Whatever your thoughts on Taika Waititi, there’s one thing pretty much everyone agrees upon: the man is a master of branding. Over the course of just a handful of features, the Kiwi filmmaker has cannoned from indie darling, to blockbuster maven, to a sought-after actor and celebrity in his own right. In an age when the celebrity-filmmaker seems to be in decline, Waititi has carved out a niche and made sure he’s the one to fill it.
But what exactly is that niche? More so than pretty much any director of his profile, Waititi is impossible to pin down. His early films were modestly budgeted comedies – Eagle v Shark and Boy, both of which he also appeared in. He wrote two and directed four episodes of the cult HBO musical comedy Flight of the Conchords. It was 2014’s hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, starring former Conchords collaborator Jermaine Clement, that first introduced him to a wider western audience; this was consolidated with the utterly endearing comedy-drama Hunt for the Wilderpeople. While these two films stayed true to his New Zealand setting and sensibility, his next film – the Marvel blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok – was a drastic shunt towards the mainstream. Despite this, Waititi was still able to maintain some of his indie proclivities, deviating successfully from the generic Marvel house style. Ragnarok’s glam-rock technicolour glibness marked a particularly radical departure from the first two Thor films, which were generally considered sterile and un-hip and were not hits by Disney’s metric; credit was heaped on Waititi for the sequel’s $854m-grossing resurgence.
Often, when blockbuster franchises ensnare auteur filmmakers, the results are underwhelming – Chloe Zhao’s widely panned Eternals and Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange sequel are two recent examples. But Waititi, instead, seemed to revel in it. With the cache Ragnarok afforded him, he went on to make JoJo Rabbit (2019), a saccharine comedy set in Nazi Germany, with Waititi playing an imaginary Hitler. JoJo Rabbit certainly had its defenders, among them The Independent’s Clarisse Loughrey and a few busloads of Oscar voters, apparently – the film won Best Adapted Screenplay, making Waititi the first indigenous filmmaker to win an Academy Award. But for many, its success was baffling: JoJo was treacly, ill-conceived and punishingly unfunny. It was a hit, but one that perversely only fuelled doubts about Waititi’s artistic credentials. If the start of his career had given viewers some notion of what to expect from a Taika Waititi joint, Ragnarok and JoJo Rabbit had dismantled it.
Still, though, his “brand” was stronger than ever. In the five years since Ragnarok, Waititi has done what any shrewd business type would advise you to do – he diversified his portfolio. Waititi launched himself at a smorgasbord of different projects across film and TV, behind and in front of the camera. To name but a few: the excellent What We Do in the Shadows TV adaptation, acclaimed comedy Reservation Dogs, Star Wars adaptation The Mandalorian, and the roundly well-received pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death. He featured as the villain in the Ryan Reynolds blockbuster Free Guy, and reprised his Ragnarok character, Korg, in a number of Marvel properties. He’s also directed another Thor sequel, Love and Thunder, out in July, and the football-based comedy Next Goal Wins (which filmed back in late 2019 but has undergone reshoots after Armie Hammer was recast following a sexual assault allegation). The sheer volume and variety of his output means it’s hard to get a handle on what exactly Waititi’s whole “deal” is anymore.
He’s no longer an outsider, that’s for sure. But still, there are facets to Waititi that seem to resist pigeonholing as just another corporatised sellout. For a lot of people, the enduring image of Waititi is a paparazzi-snapped photo of him kissing both Tessa Thompson (whom he directed in Ragnarok and the forthcoming Thor: Love and Thunder) and Rita Ora (whom he is now dating) while lounging on a balcony after a party in Sydney, Australia. While the photo was obviously none of anyone’s business, it summed up something quintessential about Waititi’s image – dare I say, his appeal. There was a certain libertine quality to Waititi in that moment, a bucking of conventions. The photo flew in the face of not just Disney’s bland, sexually regressive image – it’s no wonder reports surfaced of Marvel’s unhappiness with the photo – but of mainstream society’s entire approach to sexual-romantic norms.
What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople shone exactly because of their outsiderdom. These were films about social outcasts, made by someone who seemed to share their sensibility. Perhaps the reason JoJo Rabbit fell so flat for so many is because Waititi had moved on: this was a film about rebellion and single-mindedness made by someone who had just directed a huge, frivolous blockbuster for the world’s most dominant film studio. Transgression was never really an option.
In an era when filmmakers are increasingly overlooked by the public at large – when the biggest films all too often feel like the soulless visions of VFX houses and market research teams – there is something to be said for Waititi’s Hollywood success story. Perhaps his burgeoning celebrity is the endgame of his efforts, but it could be merely a byproduct. The most we could say at the moment is that he is a man of contradictions; for every JoJo there is a Wilderpeople, for every Free Guy an Our Flag Means Death. As long as he keeps flinging ideas at the wall, it’s safe to say some are going to stick. Maybe that’s enough.