Thor: Ragnarok – is Taika Waititi bound and gagged at Mavel studios?

Each director has brought something of himself to the Thor franchise. Kenneth Branagh brought a little of the theatre, Alan Taylor seemed to enhance that sci-fi element, and now Taika Waititi brings a touch of his indie comedy sensibility. Thor isn’t quite the hot property of – say – the Spiderman franchise, it has to work for its bucks, which is probably why Thor is one of the most inconstant Marvel characters.

Taika Waititi has taken the Marvel Universe and brought his own offbeat comedic vision to the Thor series. The film is filled with a specifically New Zealand humour, which clearly wasn’t held back by the studio. The original Iron Man film set the blueprint for the Marvel U, a template each subsequent film has adapted with varying levels of success. Irreverent comedy has always been central to Marvel, creating breezy sharp cinema, which has proven tremendously watchable. Taika Waititi has taken this and pushed it to the nth degree, the gag-rate is set to the max, to the point where Thor: Ragnarok is being considered as a comedy.

It is a wise cracking romp, but gags and detractions aside Thor: Ragnarok remains identifiably Marvel. The story arch is very much a hero’s journey and while Taika Waititi’s jokes constantly seek to downplay and subvert the film’s thematic drama, rarely does it divert from fairly safe superhero film territory. I loved the wisecracks and I loved the romp, but one can’t help but feel that Mr Waititi was held hostage on the Marvel bus. His vision is reflected cosmetically in the film’s humour, in its fantastical 70’s rock sensibility, and its inspired casting, but the dramatic arch is all Marvel.

The beauty and interest of Thor: Ragnarok is that there are two films on the screen playing simultaneously. There is a large budget Marvel studio movie with an identifiable big name actress as its villain; Cate Blanchett holding the role spectacularly in a supernaturally close fitting black onesie, complete with antlers that only she could make intimidating; stunning CGI; and battle set pieces straight out of the comic books. But there is also an offbeat Kiwi indie movie, which enjoys creating surreal situational comedy, irreverently exploring its comic book archetypes, and often subverting or undermining the main narrative’s dramatic tension. It does all of this with a deft hand and creates a unique and watchable specimen in the Marvel canon.

I had eagerly anticipated the arrival of Edgar Wright’s Ant Man, when battling between the director and the studio led to the former being ejected from the project – or rather voluntarily withdrawing from it, as we were officially told. Edgar Wright had dug his heels in, maintaining that his vision of Ant Man was the only one he was prepared to make. It has been said that in the case of Taika Waititi that more latitude was shown, but perhaps Mr Waititi just played a shrewder game. True, he has not created an auteur production, in the style Mr Wright demanded, but he has infused the film with so much Waititiness as to make it his own. It’s an off the shelf Marvel action flick baked and marinated for so long in Waititi juice that its structure crumbles deliciously upon consumption.

Thor: Ragnarok is not the outright triumph of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, or What We Do in the Shadows, nor is it as wholly Taika Waititi, but it is as offbeat a comic take, within an international blockbuster franchise, as could have been hoped for.

Much more could be said of the cast, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston’s snappy comedic partnership, Jeff Goldblum’s brilliantly entertaining Grandmaster – who is just too good not the return, surely? – and the Hulk’s arrival as a kind of unthinking alpha-Thor, much to Thor’s displeasure; but Tessa Thompson makes a bold attempt at stealing the show with her portrayal of a fallen Valkyrie warrior.

Thor: Ragnarok completely reshapes the world of Asgard. It is not afraid to dispatch characters, sometimes abruptly, sometimes brutally, and it is not afraid to introduce new ones – even upstage the title character. It takes the realm of Asgard and gives it a good shake. It will be interesting to see where the pieces land, but above all this is a stand-alone movie. No doubt Marvel will take Thor: Ragnarok and add it to its broad panoply story arc, but I suspect the real pleasure here will have been in Taika Waititi’s shaking.

 

 

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