As Thor: Ragnarok cleaned up at multiplexes across the UK (and the rest of the world) in its opening weekend, let’s consider the man hired to helm the latest Marvel blockbuster. Its 42-year-old film director Taika Waititi might seem an odd choice to carry the hopes of Hollywood on his slim shoulders (and after a summer where many a supposed blockbuster failed to deliver at the box office, the latest Thor needs to score). Odd in the sense that Taikia’s spent the last decade directing a series of low-budget comedies. All of which were not only filmed in New Zealand but dealt with alienated, dysfunctional (largely Maori) male youths. The entire budget for his previous four features is would barely have matched Thor: Ragnarok’s catering outlay. While the boys and men in these features are dreamers, losers, hermits, little criminals, anything but heroic.
Then again, considering the worldwide audience for Marvel superhero movies includes a large contingent of young males – and quite possibly rather dysfunctional ones – it might be that the brains behind Marvel Cinematic Universe decided Waititi was so in tune with the film’s core market that he would deliver a Thor the fanboys would adore. As Thor: Ragnarok is more comic, gently mocking (while loving the genre), it appears Waititi has been allowed to employ the goofy wit that illuminates his best work. Or it may just be Hollywood went looking for a fresh director who demonstrated strong visual and narrative talents, commercial instincts and budgetary restraint. Nothing new in this.
For now, I’d like to think that Waititi is a Maori warrior flown across the Pacific to save Hollywood. He’s a unique talent and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Film for 2003’s Two Cars, One Night (it didn’t win but it is brilliant and on YouTube so go and enjoy 11 minutes of pleasure) while his feigning sleep during the AA ceremony marked him as a jester. That said, his debut feature, 2007’s Eagle Versus Shark, stars Jemaine Clement (of Flight Of The Conchords – they met at university and formed a very successful comedy duo prior to Conchords), is a misfire – imagine Napoleon Dynamite relocated to small town New Zealand – but received a limited UK and US release and ensured finance was available for 2010’s Boy.
Boy is one of the freshest films of this century. Set in the East Cape of the North Island – a rural, Maori region where Waititi partly grew up – the film captures something both very Kiwi and yet universal as its 11 year old protagonist struggles to deal with his gang member father (played by Waititi) returning home from prison. The Kiwi public loved Boy, quickly making it the nation’s highest grossing homegrown film, yet its parochial setting seemingly made it off limits when it came to an international release.
2014’s What We Do In The Shadows found Waititi and Clement co-writing/directing/starring in a vampire mockumentary. Released at the tail end of the Twilight-inspired vampire movie craze, What We Do In The Shadows got an international release (helped, no doubt, by Clement’s high profile). It lacks the comic brilliance that illuminated Flight Of The Conchords but Shadows does succeed in poking fun at both awkward Kiwi youths and gothic vampire tropes.
Waititi then considerably raised his game with 2016’s Hunt For The Wilderpeople, casting Sam Neil – the best known New Zealand actor (if you consider Russell Crowe Australian) – as a gruff, bitter hunter who finds himself saddled with a young Maori boy fleeing foster care. Waititi adapted Wilderpeople from a novel by the late Kiwi author Barry Crump and does a brilliant job of intermingling humour and drama in a shaggy dog story featuring superb performances. The Kiwi public loved Wilderpeople and Hollywood obviously also liked what they saw, offering Thor: Ragnarok to the director. The Marvel movie’s budget of $180m being 72 times what he had to play with for Wilderpeople.
Waititi’s not the first Maori to make it in Hollywood – Lee Tamahori, director of 1994’s incendiary Once Were Warriors, has since carved out a career directing dull action movies – but Waititi is the more gifted filmmaker. Will he follow Tamahori up the yellow brick road to Beverley Hills mansion by directing a series of Marvel movies? Or has the super warrior of Maori cinema got more surprises up his sleeve? For now Thor: Ragnarok has already done Waititi a favour here – Boy finally has a limited UK release.