NEW YORK (AP) — To a large extent, the making of modern blockbuster movies has depended on appeasing 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 after the smash hit of 2017 “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 the 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. That’s exactly my intention. And I’m gonna make it better, 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 “Ragnarok”, 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 childhood 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 intends 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 in that I never wanted to. I always wanted to do little things just with my friends,” says Waititi. “I never liked the idea of working with a studio. Then I worked with Marvel and realized, well, there are ways to work 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 watch every movie or read every comic. 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 “Free Guy” last year, parodied business-driven sequel requests and who once recoiled from the idea of spending 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 there is fine if you close your eyes and ignore the fact that you are 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 tonal changes – something Waititi is acutely 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 that any of my films are just comedy. I’ve never done great comedy. I’ve never done anything that’s just jokes. There is always something that resonates or touches on a human issue. They are all about family. These are (expletive) families. I don’t believe that 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 gigantic. 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 famous FX series “Reservation Dogs”, about four Native American teenagers in Oklahoma, off the ground.
“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. “This is the magic trick of it all. Having everything at the same time is where the creativity lies for him. It’s like he’s operating at that level where he has to make everything buzz.
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 monsters for the film. Hemsworth’s children, Bale and Portman all appear in the film.
“It’s nepotism at its finest,” 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 film, nominated for an Oscar “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.
By JAKE COYLE, AP Screenwriter.