It would probably be hyperbolic to say the 13 existing movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are an aesthetically indistinguishable mush. But let’s be honest: It’s not that hyperbolic. As I’ve argued before, that baker’s dozen of hit flicks have turned the global entertainment economy on its ear in no small part because they’ve found a winning aesthetic and, more often than not, stuck with it. The MCU is largely about tales of noble-but-flawed misfits in brightly colored outfits tossing out quips with audience-surrogate sidekicks while combatting megalomaniacal baddies. The movies make eye contact with us while cracking a little half-grin in the sunlight and putting their dukes up playfully.
Taika Waititi wants to surprise us. The Kiwi director is helming next year’s Thor: Ragnarok, and though it’s the third installment in the Thor sub-franchise, Waititi has made it clear that he wants it to feel sui generis. “I made an effort to ignore the fact there are other Thor films,” he declared in a Reddit AMA this weekend. “You can expect a Taika-esque tone,” he added. Astoundingly, he even admitted that he’s never seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the film that’s often regarded as the MCU’s peak. “They’ve been very accepting of my style,” he said.
Nearly a decade into Marvel’s box-office ascendancy, one is tempted to respond to claims like that with a rolled pair of eyes and a hearty, Yeah, good luck with that. The collective enterprise has been something of a return to the Old Hollywood studio system, where directors’ unique flourishes are only possible in the margins of a given film. A certain degree of homogeneity is the order of the day, so as to make sure a moviegoer can ease into his or her seat with the comforting knowledge that he or she’ll mostly get what he or she expected to see.
Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy might have been slightly funnier and more visually abstract than Captain America: Civil War, but you don’t walk out of either going, “Jesus, that was depressing” or “Wow, what a cool idea it was to include a dream ballet!” Indeed, after the notorious departure of Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, rumors have swirled that the director clashed with Marvel over how much of his personal stamp he could put on the film.
And yet, there’s reason to be hopeful that Ragnarok might live up to Waititi’s promise that it will stand on its own. Key here is the fact that Kevin Feige and his fellow chieftains at Marvel Studios would be unlikely to face significant audience backlash if they abandoned the previous approach to Thor stories. The other characters in the MCU who’ve gotten their own lines of films have created successful aesthetic formulas that have drawn devoted fan bases: The Iron Man movies are obsessed with technicolor ’n’ roll refrains; the Captain America trilogy traffics in muted palettes and earnest tales of American ideals clashing with a challenging world. It would feel profoundly weird to do a sequel to either one that went for opulent psychedelia, or featured a cast of exotic freaks.
The Thor line, by contrast, hasn’t exactly caught the world by storm. To be fair, the Thor-Loki relationship sparked a wildfire of fan enthusiasm. (Just take a look at the “Loki/Thor” tag on fanfiction trove Archive of Our Own). But while folks love Cap’s Sam Wilson and Iron Man’s Pepper Potts, I challenge you to find more than a few people with deep emotional attachments to, say, Thor’s Fandral or Darcy Lewis. The stories in those movies were incredibly boilerplate, even by Marvel standards: In the first, treachery gets Thor exiled to Earth and he fights an ancient robot to get back; in the second, a bunch of very old and very bad dudes try to destroy the universe and Thor stops them. There’s a reason The Dark World is the lowest rated MCU movie on Rotten Tomatoes—a little of that franchise goes a long way.
So, it’s probably wise for Waititi to eschew Ragnarok’s predecessors, because he has very little to lose by tossing aside everything except Thor, Loki, and the basic pitch of telling operatic stories that transcend the mundanity of earthly settings. By all accounts, that appears to be what Waititi is doing. The movie will reportedly take place largely in some far-flung portion of the cosmos, where strange gladiators do battle and games are played for the preservation of reality. There aren’t any normal humans in the core cast: They’re all gods, entities even more powerful than gods, or the Hulk. The visuals promise to be insane, too: Waititi is wisely retaining the most thrilling aesthetic aspect of the Thor movies, which is the baroquely faux-medieval sci-fi setting of Asgard but will venture to worlds not yet seen. Very, very little of it is reported to take place on boring ol’ Earth. And look at the hat Cate Blanchett will be wearing!
Thor’s the only Avenger with whom you could get away with that kind of stuff. He and his mythos aren’t bound to anything approaching realism, so Waititi has a large sandbox to play in. Previous Thor movies haven’t fully exploited that fact, filling the screen with humans, skyscrapers, and other things we see every day. From what little we know of Ragnarok, Waititi and Marvel are going hog wild. The aforementioned Blanchett—an otherworldly presence in almost anything she does—is playing the queen of the underworld. Oddball sex icon Jeff Goldblum is playing an immortal cosmic being named the Grandmaster who toys with gods and mortals for sport. And somehow, Ragnarok’s also supposed to be a buddy movie in the vein of Midnight Run, of all things. It’s hard to imagine how that set of characters and tones can get thrown in a blender and come out tasting dull.
Although Waititi, like so many indie directors abruptly bumped up to the big leagues in recent years, has no experience with a movie of this scale, his creative approach in the past suggests he’d be up to the task of making something that feels unprecedented in the MCU. Of course, he doesn’t have the final say in anything for Ragnarok, as his Marvel overlords don’t cede power lightly. But what we know so far suggests they’re letting him innovate. If that’s the case, then perhaps he can make something not unlike his 2014 film, What We Do in the Shadows. On the streets of his native Wellington, Waititi crafted an ingenious little mockumentary about deadbeat vampires slumming their way through a sweetly depressing existence. To watch it is to see an extremely clever nerd gather up a pile of familiar genre-fiction tropes and build them into a structure that’s both welcoming and new. Here’s hoping we can get that again, this time with a few hundred million dollars funding construction.