Thor: Ragnarok and understanding Kiwi Humor

Tonight I am going to see Thor: Ragnarok with my daughter who has already seen it twice. The selling point for me was the humor – Kiwi humor, or “humour” as we would say, of director Taika Waititi. I lived in New Zealand until I was 17 and I not only fully understand and appreciate kiwi humour, I find it is part of my inherent makeup of what I think is funny and what I say to others that I think is funny . . . although it is not always funny to them.

“Thor: Ragnarok is the most critically well-received Marvel movie of all time, and according to it has a higher rate of approval than Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Much has been made of Waititi’s introduction of ‘Kiwi humour’ and ‘Kiwi touches’ to this $180m blockbuster (and rightly so), but I’d suggest that a closer look reveals elements which are distinctly Māori, emanating from Waititi’s personal and cultural experiences and contributing to the success of the film.” Dan Taipua

Before you watch Thor, and before I watch Thor, here’s a primer on kiwi humor.

First of all, we are a tiny nation of Four Something Million People who manage somehow to have one of the best sports teams in the world (All Blacks) and the best yachting team (America’s Cup) and a surprisingly robust movie making industry so when I say we are a NATION OF UNDERACHIEVERS I am not saying we actually ARE, but rather that we see ourselves that way or perhaps we prefer to see ourselves that way. This is the baseline for our humor which delights in self-deprecation, cutting down the tall poppy, destroying any pretense of competence. In fact, if we somehow blurt out something that sounds profoundly wise and eloquent, something we avoid in our aversion to certainty by interlacing our speech with “sort of”, we will follow with a disclaimer like ” . . . and stuff like that”,  just so people do not think we are pompous.

Carry that humour into film and you have a uniquely unexpected blend of funny. Dan Taipua calls it “the comedy of deflation”,

The elimination of ego through humour runs through all of Waititi’s films and follows a basic formula: The Joke Is Always On The Person Trying To Be Smart. In Ragnarok this means the lead character – the superhero, the guy the film is named after – is generally the butt of the joke as he tries to outsmart The Grandmaster, insists he is stronger than the Hulk, tries to act nonchalant in front of Dr. Strange and generally fumbles as he tries to gather the pieces of his ego from the floor.” Dan Taipua, Thor and his magic patu: notes on a very Māori Marvel movie

When I grew up in the 70’s, my favourite kiwi comedian was Fred Dagg (real name John Clarke who tragically died this year). He made an art-form out of our ego-demolishing humour, our aversion to competence, our infatuation with failure, marked by the embarrassing admission of ignorance or the anti-climax. Watch Fred Dagg tell his sons, all of them called Trevor, his secret of controlling dogs.

This humour was carried on by Flight of the Conchords. If you have watched them already and think they are funny then you already understand our humour. There are two great kiwi moments [at least] that come to mind when I think of the Conchords. The first one is the CLASSIC-FAIL EXIT of Jermaine on the bus which is sooooooo Kiwi.

The second is the ANTI-CLIMATIC PAUSE in Jermaine’s rap, right after he says “I’m the hiphopopotamus, my rhymes are BOTTOMLESS” and then  . . . crickets.


And you would find more of this ego-deflating, wallowing in our dysfunctional under-achieverness in movies like Eagle Vs Shark.

OK. Now you [and I] are ready to watch Thor: Ragnarok and appreciate the kiwi humor of Taika Waititi.


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.

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