NEW YORK (AP) – Modern blockbuster filmmaking depends in large part on fan appeasement to keep franchise juggernauts going. But Taika Waititi had no interest in producing Thor: Love and Thunder. He approached the film from the opposite direction. What would actually make fans angry?
“I wanted to show him in a light that most Thor fans wouldn’t really want if they were told,” says Waititi. “If you said to them, ‘Yes, I’m going to make Thor love,’ that’s probably the last thing a Thor fan really wants to hear.”
Thor: Love and Thunder, which opens Thursday, is Marvel’s fourth Thor film and Waititi’s second after 2017’s smash hit Thor Ragnarok. A hit with fans and critics, this film reinvented Chris Hemsworth’s God of Thunder and lent a looser, more idiosyncratic tone to Marvel’s most monolithic hero.
But if Ragnarok was Waititi’s version of a Marvel film, there’s no doubt that Love and Thunder could just be a Taika Waititi film. Of the 29 films in the Marvel cinematic universe to date, none is so clearly the work of its filmmaker.
There are things in Love and Thunder that usually never make it into the MCU, like kids and cancer. It’s dingy, unruly, and surprisingly human-sized. Male bravery is mostly a joke. Thor isn’t even really Thor. His hammer, Mjolnir, transformed Natalie Portman’s Jane into the Mighty Thor. By the time Waititi is done with him, Thor’s biggest struggle is convincing a child to wear proper shoes before leaving the house.
“For me, it’s good to give the fans something they don’t know they want,” Waititi said in a recent video conference interview from Los Angeles. “Especially with ‘Ragnarok’, when I signed up, a lot of fans were freaking out about it. They said, ‘Who is this guy? He will take our precious Thor and ruin him.’ And I thought, ‘Yes. Exactly. That is exactly my intention. And I’ll do better, you just don’t know it yet.’”
When Waititi was handed the reins of Ragnarok, the 46-year-old New Zealand filmmaker was a lesser-known figure to most Marvel fans — and the first Indigenous director to helm a major superhero film. It was a giant leap in magnitude for Waititi, who, after spending years painting, turned his late 20s to making comic book independent films (“Boy,” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) of deadpan absurdity and freewheeling tone shifts.
But since Ragnarok, Waititi has become a Hollywood dynamo, in front of and behind the camera, juggling armfuls of major studio franchises and more offbeat projects. His “Jojo Rabbit,” a childish look at Nazi Germany in which Waititi played an imaginary Hitler, received six Oscar nominations in 2020. (Waititi won for an adapted screenplay). He has another film for Searchlight Pictures, Next Goal Wins, coming soon, as well as two Willy Wonka series for Netflix, a Flash Gordon film for Disney’s 20th Century Studios, a Time Bandits series for Apple TV+ and a Star Wars film that he is expected to write soon.
Hollywood has shoved just about any intellectual property it can find onto Waititi, eager for him to mine.
“It surprises me that I never wanted to do that. I’ve always wanted to do smaller things just with my friends,” says Waititi. “The idea of working with a studio never appealed to me. Then I worked with Marvel and I realized there are ways to work with studios that don’t have to be painful.”
“My job is to come up with as many ideas as possible and not think too much about the consequences and let them keep me on the Marvel trail,” adds Waititi. “It’s not my job to watch every single movie or read every single comic book. I’m sure that goes against what a lot of people think a filmmaker should do.”
It’s a somewhat tongue-in-cheek development for a filmmaker who parodied business-driven demands for a sequel as an actor in last year’s Free Guy, and who once winced at the thought of spending long months in post-production at Marvel Studios in Burbank, California.
“It’s more the Burbank idea as a place,” Waititi clarifies. “Going there is ok if you close your eyes and ignore the fact that you are in Burbank eating Burbank food for lunch.”
But how much of Waititi’s anarchic spirit can Hollywood’s biggest franchises use? “Ragnarok” grossed $850 million worldwide, and expectations for “Love and Thunder” are similar. His ability to connect with a mass audience – despite his efforts to subvert expectations – is unmatched by few current filmmakers. However, something like “Star Wars” was particularly resistant to weird tone changes – something Waititi is well aware of.
“It has to feel authentic for my tone,” he says of the Star Wars film, which was first announced two years ago. “I wouldn’t say any of my films are all comedy. I’ve never done broad comedy before. I’ve never done anything that’s just jokes. It always has something that resonates or taps into a human problem. They’re all about family. It’s about fucked up families. I don’t think blood makes you family at all.”
“Families are just a mishmash of people who are somehow attracted to each other,” adds Waititi, who was raised by a Jewish mother, a largely absent Maori father (they separated when Waititi was 5) and a multitude of relatives . “My family is so huge. It’s thousands of people.”
This includes collaborators like Jemaine Clement (with whom Waititi did What We Do in the Shadows), Rhys Darby (currently together on the HBO Max series Our Flag Means Death), and many others. Another is Sterlin Harjo, whom Waititi met years ago at festivals where they bonded as Native American performers with a similar sense of humor. Waititi helped Harjo create his acclaimed FX series, Reservation Dogs, about four Native American teenagers in Oklahoma.
“The way Taika directs, the way he does things, it’s about spontaneity,” says Harjo, who will debut the show’s second season next month. “It’s about the magic trick of everything. For him, creativity lies in letting everything run at the same time. It’s like he’s operating at that level where he has to have everything buzzing.”
The love of Love and Thunder, which Waititi co-wrote, relates most directly to Thor and Jane’s relationship, but also relates to other aspects of the Thor sequel, including Christian Bale’s grieving villain and the kidnapped children play an increasingly central role in the film. Waititi, who has two daughters with film producer Chelsea Winstanley (they separated in 2018), relied on his children and others to create the monsters in the film. Children of Hemsworth, Bale and Portman all appear in the film.
“This is nepotism at its finest,” says Waititi. “And why not? It’s a movie about parenting and putting someone else before yourself.”
The primacy of children in Thor: Love and Thunder is also consistent with Waititi’s other films. “Boy” was loosely based on his own childhood in the 1980s growing up in Waihau Bay. His first short film, the Oscar-nominated Two Cars, One Night, is about a girl and boy who become friends while waiting for their parents in the parking lot of a pub. The army of children who help save the day in Love and Thunder is just the latest insurgency in Waititi’s ongoing war on adulthood. In the end, even Thor wasn’t an opponent.