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Why is ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ So Funny?

The answer lies in a vampire mockumentary.

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If you’re paying close attention to movies these days, you may have noticed an interesting trend of indie movie directors being brought on to revive stale franchises. I first noticed this in the horror genre: Mike Flannagan, director of nail-biters such as Hush and the short Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan managed to parlay these smaller-budget films into larger ones like the wide-release Oculus and, more notably, Ouji 2: The Origin of Evil. Consider that the original Ouji film garnered 7% on Rotten Tomatoes; Flannagan’s sequel had an 82%. Now he’s in charge of Netflix’s recent remake of Gerald’s Game.

And he’s not the only one. Adam Wingard’s success with indies such as You’re Next and The Guest landed him the recent Blair Witch; The Spierig Brothers went from the small-budget The Undead to Jigsaw and the upcoming Helen Mirren gothic, Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built. And perhaps most relevantly, the cult horror-comedy Slither was directed by James Gunn…a name you probably recognize from the credits of Guardians of the Galaxy.

And that brings us to this weekend’s monolith of a Marvel movie: the visually stunning and hysterically funny Thor: Ragnarok, which took the second least funny Avenger (after Captain America, obviously) and turned Odin’s son into the spiritual offspring of Captain Jack Sparrow. If audiences noticed the personality transplant in the God of Thunder, nobody seemed to mind, as the previous Thor movies always managed to have their main character take himself so seriously that Tom Hiddleston had to be brought in for comic relief.

So why the sudden change? Again, it’s all to do with the indie director brought on to shake up the MCU: Taika Waititi, best known for co-directing, writing and starring alongside Flight of the Conchords’s Jemaine Clement in the Kickstarter-funded vampire mockumentary, What We Do in the Shadows.

 

It certainly doesn’t hurt that  Waititi is easy on the eyes (though for his cameo in Ragnarok, he disguised himself pretty well as rock monster Korg); it’s also the director’s whimsical and playful handling of the subject material. While the previous Thor storylines have been steeped in stoicism, tragedy and the occasional “God out of water” chuckle, Waititi has turned Ragnarok into Escape From New York meets Doctor Strange, with all the subtlety that mashup implies.

And for once, it’s nice to have a superhero film that doesn’t take itself so seriously, that doesn’t get bogged down with the equivalent of Five For Fighting’s “It’s Not Easy.”  (The comedic exceptions  being Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy, but both of them star human, not superhuman leading men.)

While there are obvious difference between What We Do in the Shadows— which looks at times like a West Anderson film—and Ragnarok—which looks at all times like Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road—the thru-line of Waititi’s youthful exuberance and perfect comedic timing has parlayed this New Zealand indie into the origin story of Waititi’s future success.