There’s a wonderful moment midway through Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, in which our hero shares a traumatic childhood memory with his brother and frequent enemy Loki: the time the latter tried to kill him by transforming into a snake. It’s rambling and absurd but also strangely poignant, with a clear rapport between the actors that’s unlike almost anything in the studio’s slickly oiled machine. Unsurprisingly, it was also improvised on set between Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and director Taika Waititi, who spun the tale off the cuff like the fanciful father he played in his breakout film, Boy (2009).
“I would sit next to Chris and just feed him various versions of the story,” explains Waititi, kicking back in a Sydney harbour suite with the relaxed look of a man who’s just spent millions of studio dollars to adapt his childhood notebook. “This is one of those moments where there were hundreds of people standing around waiting while I’m going, ‘Then one day, I was walking along in a field and I saw a rug lying in the grass, and I went to stand on the rug, but it was Loki pretending to be a rug, and it was a hole, and I fell down into a pit full of spiders.’”
Taking the reigns on a mutli-million dollar franchise tentpole would seem, on the surface, to be an acute career turn for the 42-year-old New Zealand filmmaker, who has charmed audiences with homespun hits like Boy, What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and last year’s winning Hunt for the Wilderpeople. But the Disney Marvel complex were looking to mix things up for their Norse superhero: after the first two relatively staid Thor instalments, studio bosses were looking for a high energy revamp, and were drawn to Waititi’s gift for offbeat comedy, heart, and imaginative storytelling.
Turns out it wasn’t an unusual fit for Waititi, whose films have often embraced elements of myth and the fantastic. In his hands, the God of Thunder’s third stand-alone adventure is a kind of bizarro space buddy comedy which sees Thor, Loki and Hulk band together to battle an ancient evil resurrected by Cate Blanchett’s crowned diva Hela – with a lengthy detour to a zany gaming planet run by Jeff Goldblum, who appears in exaggerated shoulder pads and eyeliner. Tessa Thompson plays a crack Valkyrie spaceship pilot, plus there’s a giant wolf, a colossal fire demon straight off a Slayer T-shirt, and a transdimensional portal known as the Devil’s Anus.
“If you were to pitch all of the elements in one go to a studio, they’d probably think you’re nuts,” says Waititi, who drew on such genre potpourris as Flash Gordon (1980) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986) for inspiration. “It’s like they got a bunch of six-year-olds and said, ‘What do you want to put in this movie?’”
The film’s anything goes, eighties goofball vibe — Goldblum in full flight, poppy colours, and a thumping synth soundtrack courtesy of Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh — is infectious. Where many of the other Marvels are glib to a fault, Thor’s comedy comes from the characters and heart — a Waititi house specialty that shines through, even in the most effects heavy sequences.
“I was surprised how much of me that they allowed to be in the film,” Waititi reflects. “I kept thinking as we were shooting, ‘Eventually they’ll reel me in.’”
“They had a lot of faith in us,” he continues. “We were determined to make the film more fun and adventurous so we made the shoot more fun and adventurous, and I think they could see that. Or maybe they were distracted with other films,” he grins, noting Ragnarok’s Queensland shoot. “Australia was very, very far away.”
Waititi himself appears as a deadpan alien prisoner who’s quietly, sometimes clumsily, planning a revolution. It’s the funniest performance in the film, delivered in a gentle Maori bro accent that throws relief on the otherwise ridiculous events.
Waititi ensured Thor retained elements of his cultural identity. “There were little things that keep me grounded,” he says. “Having a Maori alien was one of them. It’s a weird idea but it just made me feel more like it was one of my films. Or, like, all the spaceships are named after Holdens: Commodore, Statesman, Kingswood.”
At a time when Hollywood is under growing scrutiny for its lack of diversity, Waititi smuggled plenty of cultural references into his franchise juggernaut. “The ship that they fly out of [the fictional planet] Sakaar in, it’s all got the Aboriginal flag colours,” he explains. “For me it was like, ‘Yeah, they’re escaping on the Aboriginal flag!’ And Valkyrie’s ship is the colours of the Maori sovereign flag.”
Still, not everything Waititi suggested made the final cut. “At one moment there were gonna be holograms of Goldblum on all the TV stations,” he remembers. “There was one hologram I wanted to do – and Jeff was into it – where it was gonna be Jeff, shirtless, and I was gonna CG a little Sam Neill on his stomach.”
Waititi laughs at the idea. It’s just the kind of thing that a six-year-old would have dreamed of.
Originally published in The Big Issue, Oct 2017