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The Northman Is Good, But Not Original
"Newness" isn't always a good thing.
This ran a year or so ago, but is no longer available on line. So I thought I’d re-up
“The Northman is muscular, beautiful, haunting storytelling. Go and see it to help preserve big budget original movies in the cinema,” tweeted actor Tom Payne.
He wasn’t alone; many critics have praised Robert Eggers movie for its spectacular visuals, for its distinctive vision, and, as Payne says, for its originality—a characteristic that many critics felt might be disappearing in our franchise-heavy era. The Northman “rips, especially so because every time I see an original movie with a budget > 50mil made by a director with a clear distinctive vision I get a little worried it might be the last one,” as one tweeter said.
I liked The Northman a lot too. I’m not convinced that it’s an especially original film though. Nor do I think that film is currently facing a problem of lack of originality. If anything, movies are changing too quickly in one direction, even as they remain hidebound in others. The Northman isn’t really a solution to any of that. But it’s important to recognize that a movie can be good, and even great, without doing much to address film’s current financial and aesthetic challenges.
When people say that The Northman is original, they generally mean that it’s not a franchise film, and isn’t based on a nostalgia IP. That’s broadly true; The Northman is not a Marvel, DC, Star Wars, or Star Trek property. It isn’t a reboot, remake, or continuation of a 10 or 20 year old film or tv series.
That’s partly, though, because the story The Northman is based on is so old it’s in the public domain. The plot is derived from the medieval Scandinavian legend of Amleth. That’s the same story which inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The Northman is so unoriginal it’s a retelling of one of the most famous narratives in the entirety of Western literature.
In terms of genre and approach, The Northman isn’t especially groundbreaking either. At its core this is a familiar revenge narrative, told (save for a couple of magical realist touches) in a fairly straightforward way. It’s certainly much more conventional than Eggers last film, The Lighthouse (2019), which featured two lighthouse keepers gabbling and wallowing in manic homoerotic dampness for two hours, riding their oilskins right out of genre and into borderline incoherence.
It's not an insult to acknowledge that The Northman is a recognizable action movie exercise. On the contrary, it’s enormously satisfying to see a big budget adventure film with a powerful, lushly harsh visual style, first class acting, and fight choreography which hits with the sharp crack of broken bone, rather than the smug slickness of CGI. The Northman isn’t interested in doing something new because it’s focused on doing something old with superlative skill.
In comparison with much of the fare at cineplexes, The Northman feels positively atavistic. One-off action pictures about manly sinews sinewing were well established when all those Spartacus imitators stood up and claimed to be Spartacus. The new, weird thing is the MCU, with its endless narrative which winds through infinite films and assorted media.
Spider-Man: No Way Home, which brings in not only MCU films, but films from other franchises entirely, is arguably the most innovative film of the last few years—not least because its achievement (if you want to call it that) has almost nothing to do with filmmaking, and is instead based in logistical marshalling of disparate human, legal and corporate resources. The Northman is a movie about battle. No Way Home is more a battle plan than a movie.
I’d rather watch The Northman five times than watch No Way Home again. But that’s not because I only want to watch the original and latest newness. It’s because I prefer the familiar satisfaction of a well-made genre romp to the shallow flash of the MCU’s tiresomely cutting-edge gimmickry.
In one respect, No Way Home is ensconced in the same, dreary country as The Northman. Both are directed by, and both star, white men—the filmmakers and film protagonists who have dominated movie theaters for the past 100 odd years. There have been strides in this regard; women and POC direct a greater share of mainstream, and even indie, films than they have in the past. But white men continue to dominate. The Northman doesn’t challenge that paradigm.
It's great that Eggers got $70 million to make a wonderful movie that looks back to pre-franchise norms. I would love people to go see it so more movies like this get made (it’s currently only at about $23 million, alas.) But it would be even greater if more people who weren’t white men could get access to that kind of capital to pursue their own visions, whether in familiar genres or not. That would be something newer for Hollywood than No Way Home. And better too.
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