With an Oscar under his belt, a Star Wars directing gig on the horizon and multiple film and TV projects to his name, Taika Waititi has evolved from an indie comedy guy from New Zealand to perhaps the a beloved Hollywood figure. Few directors (he also writes, acts and produces, by the way) can claim to inspire the sort of fan devotion and critical interest that Waititi does.
As Thor: Love and Thunder, the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, arrives, Waititi has secured his status as one of the true megastar filmmakers of the 2020s. Let's look at how he became a pop culture icon thanks to some vampires, an Asgardian himbo and a comedic Hitler.
Waititi (born Taika Cohen in Raukokore, New Zealand) early career highlights included winning awards for his comedy work with Jemaine Clement, receiving an Oscar nomination for his 2003 short film Two Cars, One Night. He continued working with Clement on the series Flight of the Conchords as a writer and director. The pair would also join forces for Waititi's feature debut, the romantic comedy Eagle vs Shark. But it was Waititi's 2010 comedy/drama Boy that would see Waititi firmly establish his directorial style.
Boy tells the story of a Māori boy who yearns for his ex-convict father to return home. It has a kind of wry, blithe humor that never overwhelms the emotional heart of the narrative. There may be wacky aside moments and a seemingly simple story, but the tonal balance and willingness to bring jokes into the serious emphasize his immensely humane approach to film. It worked wonders. Boy remains the highest-grossing New Zealand movie ever released in its home country.
What We Do in the Shadows
Everything that made Waititi's early movies work reached new heights with his follow-up projects, one of which saw him dip his toes into the world of the speculative. What We Do in the Shadows reunited Waititi and Clement for a mockumentary about hapless vampires who live in a rickety house in Wellington and try to blend in with humans. It was instantly celebrated as one of the decade’s best comedies.
It would later inspire a TV series, where the action moved to Staten Island, and became a multi-Emmy nominated show (Waititi is an executive producer and has directed multiple episodes.) What We Do in the Shadows season 4 premieres on FX July 2022.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is more akin to Boy than What We Do in the Shadows, as the comedy/drama centers on a foster kid who ends up on the run with his sort-of adopted father. Thanks to a career-best performance by Sam Neill and a poignant story about found family, it became the most acclaimed film of Waititi's career. Critics quickly celebrated him as one to watch, a director who could leap into the upper echelons of Hollywood if he played his cards right. Well, he certainly chose the right project to make that step forward.
There's still this sense among critics that, for a director to join a major franchise, they must sacrifice their stylistic and thematic focus. Many feared that Waititi's entrance into the MCU would result in his work being diluted of its inherent appeal. They needn't have worried because Thor: Ragnarok is unmistakably a Waititi production.
The movie allowed Chris Hemsworth to flex his comedic muscles (and literal ones) while imbuing the cosmic realm of the franchise with a neon-drenched 80s-inspired splendor. It was irreverent but never dismissive of the material, funny but still invested in the grandeur of Thor’s world. Ragnarok embraced the riotous quality of the source material and brought much-needed strangeness to the franchise. It became the ninth highest-grossing movie of 2017.
Ragnarok gave Waititi real clout to make some left-field decisions, like a World War II comedy centered on a Nazi kid whose imaginary best friend is Hitler (played by Waititi himself). Jojo Rabbit is nervy stuff, a laugh-out-loud takedown of the flimsy theatricalities of fascism that features some seriously off-color moments. Yet it doesn’t water down its deeply political center, an examination on how children are brainwashed by the adult world and how they remain the last true devotees of a crumbling regime because it’s all they’ve been taught since birth to believe. Again, it’s a Waititi film that blends silly jokes and high emotional stakes (Jojo Rabbit has some of his most tearjerking moments too.) It was a gamble that paid off and Waititi won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work.
Our Flag Means Death
Waititi has recently won a new batch of fans with Our Flag Means Death, the pirate comedy he stars in and executive produces (he also directed an episode). He plays Blackbeard, the infamous pirate, who crossing paths with Stede Bonnet, a hapless gentleman pirate played by fellow Kiwi and regular collaborator Rhys Darby; the two characters start a queer romance that has been celebrated by fans and critics alike for its positive and non-traumatic portrayal of an LGBTQ+ relationship.
The warm, silly show became the most in demand series in the US after its finale and a second season is on the way.
Waititi's work doesn't stop there. He is one of the creators of FX's Reservation Dogs, which has been part of his emphasis on diversity in casting and storytelling, especially for indigenous actors and creators.
In feature film, his next movie is Next Goal Wins, a comedy about the American Samoan national soccer team with Michael Fassbender headlining the cast. He also has a Star Wars project that he’s been attached to for a while now.
Taika Waititi’s ability to make projects big and small across movies and TV without losing his specific brand of humor, emotion and inclusivity is inspiring. His name in the credits has become a sign that something is worth paying attention to. That’s the kind of power not many directors have in the franchise era and he’s using it in ways that have only further endeared him to the masses.
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Kayleigh is a pop culture writer and critic based in Dundee, Scotland. Her work can be found on Pajiba, IGN, Uproxx, RogerEbert.com, SlashFilm, and WhatToWatch, among other places. She's also the creator of the newsletter The Gossip Reading Club.