To a large extent, the making of modern blockbuster movies has depended on placating fans to keep the franchise behemoths humming along smoothly. But while making “Thor: Love and Thunder”, Taika Waititi had no interest in it. He approached the film from the opposite direction. What would actually make fans angry?
“I wanted to show him in a way that most Thor fans wouldn’t really want if you told them,” Waititi said. “If you were to say to them, ‘Yeah, I’m going to make Thor fall in 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 following 2017’s smash hit “Thor Ragnarok.” This movie, a hit with fans and critics alike, reimagined Chris Hemsworth’s God of Thunder and introduced a looser, more idiosyncratic tone to Marvel’s most monolithic hero.
But if “Ragnarok” was Waititi’s version of a Marvel movie, “Love and Thunder” might just be a Taika Waititi movie, unequivocally. Of the 29 films so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, perhaps none is so distinctly the work of its filmmaker.
In “Love and Thunder,” there are things that usually never enter the MCU, like children and cancer. It’s scruffy, unruly and surprisingly on a human scale. Manly bravery is mostly a joke. Thor isn’t even really Thor. His hammer, Mjolnir, transformed Natalie Portman’s Jane into Mighty Thor. By the time Waititi is done with him, Thor’s biggest battle is convincing a child to wear proper shoes before leaving the house.
“For me, it’s nice to give the fans something they don’t know they want,” Waititi said in a recent video conference interview from Los Angeles. “With ‘Ragnarok’ in particular, when I signed on, a lot of fans freaked out about it. They were like, ‘Who is this guy? He’s going to take our precious Thor and ruin it.’ And I was like, “Yeah. Exactly. This is exactly my intention. And I’m going to improve it, you don’t know that yet.”‘
When Waititi was handed the reins of “Ragnarok,” the 46-year-old New Zealand filmmaker was a less familiar figure to most Marvel fans – and the first Indigenous director to helm a major superhero film. It was a huge leap in ladder for Waititi, who after spending years painting in his late twenties turned to making comedic independent films (“Boy,” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) with a deadpan absurdity and free-wheeling tonal shifts.
But since “Ragnorak”, Waititi has established himself as a Hollywood dynamo, in front of and behind the camera, juggling several armfuls of major studio franchises and more offbeat projects. His “Jojo Rabbit,” a childlike vision of Nazi Germany in which Waititi played an imaginary Hitler, received six Oscar nominations in 2020. (Waititi won for adapted screenplay). He has another Searchlight Pictures movie, “Next Goal Wins,” coming along, as well as two Willy Wonka series for Netflix, a “Flash Gordon” movie for Disney’s 20th Century Studios, a “Time Bandits” series for Apple TV+, and a “Star Wars” movie he expects to write soon.
Hollywood has pushed just about any intellectual property it can find at Waititi, eager for him to dismantle it.
“It surprises me how much I never wanted to. I always wanted to do little things just with my friends,” Waititi says. “The idea of working with a studio never appealed to me. Then I worked with Marvel and realized, well, there are ways of working with studios where it doesn’t have to be painful.”
“My job is to come in and have as many ideas as possible and not think too much about the consequences, and let them keep me in the Marvel lane,” adds Waititi. “It’s not my job to go see every movie or read every comic book. I’m sure that’s contrary to what a lot of people think a filmmaker should be doing.”
It’s a somewhat ironic development for a filmmaker who, as a cast member in last year’s ‘Free Guy,’ parodied business-driven sequel requests and once balked at the thought of moving on. long months in post-production at Marvel Studios in Burbank, California. .
“It’s more just the idea of Burbank as a place,” says Waititi. “Going out there is fine if you close your eyes and ignore the fact that you’re in Burbank and eating Burbank food for lunch.”
But how much of Waititi’s anarchic spirit can Hollywood’s biggest franchises bear? “Ragnarok” has grossed $850 million worldwide, and expectations are similar for “Love and Thunder.” His ability to connect with mass audiences — despite his best efforts to subvert expectations — is surpassed by a few current filmmakers. Still, something like “Star Wars” has been particularly resistant to comedic tone shifts – something Waititi is well aware of.
“It has to sound authentic to my tone,” he says of the “Star Wars” movie first announced two years ago. “I wouldn’t say any of my movies are just comedies. I’ve never done great comedy. I’ve never done anything that’s just jokes. There’s always something that resonates or touches on a human issue. They’re all about family. They’re all about (expletive) families. I don’t believe blood makes you family at all.
“Families are just a hodgepodge of people who gravitate towards each other,” adds Waititi who was raised by a Jewish mother, a largely absent Maori father (they separated when Waititi was 5) and a wide range of parents. “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 paired on the HBO Max series “Our Flag Means Death”) and many more. Another is Sterlin Harjo, whom Waititi met on the festival circuit years ago, where they bonded as Indigenous artists with a similar sense of humor. Waititi helped Harjo get his acclaimed FX series “Reservation Dogs” off the ground, about four Native American teenagers from Oklahoma.
“The way Taika directs, the way he does things, it’s all about spontaneity,” said Harjo, who will debut the show’s second season next month. “It’s about the magic trick of it all. Having it all at once is where the creativity lies for him. It’s like he’s operating at that level where he has to have it all buzzing.”
The love of “Love and Thunder,” which Waititi co-wrote, applies most directly to the relationship between Thor and Jane, but it also relates to other aspects of the “Thor” sequel, including the Christian Bale’s grieving villain and the kidnapped children who play increasingly central roles in the film. Waititi, who has two daughters with film producer Chelsea Winstanley (they split in 2018), relied on her children and others to help design the movie’s monsters. Hemsworth’s children, Bale and Portman all appear in the film.
“It’s nepotism at its best,” says Waititi. “And why not? It’s a movie about parenthood and putting someone else before yourself.”
The primacy of children in “Thor: Love and Thunder” is also very much in line with Waititi’s other films. “Boy” was loosely based on his own 1980s childhood in Waihau Bay. His first short, Oscar-nominated “Two Cars, One Night,” tells the story of a girl and a boy who become friends while waiting for their parents in a parking lot outside a pub. The army of children helping to save the day in “Love and Thunder” is just the latest uprising in Waititi’s ongoing war on adulthood. In the end, even Thor was no match for it.