There are directors with a signature so unique, there is no mistaking their work for anyone else’s. Martin Scorsese and gravitas. Steven Spielberg and childlike wonder. Christopher Nolan and mindtrips, Wes Anderson and whimsy. Quentin Tarantino and dialogue, Tim Burton and oddities, Joss Whedon and wit… Taika Waititi and sheer unbridled irreverence?
It’s official. Taika Waititi takes nothing seriously, not even Asgard. And it works.
I always thought the first Iron Man was the comic book movie, a shot in the arm of plodding superhero franchises like X-men or Superman which, being grounded in human sensibilities, had become way too dreary and realistic. Jon Favreau’s first Iron Man movie did away with all that, lighting up the screen with bright colours and a wisecracking RDJ on the comeback trail, intent on mayhem and revenge with a childlike sort of glee, like the kid in Home Alone with a genius IQ and a colossal budget.
Which was great, because it kickstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the dawn of the new superhero movie, but that nagging sense of being normal people with normal problems still persisted. Tony Stark has PTSD. Steve Rogers has fish out of water syndrome. Natasha Romanoff is infertile. Bruce Banner is manic depressive. The Vision is basically the robot child from A.I., Wanda Maximoff and Peter Quill have abandonment issues, Scott Lang is a divorced single dad, Peter Parker and Groot are angsty teenagers and no one cares about Hawkeye. We’re talking about beings who are more than human, who can fly, have super strength, super speed, super everything and we’re giving them issues that turn them into normal people who need therapists. Yay, for relatability!
The thing about Waititi’s work is he allows humour to supercede everything including death, so death is dealt with almost as a trivial afterthought. The magnificent Cate Blanchett in goth drag fells a horde of Asgardian soldiers with nary a blink, and it’s nothing, just par for the course. We see some beloved (?) heroes fall almost without pause, no significant warning, no chance to mourn the way we did for Agent Coulter in the Avengers, and somehow… it’s okay. It’s the comics! They have the power of the retcon!
A gorgeous, muscled man with a torso made for sin, can harness lightning, has impeccable comic timing and still find a way to be flustered in the face of a budding crush? Chris Hemsworth is a god. Frank Miller aside, I don’t necessarily need to see comic book heroes wrestle with their inner demons all the time. I just want to watch them break things with lightning bolts streaming from their eyes. I want to see whom Hela impales next, what Thor and the Hulk are going to do on Sakaar, what that amazingly endearing Korg is going to say(Waititi’s cameo, Kiwi accent and everything!), and of course what Goldblumish thing Jeff Goldblum is going to bless us all with next. (Don’t be fooled by the Grandmaster costume. Jeff Goldblum is playing Jeff Goldblum. That is all.)
Thor and the Hulk – already the best odd couple since The Avengers – only get better here, as cosmic gladiators duking it out on a trash heap of a planet and, later as bunk mates in a locker room, recovering from their injuries. If you didn’t already love Mark Ruffalo’s iteration as Bruce Banner/Hulk (“I have seven PHDs! The Hulk has zero!”), you will definitely love him in a crew cut, strings of beaded necklaces and not much else. (Thor: “Oh, it’s in my head now.”)
It says something about the cast when a magnetic screen presence like Idris Elba is almost an afterthought. Try as he might, the scenery is chewed to shreds by so many of the movie’s members, there’s barely anything left for Heimdall to sink his teeth in. Tom Hiddleston as Loki also gets screen time but the lustre seems to have dulled, perhaps from dating Taylor Swift and wearing that godawful tank . He clearly hasn’t gained forgiveness just yet which Waititi is aware of, because Thor spends a lot of their shared screen time throwing things at Loki, to my everlasting delight.
I said in a previous post I hoped Waititi would bring his sensibilities to the new Thor movie and by god he did. It’s a madcap romp through a cosmos that explodes with colour and vibrancy, the the spirit brother of the first Guardians of the Galaxy, with a less curated (though by no means inferior) soundtrack and an amped up sense of humour.
And it works. It works better than I ever expected it could, because Thor: Ragnarok captures the feeling of reading an actual comic book, that conscious sense of checking disbelief at the door and diving into a multi-hued universe with exaggerated superbeings who are always trying to either save the world or destroy it, and not looking for meaning or depth, just finding sheer, unbridled fantasy and entertainment. It casts relatability to the wind and reminds us all that superheroes didn’t choose the skux life. The skux life chose them.