Masculine society is a fragile and insecure thing, and few writers or directors understand that more than Taika Waititi. A New Zealander once best known for writing and directing episodes of Flight of the Conchords, Waititi has established a name for himself over the past decade as an indie auteur with a keen eye for absurdity and a sense of humor about his humble Kiwi origins. But there’s a bit more going on in Waititi’s work than simply overt comic odes to backwater detachment from popular culture, though his films are certainly filled to the brim with that. Rather, Waititi explores immaturity and coming of age in his protagonists by placing their posturing personas under a microscope, and though what we find upon further examination is often hilariously absurd, it’s also quite telling about the lengths men will go to in order to project an image of competence.
It might seem strange then, given that thesis, that Waititi’s first film would be a romantic comedy, a genre usually concerned with the female psyche. However, 2007’s Eagle vs Shark uses the perspective of its protagonist, Lily (Loren Taylor), to highlight the flaws of her antagonistic love interest, Jarrod (Flight of the Conchords’s Jemaine Clement). The two are both socially awkward outcasts of so-called normal society, their social ticks and poor communication skills making them off-putting to the coworkers who put up with them at their minimum wage jobs. However, they find each other and develop a relationship, and soon Jarrod invites Lily out to the country to watch him confront a childhood bully whom Jarrod blames for all the tragedies of his life.
What’s interesting about Jarrod is not just the egotistic self-inflation of his fighting and video game prowess—as he is demonstrably bad at just about everything he brags about—but rather how he refuses to recognize his real strengths because he has a vision of manhood that he feels he needs to live up to. He sees himself as a constant disappointment, overshadowed by the achievements of a dead brother who committed suicide to escape the pressures of continual excellence. We see through Lily’s eyes, the eyes of a woman from whom no one expects greatness, that Jarrod is a pathetic specimen who needs to stop performing what he thinks is masculine bravado and embrace the quirky, artistic traits that make him unique. Being a man isn’t about living up to some standards of excellence; it’s about being true to one’s self and one’s passions.
Waititi continued exploring these themes in 2010’s Boy, only this time he explored it in the context of a father-son relationship and how the toxic masculinity of one can warp and mold the other. Boy (James Rolleston)—which is his real name—is an eleven year old living with his siblings in a rural New Zealand town without parental supervision when his absentee father, Alamein (Waititi), shows up out of the blue with a “gang” of two friends. He enlists Boy’s help to hunt down a missing stash of money that Alamein ditched while on the run from the cops years before, but Boy doesn’t quite get the father figure he hoped for.
Boy postures as much as one would expect any child in his situation would, boasting his father’s supposed greatness and comparing him to his idol Michael Jackson in the most flattering of ways, then eventually growing to emulate Alamein’s gang leader ways with local children. However, the real person of interest is Alamein himself, who is comically transparent as a man without nearly as much influence as he claims and no idea of how to be an outlaw or a leader. He’s a man full of empty promises for his two followers, who see themselves as lieutenants for a gang that will never come to fruition, but more importantly he’s a biological father with no idea how to be a mentor, basking in Boy’s idolatry without having any grasp of how his egocentric and self-serving behavior serves as a poor model for his son. The conflict eventually resolves with Boy realizing his father is not a person to look up to and Alamein realizing that he needs to get his priorities in order, but both father and son have a lot of growing up to do in their years ahead together.
Waititi’s next offering is, at least on the surface, quite a bit different than his earlier offerings, likely insomuch as it was co-directed and co-written by Jemaine Clement. 2014’s What We Do In The Shadows is a mockumentary following the lives of a group of vampires sharing a house in New Zealand, and on a purely textual level the film is little more than excuse to frame some off-the-wall characters in some sitcom-style situations, reimagining vampire lore as the inconveniences they would logically be in modern times, whether it be the tragedy of being unable to see one’s own reflection when trying to coordinate an outfit for a night on the town or the frustration of not being able to enter a nightclub without first being formally invited in. The whole thing is shot with a mundane matter-of-fact attitude the perfectly comically complements the low-key effects work that brings the roommates’ vampire magic to life.
But a closer examination of the characters reveals that they are all variations on Waititi’s pet theme. Viago (Waititi) is a dandy who hides conflict and strife behind a perpetually good-natured smile, even as that sunny disposition fails to give him the peace he desires. Vladislav (Clement) is perpetually droning on about his battles with the infamous Beast, who in the end turns out to be little more than an ex-girlfriend that he was never able to get over. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is perhaps the most emblematic of Waititian posturing, as he continually feels threatened by the presence of newly-bitten vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) and feels the need to prove his competence in spite of Deacon’s presence. Meanwhile, Nick is a braggart about his newfound vampirism and does enough posturing to bring a vampire hunter to their door. Each of these characters are hiding insecurities behind aggression or sublimation, and that fear, at least according to Waititi, is much scarier than the asinine antics of a gaggle of bloodsuckers.
But for as offbeat as that vampiric diversion was, Waititi returned to the well of interfamilial posturing for 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, wherein juvenile delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is fostered by the friendly and inviting Bella (Rima Te Waita) and the reluctantly cantankerous Hector (Sam Neill). Just as Ricky’s getting comfortable, however, Bella dies suddenly, and child protective services notifies Hector that Ricky is to be taken back into their care. Ricky decides to run away to the forest, and journeyman Hector tracks him down, only to be stuck in the wilderness with the incompetent child due to a sudden yet minor injury. As the two learn to deal with one another, both come to realize the barriers they place between themselves and others have prevented them from growing up.
As a child, Ricky’s lack of emotional development is obvious, understandable, and often hilarious, as he presents himself as a tough gangster, only to be attracted to the soft comforts of home and completely incapable of surviving long on his own in the wilderness. Hector, however, also puts up a front as a stoic, uncaring patriarch with no interest in Ricky’s well-being, and maybe at first Hector doesn’t care for Ricky. But in coming to know one another, not only does Ricky learn the skills and temperament necessary to survive as a man in the wilderness, but Hector recognizes the value of connecting with someone who isn’t his wife and realizing that emotional tenderness is not the weakness that he originally thought. In fact, it turns out to be a mutual strength that allows them to survive together for months.
So with four indie films about the fragile nature of masculine relationships under his belt, where does Taika Waititi go from here? Well, like seemingly every indie auteur with a small hit on their hands these days, Waititi was scooped up my Marvel to direct a superhero tentpole, in this case Thor: Ragnarok. And really, Thor seems like the Marvel character best suited to Waititi’s interests, as he is a character defined by his masculine posturing and is consistently undermined by a less classically masculine brother and perpetually trying to live up to the legacy of a deific father. Along with Waititi’s trademark offbeat observational humor and toying with the conventions of mundanity, we’re likely to see an examination of Thor’s public persona versus his private one, an admission of weakness from the god that exposes the fronts he puts up for the world. That would certainly be an interesting take on an otherwise self-sure character like Thor, and I personally cannot wait to see what Waititi does, both with this film and in his films thereafter.