Feige had seen in him. He brought his own sense of the visceral reality of the world of an ancient race."
Much of that came courtesy of Iceland's sere volcanic wastes, where many of the exteriors were filmed. But it wasn't all sturm und drang. Hiddleston -- who's become an audience favorite through two previous Marvel movies for his malevolent yet emotionally wounded, conflicted and manipulatively charming Loki -- recalls a night off "when we went into Reykjavik -- where you can walk down the street and bump into people who are actually named 'Thor' -- and Zachary Levi and Chris and I, the boys of Asgard, walked by a Café Loki."
He took a photograph of himself in front of it, of course. "I did indeed, wearing some fetching yellow ski pants because it was -5 degrees. Then we went dancing. It was quite fun."
Don't be in the dark about 'Thor'
'Thor: The Dark World" is the eighth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, sharing continuity with 2011's "Thor" and last year's "The Avengers" in particular. Many characters overlap, and you know what they say: You can't tell the players without a Thor-card.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) Norse god of thunder and son of Odin, king of Asgard. He battled his adoptive brother, Loki, in the first film and in "The Avengers," which ended with Loki, having murdered at least 80 people and causing untold damage as he tried to conquer Earth, being transported back to Asgard in shackles.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston) Trickster god who covets the throne of Asgard.
Odin (Anthony Hopkins) King of the Norse gods, who notes in the film, "We are not gods" but a long-lived alien race that medieval humans took for such.
Frigga (Rene Russo) Odin's wife, mother of Thor and Loki.
Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) A nurse and later doctor in the comics, an astrophysicist here. She and Thor fell for each other in the first film. Since then? He doesn't call, he doesn't write ...
Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) Foster's scientist mentor from the first film who worked as a consultant to the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. in "The Avengers"
Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) Still Foster's unpaid intern after two years. Does she have a trust fund?
From the comics, Thor's closest warrior comrades: Fandral (Zachary Levi, succeeding the first film's Joshua Dallas), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), the Falstaff-like Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) and the distaff Sif (Jaimie Alexander).
The franchise's overarching story continues with "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" in April, followed in August by "Guardians of the Galaxy" -- a teaser for which, directed by that film's James Gunn, appears here as one of two end-credit scenes -- and "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" in May 2015.