Despite all the color, comedy, and flair of Thor: Ragnarok, the latest film from Marvel Studios, there’s a more serious motivation behind the blockbuster action film. Amidst all the laughter and storytelling at a recent press conference for the film, there came a quiet, somber moment where the true spirit of the film was explained.
“Apart from the experience of making a big movie, I like to think that the real reason we did this was to bridge the gap between our two nations, and foster some sort of kinship and peace,” said a sternly serious Taika Waititi, “because the New Zealand/Australian War must end.”
The irreverence that Taika Waititi brings to the press conference stage isn’t too different than the irreverence that he’s brought to the screen in movies like What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The New Zealand-born director was brought onto the blockbuster stage for Thor: Ragnarok because of the unique personality he brings to his films that blend heart-felt moments with raucous moments of hilarity, and the larger scale of the Marvel world hasn’t diminished his skillset.
“Well, when they first asked me to come and to them about making this film, obviously I thought that Marvel had lost their minds, so they’re just hiring anyone now,” Waititi said of even being considered for a massive blockbuster on a scale that he’s never attempted before.
“Taika Waititi, basically,” Chris Hemsworth, Thor himself, said of what makes Ragnarok different than the previous two Thor films. “I think we all had a vision, an idea, and a want to do something vastly different than what we’d done before, and take it to a different place. That meant kind of doing away with what we knew, and just reinventing it, and it all came from his crazy, wonderful brain, and his inspiration, and him pushing us every day on set, and constantly encouraging us to improvise, and explore, and take risks. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had on a set, and a film that I feel the most proud of, just because of this whole team, the collaboration, and fun we had.”
Marvel’s mastermind, Kevin Feige, was confident that Taika Waititi was the cinematic voice that could take Thor in the new direction they envisioned for the classic character. “We wanted a new sensibility. We wanted to take Thor – and if you look at everything Chris has done as this character, there have been moments of humor – moments of humor throughout,” the producer said of the new direction Ragnarok takes its eponymous hero. “We wanted to build on that. And if you look at the movie, it’s got the epic action. It’s got Thor arguably more powerful than he’s ever been in any of the films, with his powers going up against the Hulk, but at the same time embracing what Mr. Hemsworth does better than anyone up until now has ever been able to see, which is his acting chops expands to comedy in an amazing, in an amazing way. And Taika giving them the confidence to explore that, and to try things. And most of that is in the movie, because it was on story, and yet at the same time expanded each of their characters.”
One of the biggest aspects of Thor: Ragnarok is the God of Thunder teaming up with the Incredible Hulk. Of course, before the two Avengers can unite they must battle each other in a gladiator-style fight. Rights issues, however, have prevented Marvel from making a standalone Hulk film, so actor Mark Ruffalo developed a character arc for the massive green hero with Feige that will unfold over the course of the next three films featuring the character.
“I would love to do a Hulk movie, and I think we all would love to do one,” Ruffalo said. “About a year ago, before I even had this part, or were talking about doing this – it was well over a year ago – Kevin had asked me to come over and have a script meeting. Basically, he sat me down and he said, ‘What would you like to do if you had a standalone Hulk movie?’ And I said, ‘I’d like to do this, this, and this; and this and this – and then this. And then this, and this, and this, and then it would end like this.’ And he’s like, ‘I love that. Let’s do that over the next there movies, starting with Thor 3 and carry it on through Avengers 3 and Avengers 4.’ And so that’s my stand-alone Hulk movie.”
If we’ll ever see that standalone Hulk movie spliced together as a single film, Ruffalo was quick to volunteer his Ragnarok director. “And Taika is gonna take all three of those movies and cut it into one movie,” the actor said with Hulk-sized smile.
Hemsworth was more than pleased with partnering once again with the Hulk. “I think this is my favorite version of the Hulk,” the Australian actor said. “We actually got to act together, you know. We’d only really fought one another on screen in the previous films. And this time around, we got to just sort of improvise our way through it, and sort of invent this chemistry that we hadn’t explored before, and – and sort of build this new version of the Hulk, which was a little bit more articulate and vocal than he had been prior. There’s just so much more room for the humor, and, and fun that the character then embodies. I think it’s fantastic. I loved it.”
