This Review Is Mostly Just About Taika Waititi, To Be Honest
Known most broadly for his involvement as a writer/director on television series Flight Of The Conchords, Maori creator and entertainer Taika Waititi has actually proven himself time and again as a writer/director of genuine, heartfelt comedy features such as Boy, What We Do In The Shadows, and Hunt For The Wilderpeople (all very strong recommends). His massive step up into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (from a budget perspective) as director of Thor: Ragnarok is therefore not the same kind of thing as, say, Disney handing the keys to the Jurassic Park films over to a director with only one quirky film to his name. Waititi has been charming those lucky enough to have experienced his films for a decade now.
So with his qualifications established, why does it still feel like such a coup that this man was able to not only be entrusted with a Marvel property, but then knock it out of the park with what seems like relatively little friction from the Marvel machine? Similarly hilarious and heartfelt (and wildly creative) filmmaker Edgar Wright famously parted ways with Marvel before completion of Ant-Man, and there have been other creative differences over the course of the emergence of the MCU. In all honesty, a major reason this reviewer is thrilled about Waititi’s involvement has to do with his being first and foremost a beloved creator, and also because he is a person of color who was able to effortlessly enrich and diversify what might have been the single “whitest” property Marvel has been producing.
When critics disparage diversity and equal representation as a loss of freedom or unnatural or no fun or less American, they’re often standing on a hundred years of primarily white entertainment to back up their claims. My most significant experience as an audience member enjoying Thor: Ragnarok was the carefree, whimsical, hilarious story that seemed to effortlessly diversify its cast, poke fun at itself, and remain a palatable product that one can only imagine Americans will eat up with the same aplomb with which they’ve devoured all previous Marvel features. In other words, Taiki Waititi inserted his skill set and unique perspective as a Maori, created a commercially viable and wildly consumable product, and made it all look easy. One hopes that as more and more people of color get involved in large budget Hollywood filmmaking, the critics of inclusion and representation will be silenced simply by being unquestionably entertained in superior ways.
Thor: Ragnarok itself is not the salvation of cinema or anything like that. As Marvel films have become wont to do, it feels like another brick in the wall of the cinematic universe they’re creating. I’ve been known to suggest that a “samey-ness” has crept into their output, with some entries recently feeling tiresome, forgettable, and inconsequential. Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t entirely escape from that line of thinking. Its breeziness and palatability do contribute to giving it a forgettable vibe endemic to giant popcorn blockbusters of its ilk. Plot points of massive import happen, in which the very foundations of Asgard are shaken and undercut, but current reality is such that I find myself much more concerned about the foundations of my own society than that of Asgard’s. It’s hard to be highly invested on an emotional level even when the plotting and consequences of the story are quite strong.
What’s undeniable about Thor: Ragnarok is that it’s damn funny. Waititi’s sense of humor is so in line with what I love to laugh at, he’s perhaps among my very favorite working comics today. Credit where it’s due, Waititi did not write the film, and writers Eric Pearson (Agent Carter), Craig Kyle (Many Marvel Animated projects), and Christopher Yost (Star Wars: Rebels) punch up the Thor series and send the trilogy out on a high note. There are jokes that are side-splitting, characters that are hilarious in conception and execution, and there’s an overall irreverent attitude permeating the film which goes a long way towards disrupting that Marvel samey-ness.
Chris Hemsworth has long since proven his comedic chops and has breathed life into one of the Avengers’ most boring characters consistently. He’s a genuine star and anchors this film with excellence. Marvel stalwarts Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Mark Ruffalo as Hulk bring the weight of their past adventures to this one effectively. Tessa Thompson, Jeff Goldblum, and Waititi himself are all new characters added to the mix, effortlessly inserting some of that diversity of which I was speaking. Thompson’s character is badass, Goldblum plays himself as a space emperor, and Waititi plays a motion-capture rock warrior that is hands down the funniest character of the whole affair. Cate Blanchett is having a blast as the big bad of the film, Idris Elba’s role (which carries over from the previous Thor entries) is beefed up substantially, and one simply gets the sense that Thor: Ragnarok was as pleasant to create as it was to watch.
Aside from the comedy, Marvel’s generous budgets allow for richly rendered fantasy worlds ripe with the type of excellent design that made the Guardians Of The Galaxy films stand out. Much has been said about the colorful nature of Ragnarok’s visuals, and that is a pleasure as well. Thor even gets some moments of strong iconography, even if the film doesn’t feel as action-packed as, say, the Captain America films do. The use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” lends itself to the most goosebump-inducing moments of pure badassery on display in any of the Thor films, and sent me home blasting Led Zeppelin music like I was back in high school.
It’s unclear what X-factors go into a filmmaker like James Gunn or Taika Waititi being able to thrive in the hyper-controlled Marvel system when someone like Edgar Wright butted heads so strongly. And with a film like Baby Driver thumbing its nose at the Marvel machine and becoming a singular creative and commercial hit this year, there’s a certain righteousness to unique creators simply doing their own thing well and not bothering with the Marvel Industrial Complex. Waititi acquitted himself well here, however, and has likely opened countless doors for himself in Hollywood. Here’s to hoping he continues to bring that effortless Maori/Kiwi sensibility to his future projects instead of the other way around, with Hollywood fitting him into it’s time-honored and stifling box.
And I’m Out.