The internet can be a useful, if flawed, barometer for gauging when public opinion sours on a celebrity, even for the most benign offenses. It wasn’t long ago that Lin-Manuel Miranda was basking in near-universal acclaim for Hamilton—now, Gen Z has turned on him for being an avatar of millennial cringe. (As a fellow millennial, that stings, but also, I get it.) More recently, the digital pitchforks have been sharpened for another seemingly innocuous figure: Taika Waititi.
For years, Waititi cut his teeth as a purveyor of quirky indie cinema in his native New Zealand, where he’s responsible for the country’s two highest-grossing movies of all time: Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Boy. (He also scored an Oscar nomination for his 2003 short film, Two Cars, One Night, and pretended to be asleep during the telecast: an early window into his propensity to never take anything too seriously.) However, it wasn’t until the release of 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok that Waititi caught on with mainstream audiences. Swapping the Shakespearean undertones of the previous Thor entries for an irreverent interplanetary adventure, Ragnarok didn’t just restore the reputation of the God of Thunder: It’s widely considered one of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The critical and commercial success of Ragnarok paved the way for Waititi’s true Hollywood breakout. In 2019 alone, he executive-produced and directed three episodes of FX’s horror-comedy What We Do in the Shadows, a spinoff of the 2014 mockumentary of the same name, which he had codirected with fellow Kiwi Jemaine Clement; he directed the finale of The Mandalorian’s first season while also providing the voice for the droll bounty hunter droid IG-11; and most notably, he directed and costarred in the World War II–era dramedy Jojo Rabbit, which focuses on a young member of the Hitler Youth who discovers that there’s a Jewish girl hiding in his home. (Waititi plays a bizarro version of Adolf Hitler, who appears as the boy’s imaginary friend and encourages him to embrace Nazism.)
For Waititi detractors, Jojo Rabbit marks the moment when his career hit a downturn. While the film won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2020 Oscars and largely scored positive reviews, it has also been condemned by some critics for its attempts to satirize the horrors of Nazi Germany. No one would doubt that Waititi approached the movie with good intentions, but it’s worth questioning whether this was the right fit between artist and subject matter. As Adam Nayman wrote in his review for The Ringer: “By trying to defang Nazism at every turn by portraying its practitioners as morons, Waititi gets easy laughs—he’s not the first and he won’t be the last. By juxtaposing sketch-comedy gags with austere depictions of death and suffering, though, he gets easy pathos, and this is more of a problem.”
Of course, regardless of where one stands on Jojo Rabbit, winning an Oscar speaks for itself. It’s how Waititi followed up his Oscars breakthrough that has drawn more ire—even among the Marvel contingent. Returning for the next Thor sequel was a no-brainer for the filmmaker, but with Thor: Love and Thunder, lightning didn’t exactly strike twice. The playful, offbeat humor that made Ragnarok such a crowd-pleaser never quite kicks into gear; Christian Bale’s villainous Gorr the God Butcher is a scene-stealer who feels like he belongs in another movie. In all, you come away from Love and Thunder feeling like it was made with a sense of obligation. And when Waititi is willing to make fun of the visual effects in his own film, denigrating the work of Marvel’s overworked VFX artists in the process, his characteristically lackadaisical attitude is less charming than offputting.
While Love and Thunder still made a killing at the box office, becoming the eighth-highest-grossing movie of 2022, it suffered one of the largest second-weekend drops for an MCU movie: a telltale sign that audiences weren’t totally buying what Waititi was selling. (Love and Thunder also had the MCU’s second-lowest CinemaScore rating, putting it on par with the much-maligned theatrical release of Justice League.) As a result, one has to wonder whether Waititi has been stretching himself too thin since Ragnarok, or whether moviegoers are growing tired of his shtick. Perhaps the answer is a bit of both. Amid this busy period between Jojo Rabbit, What We Do in the Shadows, The Mandalorian, and Love and Thunder, Waititi also found time to appear in the 2021 action-comedy Free Guy, in which he plays the narcissistic CEO of a video game company. While Free Guy was surprisingly endearing in moments, Waititi’s performance was anything but—for the life of me, I can’t understand how any of this “riffing” qualifies as remotely funny.
As Gawker put it last year, this level of overexposure adds to the feeling that we’ve reached “maximum Taika,” a charge that isn’t helped by the fact that he has another movie coming out this week. Loosely based on the 2014 documentary of the same name, Next Goal Wins sees Waititi tackle the heartwarming story of the American Samoa national football team, which hired Dutch American coach Thomas Rongen (played by Michael Fassbender) after suffering a humiliating 31-0 defeat to Australia in a 2001 World Cup qualifying match. The country’s football federation isn’t expecting a miracle: With Rongen in charge, all they want to see is the team score a goal. In a country with fewer than 50,000 people and a nonexistent soccer heritage, though, that’s easier said than done.
To switch up the sports metaphors, Next Goal Wins ought to be a home run: a charming, by-the-numbers underdog story. Instead, it’s another bizarre misfire for Waititi. Setting aside that Fassbender is woefully miscast as Rongen—he’s much better suited as, say, a ruthless contract killer in a David Fincher movie—Next Goal Wins ruins its feel-good vibes with a controversial transphobic subplot. One of the few good players on the national team is center back Jaiyah Saelua (nonbinary actor Kaimana), a fa’afafine, or “third gender” person in Samoan culture, who is allowed to compete because of her male assignment at birth. Not long after Rongen is hired, he repeatedly deadnames Jaiyah and asks probing questions about her genitals—a narrative choice that’s even more confounding when there’s no indication that the real-life Rongen ever discriminated against her. To make matters worse, the tension between player and coach is resolved when Jaiyah apologizes to Rongen for knocking him to the ground in retaliation.
These puzzling storytelling decisions encapsulate why Next Goal Wins is the worst-reviewed film of Waititi’s career. And with Next Goal Wins coming on the heels of the underwhelming Love and Thunder—to say nothing of the criticisms lobbed against Jojo Rabbit—it’s hard to deny that Waititi has found himself in a rough patch. (The director will be hoping such misfortune doesn’t extend to his proposed Star Wars film, given how many of the franchise’s projects have been canned in recent years.) But that doesn’t necessarily mean Waititi should take a step back; in fact, one of the best parts of the filmmaker’s ascension to the mainstream is how he’s been able to foster other creative voices.
Post-Ragnarok, Waititi’s greatest accomplishment may well be cocreating Reservation Dogs, the FX comedy that wrapped up its third and final season this year. The first series to feature all Indigenous writers and directors, Reservation Dogs was genuinely unlike anything else on television: a hilarious, heartfelt story of four teenagers coming of age that slowly morphed into a celebration of the entire community that supported them along the way. By his own admission, Waititi had more of a supporting role in bringing Reservation Dogs to life alongside Native American cocreator Sterlin Harjo: one Indigenous filmmaker paying it forward by supporting the vision of another. Furthermore, since 2022, Waititi has executive-produced, directed, and starred in Our Flag Means Death, the Max comedy set during the Golden Age of Piracy that’s been lauded for its LGBTQ representation.
In these kinds of projects, Waititi isn’t the main creative force, but his presence in front of and behind the camera plays a meaningful role in what’s made them so successful. Even if Waititi’s recent films haven’t lived up to expectations while drawing some of the internet’s wrath, that collaborative spirit should always be celebrated. The Lin-Manuelification of Taika Waititi might already be in motion, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It means we’re all paying attention.