Does anyone remember the exact moment that people turned on Lin-Manuel Miranda? I’m not talking about the original Hamilton haters. I mean the folks who liked his historical Broadway hip-hop, maybe even paid a good deal of money to see it live, hailed him as the future of musical theater and then — one day — woke up hating his corny ass. Maybe it was a few too many of those “Gmorning” tweets. Maybe they just had to cut their losses when Gen Z started making fun of his lip-bite selfies and cast him, like Harry Potter, as an icon of millennial cringe.
For days now, New Zealand director Taika Waititi has trended on Twitter because he also faces a sudden yet nonspecific reckoning. It’s tied to the press cycle for his latest film, Thor: Love and Thunder, but the grievances go back years, and vary widely. He’s ruining a Marvel franchise. He’s a hack for doing Marvel stuff in the first place. His stuff is too hung up on queer representation — or it’s hyped as gay and then turns out to be not very gay at all. Jojo Rabbit, his World War II coming-of-age comedy in which he plays the goofy Adolf Hitler imagined by a German boy, goes too easy on the Third Reich, or makes light of the Holocaust with twee humor, or is just an all-time satirical misfire. (Personally, I find it hard to believe that Scarlett Johansson would hide anyone from the Nazis, but that’s another level of nitpicking.)
None of this rises to the level of a “cancelable” offense. As with Miranda, though, Waititi has crested a wave of acclaim and good favor for earlier projects like What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople to win himself a league of detractors who find his shtick annoying, his talents exaggerated and his growing influence a disaster for cinema. The truth, of course, is that Waititi is neither the savior of the industry nor its greatest villain. The internet may deal in these absolutes, but it also gave us the perfect meme to understand how such a binary has escalated the issue and led to undue outrage. Taika Waititi, you see, is just a silly little guy.
Being mad at Waititi feels somewhat absurd, not to say futile, when he’s often projecting unseriousness. He goofs off on set, talks about the importance of Chris Hemsworth’s butt, has three-way makeouts with Rita Ora and Tessa Thompson and once pretended to be asleep at the Oscars when Jeremy Irons announced him as a nominee. He came to prominence as something of a corrective to auteur pretension and crankiness, keeping things light and clearly having fun. It’s not that he’s immune to criticism for artistic choices — like a few in Jojo Rabbit — though trying to argue from these that he’s a menace to society perhaps misrepresents the scale of his ambitions as an entertainer. Did he want to make a movie about the nature of ideology and indoctrination, as he often said at the time, or did he just want to play Goofy Hitler? I tend to suspect the latter, since that’s the part you’re bound to remember afterward.
Not every gimmick can work, and all of them get stale eventually. To notice this and start gnashing your teeth or tearing your hair out is an overreaction born of a thirst for enemies. You have all kinds of reasons to be annoyed by a successful, handsome, well-liked man with a cool accent, and Waititi is, at least in the online debate, a victim of his own popularity. Irritation, however, doesn’t have to be morally justified, and those efforts distort the values at stake. This guy is making comic book movies and stars in a cutesy TV show about nice pirates. The backlash, as a result, seems driven by the lack of incitement for any downfall, and a waste of everyone’s time — except for his. Waititi is far too busy being silly.