With an Oscar to his credit, a star wars Carrying out a concert on the horizon and several film and TV projects to his name, Taika Waititi has gone from a New Zealand freelance comedian to perhaps a beloved Hollywood figure. Few directors (he also writes, stars and produces, by the way) can claim to inspire the kind of fan devotion and critical interest that Waititi does.
As Thor: Love and Thunderthe latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is coming, Waititi has secured his status as the true megastar filmmaker of the 2020s. Let’s take a look at how he became a pop culture icon thanks to vampires, an Asgardian himbo and comic Hitler.
Waititi (born Taika Cohen in Raukokore, New Zealand) has notably won awards for his comedy work with Jemaine Clement, and received an Oscar nomination for his 2003 short film. Two cars, one night. He continued to work with Clément on the series Flight of the Conchords as screenwriter and director. The pair will also join forces for Waititi’s feature debut, the romantic comedy eagle versus shark. But that was Waititi’s 2010 comedy/drama Boy it would see Waititi firmly establish his directorial style.
Boy tells the story of a Maori boy who yearns for his ex-convict father to return home. It has a kind of wry, cheerful humor that never overwhelms the emotional core of the story. There may be wacky moments and a seemingly simple story, but the tonal balance and willingness to take jokes seriously underscore its immensely human approach to filmmaking. It worked wonders. Boy remains the highest-grossing New Zealand film ever released in its home country.
What we do in the shadows
Everything that made Waititi’s early films the work reached new heights with his follow-up projects, one of which saw him dip his toes into the world of speculation. What we do in the shadows reunited Waititi and Clement for a mockumentary about hapless vampires who live in a ramshackle house in Wellington and try to blend in with humans. It was instantly celebrated as one of the best comedies of the decade.
It would later inspire a television series, where the action moved to Staten Island, and would become a multi-Emmy nominated show (Waititi is an executive producer and has directed several episodes.) What we do in the shadows Season 4 will premiere on FX in July 2022.
Wilderpeople Hunt looks more like Boy that What we do in the shadows, while the comedy/drama centers on an adopted child who finds himself on the run with his kind of adoptive father. Thanks to a career-best performance from Sam Neill and a poignant story about reunited family, it became the most acclaimed film of Waititi’s career. Critics quickly celebrated him as a director to watch, a director who could leap into Hollywood’s upper echelons if he played his cards right. Well, he certainly chose the right project to take this step forward.
There’s always this feeling among critics that in order for a director to join a major franchise, they have to sacrifice their stylistic and thematic focus. Many feared that Waititi’s entry into the MCU would lead to a dilution of his work of its inherent appeal. They don’t need to worry ’cause Thor: Ragnarok is unmistakably a Waititi production.
The film allowed Chris Hemsworth to flex his comedic (and literal) muscles while imbuing the franchise’s cosmic realm with ’80s-inspired splendor. It was irreverent but never dismissive of the material, funny but still invested in the greatness of Thor’s world. Ragnarok embraced the rowdy quality of the source material and brought some much-needed weirdness to the franchise. It became the ninth highest-grossing film of 2017.
Ragnarok gave Waititi real clout to make leftist decisions, like a WWII comedy centered around a Nazi kid whose imaginary best friend is Hitler (played by Waititi himself). JoJo Rabbit is edgy stuff, a hilarious dismantling of the flimsy theatrics of fascism that features some seriously offbeat moments. Yet it doesn’t water down its deeply political focus, an examination of how children are brainwashed by the adult world and how they remain the last true worshipers of a crumbling regime because that’s all what they have been taught since birth to believe. Again, this is a Waititi film that mixes silly jokes with high emotional stakes (JoJo Rabbit also has some of its most heartbreaking moments.) It was a gamble that paid off, and Waititi won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for his work.
Our flag means death
Waititi recently gained 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 crosses paths with Stede Bonnet, an unfortunate gentleman pirate played by his fellow Kiwi and regular collaborator Rhys Darby; the two characters begin a queer romance that has been celebrated by fans and critics alike for its positive, non-traumatic portrayal of an LGBTQ+ relationship.
The warm and silly show became the most requested series in the United States 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, who was part of its emphasis on diversity in casting and storytelling, especially for Indigenous actors and creators.
In feature film, his next film is The next goal wins, a comedy about the American Samoa national football team starring Michael Fassbender. He also has a star wars project to which he has been attached for some time now.
Taika Waititi’s ability to pull off projects big and small across film and TV without losing her signature brand of humor, emotion and inclusiveness is inspiring. His name in the credits has become a sign that something deserves attention. It’s the kind of power that few directors have in the franchise era and he uses it in a way that only makes him even more beloved by the masses.