The Batman, The Northman, the Vengeance, the Romance

Between the wide theatrical release of Robert Eggers’s The Northman in American multiplexes and the streaming debut of Matt Reeves’s The Batman on HBO Max, it’s been a big week for tough-guy action movies about Vengeance.  I expected to make pithy jokes about The Batman & The Northman‘s thematic parallels as superhero origin stories about traumatized orphans growing up, getting buff, and seeking bloody revenge on the criminals who murdered their fathers.  It turns out the two films genuinely do have a lot in common, though – right down to those orphans’ childhood phases being played by the same actor: 12-year-old newcomer Oscar Novak.  What really struck me in these two sprawling epics about brute-force vigilante justice was the tender hearts beating just below their hardened, muscle-men surfaces.  Both movies announce themselves to be growling heroes’ journeys in search of “vengeance”, but in time they both lament the ways those heroes’ tunnel-vision revenge missions ruin their romantic prospects with the (equally violent, vengeance-obsessed) women in their lives.  It’s kind of sweet.

I was prepared to dismiss these films based both on their macho surface details and on their directors’ respective obsessions with realism & historical accuracy.  I am philosophically opposed to this current trajectory where we just keep making Batman movies increasingly “realistic” & colorless forever & ever, to the point where it already takes 90 minutes of narrative justification for The Penguin to waddle (after Batman & Gordon bind his legs together for a brief visual gag).  Likewise, the only thing that rubbed me the wrong way in Eggers’s calling-card debut The VVitch was its concluding title card that emphasizes its narrative was drawn “directly from period journals, diaries, and court records” from 17th Century New England, preemptively defending its more fantastic deviations from reality with the noble shield of Academic Research.  His 1st Century Icelandic tale The Northman appeared to be even more obsessed with grounding its breaks from reality in the Valhalla of “historical accuracy”, which is not something I especially value in my high-style genre films.  It’s the kind of literal, pedantic thinking that appeals to Redditor bros with years-long grievances over movies’ logistical flubs & narrative “plot holes” but little to say about how art makes them feel.  That’s why I was so pleased to discover that both The Batman & The Northman had more emotions filling their hearts than expected, considering all the real-world logic weighing on their minds.

The Batman is essentially a 2020s goth-kid update for The Crow, with Robert Pattinson eternally brooding under his emo bangs, smeared mascara, and Nirvana-blaring headphones – alone in his logically plausible inner-city Batcave (an abandoned subway station).  He stubbornly insists on living in isolation & despair as if it were a badge of honor, but when he finds a kindred goth-girl spirit in Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz, rocking the same rainbow-dyed bobs she sported in Kimi) he reluctantly warms up to a fellow human being for the first time in his miserable life.  The Northman plays out much the same, with the revenge-obsessed Viking warrior Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) declaring he has “a heart of cold iron” and a “freezing river of blood that runs in [his] veins” until he meets his romantic, dark-sided counterpart in a revenge-obsessed Pagan witch (Anya Taylor-Joy).  When the witch coos, “Your strength breaks men’s bones.  I have the cunning to break their minds,” it plays like a dual-purpose blood pact & marriage proposal.  Both the Batman & the Northman have genuine love interests that meet them on their respective levels of hedonistic bloodlust, which you might not expect from this kind of tough-guy power fantasy.

Neither the never-ending Batman franchise nor the Robert Eggers Extended Universe are strangers to lust.  Batman & Catwoman’s S&M power plays in Batman Returns are legendary and, not for nothing, the main focus of the script.  Meanwhile, the romantic chemistry of The Batman is a slow, quiet burn, taking a back seat to the creepy found-footage terror attacks & old-fashioned detective work of Batman’s search for The Riddler.  Likewise, The Lighthouse is the one Eggers film that fully succumbs to the hunger & ecstasy of sex, while The Northman is much more tender & low-key in its central romance.  It’s telling that neither the Batman nor the Northman abandon their single-minded missions for vengeance to blissfully pair up with their partners in thwarting crime; they both give up their chances for happiness to pursue vengeance at all costs.  Neither romance blooms to its full potential, but I still appreciated that these films had major soft spots in their hate-hardened hearts.  For a couple of tough-guy movies about vengeance, I was shocked that both films had genuinely romantic moments that made me go “Awwww <3” (between all the bombings & beheadings). 

