Ask a fan of the superhero genre what their favorite film from the last 20 years has been – either from Marvel, DC, or an unaffiliated brand – and Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok will receive a lot of love. Following up on the dreadful and miscalculated Thor: The Dark World, Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok took a pendulum swing in the other direction, trading broody Shakespearean melodrama for weird but inspired sci-fi, and incorporating the filmmaker’s dry sarcasm. At the time, Waititi’s contributions to the Thor franchise was the breath of fresh air Marvel needed with that character. There’s a reason why the movie ranks high on our list of Marvel Studios movies, ranked. That air grew stale with Waititi’s follow up sequel, Thor: Love and Thunder, and now I’m beginning to understand why.
In a recent interview with the SmartLess podcast, Taika Waititi opened up about his time in the MCU, and he doesn’t come across as super appreciative. Waititi helmed two Thor films with Chris Hemsworth, which are available to stream with a Disney+ subscription and are essential to any viewing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in order. Though Waititi has the new sports comedy Next Goal Wins in theaters at the moment, he has dipped his fingers into the Marvel and Star Wars pots, and is no stranger to franchise work. But as he explained to the podcast hosts, he thought of his initial Marvel assignment as a paycheck gig. He said:
You know what? I had no interest in doing one of those films. It wasn’t on my plan for my career as an auteur. But I was poor and I’d just had a second child, and I thought, ‘You know what? This would be a great opportunity to feed these children.’
And you know what? He’s right. Franchise movies absolutely are ideal for paying one’s bills. And in no way, shape, or form is Taika Waititi the first (or last) Hollywood employee to take a job because it’s just that: a job. And the director has opened up about the fact that he essentially lied to Marvel during the interview process, convincing them that he could do things on the set that he hadn’t done before. And sometimes, that’s magic. Bring in someone who knows nothing about the source material, filter it through their own unique eye, and see how it plays. And it worked!
Did Taika Waititi end up staying with the series because he now understood Thor, and knew how to move him forward in new and exciting ways? I wish. As mentioned, I have little issue with Waititi taking a Marvel offer for the paycheck, particularly to put food on the table for his family. Who would ever take issue with that? It’s the next thing Waititi said that really sours me on his continuation with Thor. As the writer-director explained:
And ‘Thor,’ let’s face it — it was probably the least popular franchise. I never read ‘Thor’ comics when I was a kid. That was the comic I’d pick up and be like ‘Ugh.’ And then I did some research on it, and I read one ‘Thor’ comic or 18 pages, or however long they are. I was still baffled by this character. … I thought the only thing I could bring was character. Just looking at Thor as a character. He’s a billionaire. He lives in space. He looks ridiculous. And that was sort of the in. Let’s just highlight that.
I listened to the comments in context, and even tried to apply Waititi’s self-deprecating, cavalier sense of humor so as not to read to deeply. And I take away the fact that Waititi hated Thor. The comic character, as he states, physically made him ill. He was “baffled” by the character, and didn’t seem all that interested in figuring him out. As Waititi says, in the cringiest way possible, superheroes weren’t in his career plan as an auteur (now I’m saying “ugh” and rolling my eyes). But he tried it, for the paycheck.
What bothers me more than anything else is that this “auteur,” this allegedly pure storyteller who prides himself on heartfelt cinema such as Jojo Rabbit or Hunt for the Wilderpeople, kept doing it. And in the process, took a gig from a filmmaker who actually might enjoy Thor. Who actually might realize that he’s more than – checks notes – a “billionaire” who “lives in space” and “looks ridiculous.” (Seriously, what the hell was Waititi looking at?) And who might have delivered a Thor movie that rose to the level of Thor: Ragnarok, simply because he or she legitimately cared.
A lot of Taika Waititi’s shtick in interviews is this aloof, too-cool-for-the-room demeanor. So maybe he’s putting this thicker layer of skin on to deflect from the half-hearted reception Thor: Love and Thunder received. (The movie sits at 63% on Rotten Tomatoes, with a meager 76% vote from audiences.) And again, I appreciate his candor in admitting that his Marvel stint was purely paycheck.
But I’m someone who remains pot committed to the MCU, and I feel every feature released by the studio SHOULD have value. And like a lot of you, I think Marvel has become a little lax in their quality control on the recent films and Disney+ shows. Having dug deeply into the Infinity Saga for a recent feature on Captain America, and was struck (again) at the attention to detail, the rich characterization, and the care that went into Marvel storytelling. It has been absent as of late, and it has me worried about upcoming Marvel movies. Did Marvel play too fast and loose by allowing directors like Waititi – who didn’t understand their characters, and confess to not caring about understanding them – drive the bus? If even for one movie, allowing a storyteller to approach the MCU with a cavalier, self-proclaimed “ugh” attitude is heartbreaking. What should we care if the filmmakers responsible for the latest Marvel movie can’t, won’t, or don’t?
Taika Waititi’s comments annoy me for these reasons. He’s entitled to take a job for the paycheck, of course. If Marvel was willing to give him millions to churn out a Thor sequel he didn’t care about because he viewed it as a paycheck, shame on them. What else would Marvel expect to receive in the end if they hire a filmmaker who admits to being “baffled” by the character? Why wouldn’t they hire the best person for the assignment? This is an issue facing Marvel as they shuffle potential directors on upcoming Avengers movies, hire new writers for Phase 5 and 6 movies, and try to restore order amidst the chaos caused by handing the keys over to apathetic filmmakers like Waititi in the first place.