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Why WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS and THOR: RAGNAROK Make a Perfect Double Feature

Why WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS and THOR: RAGNAROK Make a Perfect Double Feature

Like James Gunn and Patty Jenkins before him, Taika Waititi was an indie darling before he got the reins to a major superhero franchise. His biggest hit stateside was What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary about vampire roommates living in Wellington, New Zealand. On the surface, Thor: Ragnarok, an explosive two-hour blockbuster about the end of the world and a superhero’s attempts to stop it, and Shadows, a comical character study of the socially inept undead that zips by in under 90 minutes, couldn’t be more different. But given Waititi’s unique sensibilities as a director, some similarities emerge, and chances are if you liked one, you’re going to like the other.

What’s fortunate about this being the third entry in the Thor sub-franchise is that it doesn’t need to establish Thor as a character. It’s not an origin story or journey focused; it’s just Thor going about the business of heroism, meeting companions and foes along the way. That gives Thor, and thus Waititi, more time to focus on character moments and unlikely connections between characters.

In Ragnarok, we get to hang out with Hulk at length, and Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo prove themselves to be comedically gifted, something we already knew from Hemsworth’s Saturday Night Live appearances and Ruffalo’s press tour antics. Though it’s funny to see Banner-as-Hulk analyze his feelings, Ruffalo is at his best as Bruce, easing back into life as a human with the help of Thor and their new pal Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). The theme of learning how to be something different from what you’re used to is one Waititi played with to great effect in Shadows, where Viago and Vlad are trying and failing to teach Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) how to best live as a vampire in the present day. In both films, these subplots create plenty of humor and just enough heart so as not to be sentimental, but a little sweet.

That sweetness is tempered by Ragnarok’s and Shadows’ not-so-secret weapon: humor. On paper, both these movies could be pretty staid, forgettable stories. For the former, we have another Marvel “Watch out for the death of the universe!” yarn; in the latter, all we’re doing is watching some vampires try to make it in this crazy world. Both end up transcending simplicity. Within ten minutes, Ragnarok is already the funniest Marvel movie, and it never loses steam. Hemsworth is clearly having a blast finally giving some real character to Thor, Ruffalo’s comic sensibilities come through in a delightfully awkward way, and the new players, particularly Thompson’s Valkyrie and Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, can quip with the best of them.

It comes as no surprise that humor is the backbone of Shadows considering the talent behind it. Waititi and Jemaine Clement worked together on perhaps HBO’s all-time funniest show, Flight of the Conchords, and a lot of the uncomfortable (and relatable) humor that was par for the Conchords course shows up in Shadows. Bumbling romances and the struggle to be successful at, well, anything are the themes the movie makes the most of. Neither need to be part of a vampire mockumentary, but it proves to be the right decision.

Hand in hand with the movies’ reliance on humor is how Waititi handles a set. Ad-libbing in a mockumentary is nothing new; it’s the same framework Christopher Guest uses every time. So naturally, ad libs flew freely on the Shadows set, but the same was the case for Ragnarok. Granted, improvisation is a key part of some performances in Marvel movies, but the off-the-cuff deliveries have never been quite as playful as they are here, and it pays offexcept in its most somber moments (and those are few and far between), not a scene goes by without a line delivery that makes the audience laugh for the umpteenth time. With Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Waititi proved he can make an emotionally resonant movie. But here, he’s back on comedy, and it couldn’t be more satisfying.

Part of what makes both Ragnarok and Shadows as satisfying as they are is the surprising use of secondary characters, both riotously attention-grabbing and completely mundane. Goldblum falls in the former category, but that’s practically a foregone conclusion. Genuinely surprising are Shadows’ Stu (Stu Rutherford) and Ragnarok’s Korg (Waititi via mo-cap), who steal scenes in a way that feels almost like an accident. This actually serves as an example of how Waititi’s sensibilities varyin Shadows, it feels as though the movie is in on the joke. Stu’s just an IT guy, not a vampire, and more of a friendly acquaintance of Vlad and Viago than anything else, but he gets all their attention whenever he enters a room for being such a so-called “cool guy.” All he has to do is stand in a room, flanked by vampires, to be funny. And then there’s Korg, an unassuming rock monster who ends up leading a revolution despite his soft-spoken nature. Every line he delivers lands. Simply put, the humor in Shadows and Ragnarok refuses to fall flat.

There’s plenty more to say about the appeal of both movies, but your best bet is seeing them for yourself. Maybe they weren’t intended to be companion pieces, but Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do in the Shadows would make for a terrific double feature if what you’re looking for is humor with a dash of sweetness and very little stress. Historically, there’s never been a better time for that brand of movie, and we’re lucky to have Taika Waititi around to graciously provide.

What other comedies pair well with the MCU? Let us know in the comments!

Images: Unison Films, Marvel

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