MANHATTAN BEACH, CA - Standing in the middle of Heimdall's Observatory, with the Rainbow Bridge extending from the front of the room, we need only turn the dials built into the walls and the floor to send ourselves anywhere in the Universe.

Of course, we may have to get past the frozen warrior standing outside first.

When I got the call to join a group of other journalists on the set of the new Marvel Studios movie "Thor," due in theaters next May, I didn't have to think about it.  For one thing, it's not every day you can drive your own car for just over an hour and end up in Asgard.  And for another thing, I was curious to see how Marvel planned to handle one of the trickiest of the steps on the road to "The Avengers," and I'll be the first to admit it… I had my doubts.

After all, it's one thing to make a movie like "Iron Man," or a movie like "The Incredible Hulk," where we see fantastic characters dropped into a world that is very recognizable.  That's a big part of the Marvel Universe in general, and one of the reasons for its enduring appeal.  But with "Thor," you're introducing a whole new world of rules, and you're suddenly stretching the Marvel Universe in a new direction, expanding it to include magic.  I've always liked "Thor" as a comic, but as a film?  It seems like the biggest gamble yet for Marvel Studios.

When we all arrived at the complex that Marvel Studios now occupies, complete with several soundstages, we were greeted by Tamar, one of Paramount's uber-publicists, as well as the one and only Kevin Feige, one of the primary architects of everything Marvel's been up to recently.  We started talking about the challenges that are inherent to "Thor" as we stood outside, and right up front, Feige acknowledged just how tricky it's been for Marvel to get their collective head around their approach to the property.  In the end, we were told that they pushed hard to stick close to the traditional visual approach to the character, and that they were working hard to preserve as many connections to the comic as possible, something that wasn't always the case as they developed the material over the years.

Saying that is one thing, but when we stepped into the art department for the film, it was immediately apparent that they mean what they say.  The production design team, lead by the great Bo Welch, had one of the greatest challenges in any Marvel movie so far, the world of Asgard, and their approach is colorful, dynamic, and epic-scaled.  I was stunned as I walked through the room, looking at all the original comic art on the walls and the design work for the film, all of it carefully incorporating elements that any fan of Jack Kirby's work is going to adore.  I've always loved the more cosmic end of the Marvel universe, and no one did that the way Kirby did.

As we walked further into the art department, we also started to see elements of the Earth sequences in the film, and even without explanation, the art started to suggest story elements for the film and hint at what we can expect to see next summer.  Keep in mind, this was before "Iron Man 2" came out, so when we saw the design for the crater where Thor falls to Earth and saw sketches of the now-familiar Agent Coulson, played in both "Iron Man" films by Clark Gregg, we got our first clues about how the film was going to start tying the other films in the Marvel Universe into this one.  What I was most interested in was the work that went into building an entire Arizona town for the film's final act.

And why would you build an entire town in Arizona?

So you can destroy it, obviously.

One of my biggest complaints about superhero films so far has been the lack of epic scale fights that really demonstrate what might happen if you had two massively powered beings kicking the living crap out of each other, and with "Thor," that is going to change.  And it won't just be two combatants, either.  That town is going to have to withstand the combined fury of Thor, the Warriors Three, and the Destroyer, and I have a feeling those buildings aren't making it through intact.

We also saw various concept art for the Rainbow Bridge, one of the trickiest things to pull off onscreen.  If you're not familiar with the comic or with Norse mythology, the Rainbow Bridge is the passageway from Midgard (our Earth) to Asgard, the home of the Norse gods.  In the comics, it's exactly what it sounds like.  It's a big bridge, and it's a rainbow.  For the film, Marvel really wasn't comfortable with that, and so when we walked down to our first soundstage of the morning, which is where we stepped into the set for Heimdall's Observatory, that was one of the first questions asked.  After, "Is Idris Alba here today?", of course.

The answer to the question was the beginning of a larger conversation, one that led me to realize that Marvel isn't treating this as a fantasy film at all.  They've made the decision to treat the film as science-fiction, and in order to do so, they needed to address the idea of magic, and in doing so, they've set it up so that Asgard is an actual physical place.  Heimdall's Observatory is the place where Asgardians go to travel to other realms, and they explained to us that all Heimdall has to do is set the location where someone wants to travel to, and then they step out onto a sort of energy platform that extends from the front of the room.  When Heimdall inserts his sword directly into the platform and turns it like a key, the settings send an energy pulse containing the person standing on the platform all the way to wherever their location is.  By creating a pseudo-scientific explanation to ground things, and by simply defining "magic" as "science that is so far beyond us that we can't understand it," they've found a way to drag "Thor" and "Iron Man" into some sort of middle ground.

Walking around the Observatory and checking out the engravings on the various dials and surfaces, I was struck by the combination of familiar symbols and totally alien ones, and that was evidently the point.  We are to understand that the Asgardians made contact with citizens of Earth at a distant point in the past, and the memories that were handed down from those encounters led to Norse mythology.

On the next soundstage, we saw Odin's Vault, where all of the most powerful artifacts found during the various adventures the Asgardians had in all the realms around the galaxy are kept.  This is one of the most important sets for not just this film, but the entire Marvel Universe.  You could see items from this vault show up in all sorts of films if only someone without any moral compass were to find their way past all the security.  But surely there's no one like that in Asgard… right?

We also walked through Odin's Throne Room, which was already finished as a location, as well as an outdoor set that was built for the coronation sequence that opens the film.  Both sets suggest a a scale that will be impressive, bigger than anything Marvel's attempted before.

Will it work?

Well, we'll get into that more in the next set visit, which you'll see here next week. I've got interviews with Tom Hiddleston, this film's Loki, as well as Colm Feore, one of the Frost Giants, chats with two of the three Warriors, and an informal chat with Kenneth Branagh about stepping into the Marvel Universe.  And once we start talking to them, you'll quickly start learning even more of the film's story secrets.

But that's next week.  First up, you'll be able to see the trailer for the film later today, and we'll update this story with a link to it when it finally appears.

I'm off to BNAT this weekend, and then I've got a weird, hopefully wonderful last-minute opportunity that means I'm on the road Monday.  We'll settle back in for the holiday groove next Tuesday.  In the meantime, I'm hoping we'll have some more new "Thor" images for you later in the day as well.

"Thor" will be in theaters everywhere May 6, 2011.

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