Spin-Off: Thor Is Making Taika Waititi Lose His Superpower

In this column, Gayle Sequeira discusses themes, trends and trivial bits of information she's fixated on from fantasy and pop culture
Spin-Off: Thor Is Making Taika Waititi Lose His Superpower

In 2019, a self-professed comics fan reacted to news of the Thor: Love and Thunder's 'Jane Foster as Thor' storyline as most gatekeepers of fandom are prone to do — with anger and capslock. Tweeting at filmmaker Taika Waititi, he accused him of "ruining" the franchise. Waititi's comeback was a study in crafted casualness, crisp in its efficiency, brimming with his signature irreverence: "I'll ruin your mythos in a minute, baby." 

Three years later, his tweet has resurfaced as an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy (Love and Thunder is a tonal mess that broaches some big ideas and nails none), but back then, it was seen as a sign of promise. For a storyteller who made it big when he took over Marvel's Thor franchise, Waititi has fittingly reveled at throwing the hammer at established icons throughout his career. He breaks down symbols of power and recasts them as absurd and ridiculous, making audiences laugh rather than cower. From vampires to Nazis to pirates, Waititi thrives on upending expectations of what these familiar figures should act and look like, turning them into characters who often aren't sure themselves.

Jemaine Clement as Vladislav in What We Do In The Shadows (2014).
Jemaine Clement as Vladislav in What We Do In The Shadows (2014).

In What We Do in the Shadows, the 2014 mockumentary Waititi co-wrote and co-directed with Jermaine Clement, he reimagines the brooding, fearsome image of the vampire. The film repeatedly references historical sketches that depict these ancient creatures at their most terrifying, only to juxtapose these with scenes from the present that show the vampires as hilariously petty and juvenile. One has a hissy fit when his ex is named guest of honor at a masquerade he's meant to attend too. Another repays an insult by daintily slapping his aggressor across the face with his glove. A third is electrocuted by a high-tension wire after transforming into a bat. These are still vampires who want to sink their fangs into an unsuspecting stranger's neck and drink their blood, but they'll put down some towels first so as not to stain the furniture. Gothic literature may point to vampires as predators, but in Waititi's modern world, they're little more than a punchline.

This complete lack of reverence was on full display in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), which abandoned the serious, Shakespearean tone of the previous two films in the Thor franchise. In Waititi's film, Asgard is referred to as "Ass-place" and "Assberg" and Thor is mocked as the "Lord" of Thunder. He's also stripped of all markers of power. First, the god loses his hammer, Mjolnir, not just a formidable weapon but a barometer of worthiness. As the film progresses, he also loses his father Odin, an eye, his sister, and eventually, all of Asgard.

Under the comedy and punchlines, there's a pervasive sense of loss that defines Thor's character. He suffers the betrayal of a parent, the pain of wondering if he could trust a sibling with a penchant for backstabbing and the terrible burden of knowing he chose to destroy Asgard, the only place he'd ever called home. Thor, as Waititi saw him, was not all-powerful. His victory was arguably hollow and both he, and the audience, knew that his powers had failed to save his planet. Rather than a prince who saw the throne as his birthright and destiny in the first Thor movie, here was a leader of refugees. 

While some of Thor's material losses were reversed by the Russo brothers in their Infinity War saga, in which he regained an eye and a weapon, their Avengers: Endgame (2019) had the single most striking visual of a god shattered. Thor, grieving and burdened by the weight of his failure to stop Thanos, turns to alcohol to numb the pain, becomes a recluse and fills the void with food. By showcasing him at his most pathetic, the film made him deserving of the audience's pity. His unkempt state spoke of depression so deep, it could level even the strongest Avenger. 

Thor in Avengers: Endgame (2019).
Thor in Avengers: Endgame (2019).

The groundwork had been laid for Waititi to continue decimating and rebuilding mythos in his typically imaginative way. Except it didn't work this time around. In Thor: Love and Thunder, Thor is a battle-hardened god who dons this persona after simply being a man in love. He may have regained his powers, but he's also directionless and singularly imperceptive to everything but his own emotions. 

In dismantling the idea of deities as figures to be revered and worshiped, Waititi depicts them as cruel and callous throughout the film. They're uncaring when Gorr (Christian Bale) begs for his daughter to be spared, they're boorish when Thor destroys a sacred temple while battling an alien race, they're indifferent at Omnipotence City when he approaches them for help against the impending threat. All of this only strengthens the villain's case. Gorr thinks the gods are despicable, and as the movie progresses, their behaviour isn't so much a revelation as a confirmation of this. This results in a film in which the protagonist, a god, is hard to root for or empathise with. Unlike the other characters in the Waititi oeuvre, a dismantling of mythos doesn't humanise Thor. Instead, it villainises him. 

It's an odd misfire for a director who has long excelled at achieving the opposite — using humour to deflate the air of historical villains and cut them down to size. A great example of this is his 2019 Oscar-winning film Jojo Rabbit, in which the director's subversiveness extends to casting himself, a Polynesian Jew, as Hitler. The film mines laughs from the inane minutae of Nazi rituals and the obviously absurd ways in which they perceive Jews. Like most of Waititi's characters, struggling to reconcile the chasm between who they are and who they think they should be, the film's young protagonist, Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), sees his participation in the Hitler Youth as a step towards "becoming a man" but is overwhelmed by the violence. His disposition is all wrong for the part he thinks he's supposed to be playing.

Unlike Thor, however, Jojo's missteps have a harmless quality to them. "You're not a Nazi. You're a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club," is how another character explains away his behaviour. Thor has much more to answer for. Coming-of-age isn't cute when you're 1,500 years old.  

Hitler (Taika Waititi) dines on a unicorn in Jojo Rabbit (2019).
Hitler (Taika Waititi) dines on a unicorn in Jojo Rabbit (2019).

Waititi handled the theme much more sensitively, and sensibly, in Our Flag Means Death, the 2022 HBO Max show he executive produced and starred in. The Golden Age dramedy follows Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), a gentle aristocrat turned aspiring pirate, who is ironically terrified of bloodshed. Every night, he reads his crew a bedtime story, his choice of Pinocchio a thematic parallel to his life. Pinocchio, more than anything, dreams of being a real boy; Stede, a real "man". Even Blackbeard (Waititi himself), who Stede eventually falls in love with, prefers to go by 'Ed', seeing his dreaded pirate persona as just another entity he must serve.

The Thor of Love and Thunder lacks the self-awareness of the characters in Our Flag Means Death. He's repeatedly faced with the gods' incompetence, yet never pauses to self-reflect or interrogate his own role in the pantheon. And even though the film is intent on dismantling myths, he repeatedly burnishes his own, even when his ineptness is on full display.

Back in 2019, Waititi's tweet was taken as a storyteller flexing. Three years later, his irreverent schtick, so widely praised before, appears to have worn thin. Maybe the next mythos that needs shaking up is his own.

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