“I did, too,” chimed in Ruffalo.
Also returning to the Marvel world is Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Thor’s brother and sometimes foe, depending on the mood or needs of the God of Mischief at any given time. Returning, Hiddleston asked his director for a change to his character: “I did ask Taika if I could get a haircut,” Hiddleston said.
“I’m not spoiling anything, but the development of the relationship between Thor and Loki, his brothers, is – Thor has evolved, and grown, and matured; and Loki, in a way, is stuck in his struggles of the past,” the actor said of his character’s evolution over the course of the four films he’s appeared in. “And that’s the challenge for Loki in this, that he’s got to confront the fact that time is moving on, and people change, and – so I don’t know. I mean, we’ll see. We’ll see. There’s room to grow, and I’m still here. And we’ll see where he goes next. I’m not going to spoil anything.”
Headlining the new additions to the world of Thor is two-time Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett as the villainous Hela, the Goddess of Death. “It was hugely enjoyable for me,” Blanchett said. “Apart from working with these guys, obviously, the chance to finally, in my deep middle age, to get fit, and to wear that much lycra was really exciting for me.”
Blanchett trained relentlessly for her role as the murderous villainess, teaming up with her stunt double Zoey Bell, who most know from her role as herself in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. “Zoey Bell who is, I mean, an extraordinary actress in her own right, and director in her own right, but she was my – blessed every day with the fact that she was my stunt double, because when I started, I had to manifest these weapons out of my – I’m not spoiling anything by saying that?” Blanchett asked as she looked over to Feige making sure that she wasn’t revealing any sensitive developments.
“Well, I manifest weapons, and I had to throw them, and I could see Taika’s disappointment as I threw it, I said, ‘Ha.’ And I had to stop making the noises, because I’d go, ‘Ha.’ So I had to close my mouth. Eventually, Zoey suggested that I put some sugar, which was deeply humiliating – sugar packets in my hand so at least I could throw something and be real. Yeah, so Zoey helped me with little things like that. She was a great action director. So I moved from the humiliating to the exhilarating in a matter of five days.”
Stepping into the role as Valkyrie is Tessa Thompson, who is due for a major breakout after her scene-stealing performance in Ragnarok. But embodying a character that has existed in the comics for years didn’t faze the actress one bit. “The things that I thought about the particulars of Valkyrie had more to do with, like mass and size,” Thompson said. “For example, I thought, like ‘Oh, I’m short,’ you know. Or like, ‘I’m not buff enough.’ You know, she’s arguably as strong as Thor. How do I stand next to a person like Chris Hemsworth and feel like that’s true? So I didn’t think so much – I mean, Norse mythology, it’s mystifying, and fantastical, and glorious, and also very confusing and doesn’t make a lot of sense, you know.”
However, some of the more insidious aspects of fandom reared their ugly heads because Tessa Thompson isn’t of the same ethnicity as the character in the comics. “I remember someone online saying like, ‘You know, Tessa Thompson playing Valkyrie is white genocide,’” Thompson recalled with a shocked look of incredulity on her face. “I just figured this thing that I’m tasked to do with any character that has its own iconography is to capture the spirit of the character, and I think the spirit of all of us, at the risk of sounding, you know, cheesy, has very little to do with what color we are.”
Also joining the expansive cast of Thor: Ragnarok is fan favorite Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, the charismatic and malevolent leader of the junk planet Sakaar. When asked about joining the Marvel world, Goldblum expressed his enthusiasm with every aspect of the expanding world. “Fantastic. Fantastic. I like the character, of course, and the opportunities in the character. Joining a group like this, a cast like this is a dream come true,” the bespectacled star said.
“Working with Taika, that was my first, you know, connection point to the movie. We had a meeting, and hit it off, and he said what we were gonna do, and improvise, and have fun,” Goldblum said of the film’s director. “But then, you know, Kevin Feige and Louis D’Espesito, and Victoria Alonso, and Brad Winderbaum – the whole upper tier of creative leaders, do something unique. They know how to make these epic productions, and popular movies, but they want to make good movies. And they somehow uniquely know how to do them, that feels to me like an actor-ly, workshop-y, character-y, improvisatory, delightful experience – and make a movie that I think skins the cat like this is just – I’m grateful, overwhelmingly grateful.”
