Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor. Trickster, Taika, Loki Thor.2
The Trickster tongue speaks comedy, and Marvel movies increase the dose every year, where comedy ranks second only to the CGI action. Consider Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man quips; Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, the recent Spider-Man films, and most certainly Deadpool movies. Putting the laughs first has made these some of the most enjoyable Marvel films. When a true trickster, Taika Waititi, joins the MCU franchise, he converts the somewhat dour Thor movies into playgrounds, releasing Chris Hemsworth’s comic talent, creating Thor: Ragnarök, perhaps the funniest of all Marvel films, and the silly mess of Thor: Love and Thunder.
The myths surrounding Ragnarök are among the most tragic and serious tales of the Asgardians, a tale of civilization-ending apocalypse. Götterdämmerung. Were it not mythology, the tragedy of Ragnarök would be on par with the Holocaust. Which brings us to our original question, is it possible to take NOTHING seriously? Forget Loki, at least for now, and meet Marvel’s true trickster, Taika Waititi.
We’ve been tricked and tickled in all kinds of ways by Taika Waititi. He’s not the first director to make great flicks in a variety of genres. Rian Johnson has range (Brick, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Knives Out), as does Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days, Point Break, The Hurt Locker, Detroit); Ridley Scott (Alien, Thelma & Louise, Kingdom of Heaven), Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Zelig, Sleeper), Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire) and several more. What distinguishes Waititi is that, regardless of genre, most story decisions are made in the interest of what would be fun and playful? What would a child enjoy? …and so far, it hasn’t limited him. Thus, in that prominent trickster trait—tricksters just want to have fun—the Force is strong with him. In the way Waititi makes a plaything of genres, he picks up where spoof-master Mel Brooks leaves off.
But Waititi goes deeper than spoof. He’s about fun, he’s heartfelt. Consider the unpretentious and refreshing comedies. Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Reservation Dogs. They welcome us into Indigenous cultures in a way that sheds racist stereotypes without thudding or preachy wokeness.
Waititi spoofs the vampire (What We Do in the Shadows) and pirate (Our Flag Means Death) genres, where hapless characters play distortions of their stereotypes while they work out their therapy-worthy neuroses, generally to great comic effect. Compare this to Pirates of the Caribbean, which purports to have a serious plot, but just clumsily inserts comic quips.
And then we come to a real-world Ragnarök, the Holocaust. Dare one create a comedy about the Nazis and the Jews of World War Two? Waititi finds a way to not be serious yet stare in the face everything that is wrong with Nazism. The Hitler of JoJo Rabbit is not Hitler, but a fantasy. A charismatic leader, no matter how despicable, can serve as a vessel into which a child projects their heroic ideal. That human lability and its evolution—stumbling into moral discovery—is what JoJo Rabbit is about.
It’s one of the most serious comedies you’re likely to see, and Waititi gives it all away in the first ten minutes when we’re introduced to Captain Klenzendorf, played by Sam Rockwell. As a failed and closeted soldier charged with training Nazi youth in the ways of war and Aryan greatness, he remarks that he knows the Reich will be defeated by the Allies, and everything that’s about to happen is rather meaningless. He represents nihilism.
Having set up this overlay where nothing matters, Waititi then offers the contrast that opens our eyes to the things that really do: motherhood, family, love, friendship, protection of the oppressed, growing through feelings, stumbling our way to the truth.
When the Rilke poem comes on the screen at the end, it blesses the audience. In this way, Waititi’s mockery of Nazi horror, what may have appeared as morally confused and indeterminate wandering—a key Trickster signature—breaks through to its moment of moral discovery and release into life lived: “Let everything happen to you / Beauty and terror / Just keep going / No feeling is final.”
Meaning is to be found in the politics of daily life, in the music of the everyday people who surround us, those we love and those we could love, even those we do not love. But the mob, state-fueled political hysteria, and even the mass frenzy that surrounded Sinatra, Elvis, or the Beatles, whom Waititi juxtaposes, is just smoke, and not the raw material from which we construct our lives. Satire done well lifts us above the smoke, connects us to the things that matter, and grows our perspective. With his pure heart, his childlike sensibilities, and his crackling sense of humor, Waititi delivers satire for our time. As tricksters go, he’s one of the more endearing stumblers.
Thor: Love and Thunder, while not the best film, has many of the markings that make the Trickster tick:
· It opens spoofing battle scenes guaranteed to generate laughs, and plays with the audience. Having seen Thor: Ragnarök… we expect comedy. Ha ha, we’ve ventured out to the movie theater to laugh! Then there’s this jarring cut to Natalie Portman as Jane Foster dying of cancer. Almost everyone can relate to this, has lost someone dear or has cancer themselves…and wtf, we’re supposed to now take, if not the movie, the situation…seriously? Right off the bat, the Is it possible to take NOTHING seriously? question is in our face. I mean, she’s got cancer, even less funny than being a Nazi.
· Trickster doesn’t play the game, but plays WITH the game, in this case, the superhero genre. I can’t list all the times Waititi does this, because it’s pretty much the entire film. Bringing in as Thor’s steeds two screaming goats whose obnoxious wail is taken from a Taylor Swift meme suffices as an example. The screaming goats’ significance falls somewhere between that of the immortal beasts from Norse mythology (Tranngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr).and Fozzie Bear’s catchphrase wocka wocka. Their noisiness fits the chaotic and loud aesthetic of the film.
· Whenever there’s the suggestion of romance and sex, we never know what gender or species is likely to show up. I mean, gay Korg and his partner make a baby by holding hands over a molten pool of lava for a month. The point is love. And fun.
· Peter Quill of the Guardians urges Thor to look into the eyes of the people he loves. “No, not me.” And of course, the romance with Jane Foster is rekindled, but…she’s dying of cancer. What kind of sexuality is that? What’s so funny about that?
· Tricksters are shapeshifters and gender benders. Gender identity is gently spoofed (along with Guns ‘n’ Roses) when the son announces that he wants to be called Axl. Fun.
· Tessa Thompson’s character Valkyrie is the bisexual king of Asgard. She must find a queen. Gender identity is just one of the Trickster’s toys. Fun.
· Thor delivers his fatherly message to his daughter in the concluding scene… “But most of all, have fun.”
Trickster is what happens when grownups retain the ability to be playful as they were when children. And lest we forget, the thin plot is all about rescuing children stolen and used as bait by the villain Gorr. The children, the children, it’s all about the children, the ones we have and the ones we are, we must save the children.
Because it’s in the playfulness of the infant child where we first meet the Trickster. Because more than anything, Waititi is about heart, he’s a pratfalling master of the connection between irresistible mischief and the good heart that the Trickster’s morally indeterminate wanderings eventually discover.
Waititi’s resurrected a dying Marvel franchise by taking its shreds and re-crafting them into full-blown comedy that sometimes manages fidelity to Marvel’s overarching narratives, and sometimes flouts them. He’s found the heart of children who lived through the Third Reich. He mocks power with lovingly devised tricks. What distinguishes Waititi is that as diverse as his movies and shows are, they are all fun. Regardless of genre, Waititi’s tales signify an overflowing and pure-hearted imagination, a dogged pursuit, seriousness be damned, of fun. Waititi’s guiding light is that of the trickster’s…Wouldn’t it be funny if…?