Production is officially underway on Thor: Ragnarok, and with it comes an exciting new voice in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The third installment in the hammer-wielding hero’s franchise will catch us up on what Hulk and Thor were up to while the other Avengers were butting heads, and will no doubt play a major role in connecting the dots between the earthbound affairs of Captain America: Civil War and the upcoming all-out intergalactic war set for Avengers: Infinity War. At the helm is first-time Marvel director Taika Waititi, the Academy Award-nominated director behind New Zealand’s two highest-grossing films, Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and last year’s cult horror comedy hit, What We Do in the Shadows.
Known primarily as a quirky “indie” director, at first glance Waititi may appear a peculiar choice to take on a Marvel sequel with the scope and scale required for an epic interdimensional event like Ragnarok — which will combine the titular events of the famed Asgardian Armageddon with the fan-favorite Planet Hulk arc – but a closer look reveals that he’s not just a great pick for the material at hand, but also exactly the breath of fresh air the Thor franchise needs after the disappointingly dour The Dark World. Here’s why.
He’s Got the Right Kind of Humor
A common, somewhat confounding complaint lobbied against Waititi’s role at the helm of Ragnarok is that he’s too much of a comedic director — a statement that both undersells the complexity of his humor and oversells the seriousness of the MCU. Sure, Waititi is a seriously funny guy, and that translates to all his films, but more often than not, that humor is rooted in moments of emotional honesty. You might laugh your way through Boy, but there’s no denying the serious undercurrent that gives the film such heart. What’s more, he’s made an art of using humor to undercut overly self-serious characters, and if there’s one character in the Marvel Universe primed for that brand of comedy, it’s the Mighty Thor with his high-minded, ever-regal intonation and unwavering (if admittedly earned) sense of self-importance. Thinking back on Thor’s run in the MCU, his most delightful moments have been when that earnest bombast clashes with the quotidian. It’s the angle that allows such a fantastical, flamboyant type of character to thrive in a modern context (especially in days before the MCU took a turn for the trippy with Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy).
It’s also an element that was largely lacking in The Dark World, leading to one of Marvel’s most notable misfires with an action spectacle that fizzled for a lack of joy. With Ragnarok, Thor is likely to leave the earth realm behind entirely for the time being, leaving even less opportunity for those natural comedic bits of contrast to arise. At the same time, the apocalyptic Ragnarok story is one of Marvel’s most dire and doesn’t traditionally scream comedy, chronicling the fall of the Asgardian gods in a brutal battle with the inhabitants of the underworld Hel. But if there’s one thing we know for certain by now, it’s that the Marvel films are never exact adaptations of their titular comics. No doubt the stakes in Ragnorak will be disastrous, but much like Civil War, they probably won’t be as dark as the narrative from which they hail. That said, Ragnarok is going to be a delicate balancing act between tones and Waititi has the skills to respect the severity of the story at hand while delivering an entertaining romp worthy of the Marvel brand, and put two actors on the caliber of Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo to their best use.
He’s Good at Genre
The main reason people might think Waititi is too goofy to take on a story like Ragnarok, is probably because his best-known movie is the super silly, if wildly clever, horror comedy What We Do in the Shadows (in which he also starred as the dandy vampire, Viago). Co-created with his regular collaborator and Flight of the Concords star Jemaine Clement, What We Do in the Shadows is Waititi’s purest comedic work to date. And while it beautifully displays Waititi’s idiosyncratic brand of humor, it’s also a showcase for his grasp on genre.
What We Do in the Shadows thrives on Clement and Waititi’s command of the genre they’re working in; deftly leaning into tropes or bucking against them at exactly the right moments. That’s not to say that the vampire and superhero genres are equivocal or interchangeable, but it demonstrates a fine-tuned sensibility for honing in on what makes a genre tick. You see it in Hunt for the Wilderpeople as well, most clearly in Rachel House‘s child welfare agent Paula, who is essentially the most pedantic version of every single-minded law-enforcement agent in the long history of chase movies.
That ability to embrace the mold while reinventing it is an absolute necessity at this point in the Marvel universe. Kenneth Branagh already gave us a bread-and-butter Shakespearean Thor, we’ve seen the God of Thunder rough and tumble with the Avengers, twice, and more than anything, The Dark World showed us that the generic epic formula just doesn’t suit this world. Waititi is the kind of director that can give audiences what they want in a way they didn’t know they wanted it.
He’s All About Character
To put it in the film’s own verbiage, Hunt for the Wilderpeople showed that Waititi’s got “the knack” – not for finding his way to safety in the wilderness, but for finding his way to wonderful characters. It also showed he’s great at road movies. Both of which make him a prime candidate for Ragnarok. (After all, the best buddy road movies are all about character anyway.) Wilderpeople certainly wasn’t the first of his films to hinge on character, they all do, even his most high-concept film, What We Do in the Shadows, but it’s the most impressive display of how he can thrust a pair of mismatched characters into action and adventure.
According to Ruffalo, Ragnarok has a bit of a Midnight Run (in space) vibe. Earlier this year, Ruffalo dropped the classic odd-couple chase film as a reference point for Thor and Banner’s relationship, calling Ragnarok a “universal road movie”. First of all: awesome. The Marvel films have long hinged on adapting a classic movie genre to the Marvel format (most famously, The Winter Soldier was made in the vein of a political thriller), and the buddy movie is a match made in heaven for a universe bursting with unique, well-defined characters. There are perhaps no two characters better suited for an intergalactic road trip than Banner and the Odinson (sorry Science Bros), not just because they throw down so nicely in battle, but because they couldn’t have more disparate personalities. Thor is all sweeping charisma while Banner is reluctant, understated charm. Thor relishes his powers; Banner runs from them. Thor thrives on battle; Banner just wants to be left alone. These are two characters who will not only spark off each other on screen, but narratively force each other to grow and evolve.
Along similar lines, both Boy and Wilderpeople demonstrate Waititi’s skill for delving into family dysfunction without drowning in the sadness of it. And what is Thor without a little family dysfunction? Sibling Rivalry! Daddy Issues! Black Sheep Syndrome! There are some major dangling threads to be resolved between Thor and Loki (and poor old Odin), and Waititi’s got the deft hand to interweave that element without derailing the action.
He’s a Distinguished, Distinct Filmmaker
What’s more, he’s getting better with every film. After earning an Oscar nom for his short film Two Cars, One Night, Waititi directed his first feature film, the offbeat romantic comedy Eagle vs Shark, which was an impressive, if flawed debut, that introduced Waititi’s unique sensibilities as a director but showed room for improvement. With each subsequent film, that improvement has been made, and his skill has become more refined as his scope has grown ever grander, culminating in this year’s outstanding Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Waititi is a director with strong legs under him; a creator with a clear vision and voice.
Marvel’s most exciting films have always come from such directors (provided they can adapt to the Marvel palate, as the Ant-Man snafu made clear). Divisive though it may be, there’s no mistaking Iron Man 3 for anything but a Shane Black film, and whether you love it or hate it (I love it), it is one of the most compelling movies they’ve produced. Likewise, Guardians of the Galaxy lives and breathes by James Gunn‘s offbeat humor and visual panache, and Avengers is a clear product of Joss Whedon‘s loyalty to the comics (and whip-smart dialogue). A smart, experienced director like Waititi is poised to take on the massive scale of a Marvel film and infuse it with his own quality. And what a fine quality it is.