Beside the Grandmaster is Topaz, played by Rachel House, a frequent collaborator with Taika Waititi. When asked if there were any differences with Waititi working on a larger scale, the actress shared her observations. “Well, he’s a lot better dressed, because usually we’re running around in the mud, and the snow, and the rain,” House said of Waititi working in the Marvel sandbox. “So it was wonderful to come in each day and see Taika in a suit, and Italian leather shoes.”
She added, “It’s been wonderful to see Taika so calmly and easily step into the helm of such a big, awesome film.”
Rounding out the newcomers to the cast is Karl Urban as Skurge, an Asgardian of questionable moral fortitude who has backed his way into an important role in the emerging battle between Hela and Thor. Urban, best known for his portrayal of Judge Dredd and as Dr. McCoy in the rebooted Star Trek films, bulked for his role in Ragnarok. “The working out schedule was rather intense,” he said. “In fact, Taika came to me and he said, ‘Listen, you need to tone it down. You can’t be bigger than Chris, okay?’”
The actor continued in elaborating on his experience. “Building upon what Jeff said, I feel very blessed to be a part of this family, and to have had the opportunity to work with Taika, and for him to be so well supported by the team at Marvel, and for them to have the courage and the bravery to allow him to just do his thing,” Urban said.
“It was a real rarity,” Urban continued. “I really appreciated the environment that Taika created on the set. It was fun; it was focused. He would often play music. There was nothing sacrilegious about a take. Quite often, you’d be in the middle of a take and he’d go, ‘Oh, try this, or try that.’ And it was just wonderful to – felt like everybody had your back, and we had fun.”
In the trailer, as well as two action-packed scenes in the film, Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” blasts its rockin’ take on Norse mythology as Thor swings his mighty hammer, Mjolnir. The inclusion of the song was purely the idea of its director and was pitched before Waititi was even hired as director.
“The first meeting we had, Taika came in,” Feige recalled before getting sidetracked with a story how Taika almost missed the meeting because he misplaced his passport. He continued, “Filmmakers sometimes will say, using clips of other movies, ‘Here’s what I have in mind.’ And sometimes they’re not good. Most of the times, they’re okay. [Taika’s] was amazing, and was scored to that Led Zeppelin song. So from the beginning, that song kind of defined what Taika was going to do with this. That it’s in the trailer, that it’s in the film – all from that first meeting, and from one of his first instincts of this movie, is very impressive.”
As for the future of the Marvel world and these character, the cast has their own ideas where the action should go. “Recently, I marched up with a couple other women that work in Marvel, and we were like, to Kevin, ‘What about a movie with some female superheroes – just like, all of them,’” Tessa Thompson said of a recent pitch to Feige.
“It was a pretty amazing moment to be somewhere and have your shoulder get tapped, and turn around, and every female hero we have was standing there going, ‘How about it?’” Feige recalled of the situation. “And I said, ‘Yes.’”
When one male member of the panel suggested a name, Tessa Thompson replied with pure bewilderment, “The Femengers?!?”
Of course, that unfortunate would-be title was the product of the constant improvisation that Taika Waititi fostered with his cast.
“It’s really hit or miss,” Mark Ruffalo said.
“Sometimes it’s good,” Hemsworth added.
Since Thor: Ragnarok takes place within the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, fans are always eager to know which future installments are teased and what beloved characters might be teased, even faintly in the back ground as Easter eggs.
“There might be some things in the trash piles,” Feige said coyly about where fans should look. “I mean, the biggest – the biggest Easter eggs are on the side of the Sakaaran Palace – right, Taika? There are previous Grandmaster champions that we see, as one for Hulk is being constructed, and those are all sort of Easter eggs for the deeper comic universe that may or may not ever show up in the cinematic universe, but we thought it’d be fun to celebrate.”
“In the trash pile, there is one Easter egg, an actual egg,” Waititi joked. “I mean, it’s one of the small ones – well, it’s one of the tiny little chocolate ones.”