Dan Taipua explores indigenous ideologies in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, New Zealand’s highest grossing film of 2017.
This story was first published on 31 October 2017.
Without a doubt, Taika Waititi is the finest New Zealand filmmaker of his generation. At the time of writing, Thor: Ragnarok is the most critically well-received Marvel movie of all time, and according to RottenTomatoes.com it has a higher rate of approval than Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Much has been made of Waititi’s introduction of ‘Kiwi humour’ and ‘Kiwi touches’ to this $180m blockbuster (and rightly so), but I’d suggest that a closer look reveals elements which are distinctly Māori, emanating from Waititi’s personal and cultural experiences and contributing to the success of the film.
The process is the product
Looking back at the films Waititi has written and directed in New Zealand, it’s difficult to argue that his Māori identity isn’t a big influence on his craft. Two Cars One Night, Tama Tū, Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople – these films all have Māori characters at their centre, but more importantly they express a distinctly Māori artistic outlook. A director’s main responsibility is “the spirit of the film”: not just framing up shots, pointing lights and telling actors how to move, but having in mind a bigger truth that all these smaller actions will tell. Each decision made by the director will ultimately contribute to the finished product, and from the very outset Taika made the Hollywood model fit his own vision and practice.
First off, Taika Waiti is woke as hell. The 2017 New Zealander of the Year has directed anti-drug driving ads, contributed to the viral success of the Human Rights Commission’s anti-racism campaign, votes Green and produced a te reo version of Moana. When filming for Thor was scheduled in Australia, he lobbied Marvel Studios to include support for a group of Aboriginal filmmakers to follow the production on set, making sure that that his work gave back to the people of the land in which he was a guest. Furthermore, he made sure the production acknowledged the Yugambeh people, the indigenous mob of the Gold Coast, who gave a ‘welcome to country’, the equivalent of pōwhiri.
Valkyrie: once was a warrior
The Marvel Comics Universe canon knows only one Māori superhero: the awkwardly named ‘Kiwi Black’ of Ruātoki, who does not appear in any Thor comics.
There are several Aboriginal characters in the Marvel universe, but none of them appear in Ragnarok. So in the absence of any actual Māori or Aboriginal characters, Waititi developed a figurative indigenous story for the character of Valkyrie, casting Afro-Latin-American actress Tessa Thompson as the traditionally blonde, Caucasian character. When we first encounter Valkyrie we don’t know anything about her background and history, all we’re presented with is knowledge that she is an alcoholic and working as a ‘scrapper’ (a more sensitive label for her job: she is actually a slave trader). Later we discover the details of her history which amount to her ‘true’ identity, as a native of Asgard and a member of an ancient and proud warrior tribe marked by the tattoo of her people (sound like anyone else you know?).
Valkyrie’s character arc of self-redemption is a common one in action films: she cleans up her act and returns to the battlefield. But the nuance of her portrayal speaks deeply to the experience of indigenous peoples, and Waititi marks this very clearly. Valkyrie has lost her bond to Asgard and its people, losing her cultural identity and eventually losing her sense of personal and even moral identity – burying the trauma of loss in alcohol and even taking a job as a slavetrader. When she regains her history she regains her true identity, and returns to her defend her homeland and people from an oppressive force. She also shows up in a spaceship in the colours of the Aboriginal flag, amid massive fireworks show, because why be subtle when you can be awesome instead.
If any of this seems like a stretch, please refer to the great work of my comic book kaiako Dr. Neal Curtis from the University of Auckland, who recently wrote about indigenous pride and resistance to imperialism in Thor: Ragnarok in his own blog post.
The finished Thor movie includes a lot of ‘easter eggs’ for NZ and Australian audiences, little nods just for us to enjoy. But at a deeper level it’s the profound real-world actions that contribute to the spirit of the film. How much better must a film crew feel knowing they are welcomed to the land where they are working? Who amongst the crew wouldn’t see the eight emerging Aboriginal filmmakers talking earnestly with the director and not have a sense of the mana in their enterprise? Waititi achieved nothing less than the introduction of a spirit of kaupapa Māori to his production, even inside the massive machine of a $180m studio film.
What is Māori humour?
Discussions of humour and its cultural origins are quite rare, chiefly because it’s tough to do and a very bad idea. But we can all agree that Ragnarok has a very Kiwi sense of humour, so within that scope we should safely be able to discuss the elements of humour that are distinctly Māori. Take another look at Taika’s very Māori-centric films (Two Cars One Night, Tama Tu, Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), compare them with his other work (Eagle vs. Shark, What We Do In Shadows), and you’ll recognise a tone that is consistent across all of them: the comedy of deflation. Deadpan has a strong history in Aotearoa, not least via the rise of the Taika-adjacent Flight of the Conchords. But if there’s a factor which is definitely Māori in Ragnarok it is the pervasive and all-encompassing sense of irony that drains the dramatic tension from its source material and delivers equal-opportunities mockery.
The elimination of ego through humour runs through all of Waititi’s films and follows a basic formula: The Joke Is Always On The Person Trying To Be Smart. In Ragnarok this means the lead character – the superhero, the guy the film is named after – is generally the butt of the joke as he tries to outsmart The Grandmaster, insists he is stronger than the Hulk, tries to act nonchalant in front of Dr. Strange and generally fumbles as he tries to gather the pieces of his ego from the floor. In contemporary Māori culture there are few burns that scald quite so deep as being called “a cool guy”: “Far, what a cool guy”, “Cool guy is it?” There is no sin so cardinal as attempting to claim power or status that doesn’t rightly belong to you. Very broadly, it’s seen as a misappropriation of mana.
The seam of irony that runs through Thor: Ragnarok couldn’t be more different than previous Marvel films which feature Robert Downey Jr as a billionaire smart-ass dropping glib one-liners. It also stands in opposition to the corny dramatics of Joss Whedon’s Avengers scripts, which Waititi seems to delight in gently mocking, as when Thor murmurs “the sun’s going down” a la Black Widow trying to calm the Hulk in Age of Ultron?
The comedy of deflation, the definitive directorial touch that makes Thor: Ragnarok so fun, has been a constant presence in Taika’s work from his first Oscar-nominated short to Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s not uniquely Māori, but it is distinctly Māori in tone, in rhythm and as a kind of philosophical outlook.