My preference is for Batman movies to be as goofy & horny as possible, but I’ll settle for creepy & romantic if that’s what’s on the table.  The Northman has similar saving graces.  It’s not soft & sweet enough to be just another live-action Lion King (which, along with Hamlet, was inspired by the same Scandinavian legend as Eggers’s film), but it is at least romantic enough to be more than just a live-action Spine of Night.  It’s wonderful to feel hearts beating under these films’ rock-hard pectorals, when they just as easily could have been militant, macho bores.

-Brandon Ledet

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

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There was something about the laughter in the audience I saw The Diary of a Teenage Girl with that really freaked me out. Yes, the movie is funny, but it’s funny in an uncomfortable way that recalls difficult works from Todd Solondz like Welcome to the Dollhouse & Happiness moreso than any laugh-a-minute yuck ’em ups. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a rare picture that manages to incorporate effective black comedy into its beautiful visual artistry & the brutal, unmitigated honesty suggested by its confessional title. Adapted from a graphic novel by the same name, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the story of a vulnerably naive 15 year old comic book artist who gets wrapped up in a sexual affair with her mother’s much older boyfriend in 1970s San Francisco. It’s a difficult film to stomach at times, but it’s one told with an intense attention to verisimilitude & vivid incorporations of top notch comic book art, all held together by a career-making performance from Bel Powley, who plays the exceedingly endearing, but deeply troubled protagonist Millie. I’m willing to chalk up a good bit of the laughter from the theater where I watched the film to discomfort with the subject matter, something I’m more than sure was intended by first-time writer/director Marielle Heller, but I often found my own reactions to what was happening onscreen to be far more complicated than mere ribald laughs. It almost felt transgressive to watch the movie with a large group of vocal strangers, as if I were actually hearing the private diary of a complete stranger being read aloud in public. It’s a starkly intimate work.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl opens with a leering shot of Millie’s denim-clad butt as she struts through a public park populated with 70s San Fransiscan hippies, weirdos, bellbottoms, and mustaches. Amidst this time warp fashion show, Millie proudly declares, “I had sex today. Holy shit.” We soon learn that her newfound sexual exploration isn’t quite as positive of a development as she believes. Not knowing the full extent of what she was getting herself into (how could she?), Millie intentionally seduces her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), initiating a longterm affair that eventually drives some irrevocable wedges between her & her mother (Kristen Wiig). Her reasoning for acting out on her lust for Monroe? “I was afraid to pass up the chance because I may never get another.” Millie is full of these self-deprecating, sadly funny “truisms”. After sleeping with Monroe, she asks “Is this the way it feels for someone to love you?” She later yearns, “I want someone to be so in love with me that they would feel like they would die if I were gone,” and makes ridiculous declarations like “I want to be an artist so school actually doesn’t matter that much for me,” & “Hookers have all the power. Everybody knows that.” Her naiveté can be amusing when she gets teen-deep in her sexual philosophizing, but it also indicates a terrifying vulnerability that Monroe was a monster to take advantage of.

While Millie pines over Monroe in a typical “he loves me, he loves me not” fashion, he treats her more like a younger sister, incorporating an uncomfortable amount of childish horseplay in their flirtation. She’s a shameful fling in Monroe’s mind. She’s also, according to him at least, completely to blame for the affair. The movie does little to sugarcoat the realities of its mid-70s setting, establishing a very specific cultural mindset with references to the Patty Hearst kidnapping controversy (which Wiig’s flower child mother refers to as fascist misogynistic bullshit”), the rise of sexually androgynous milestones like Iggy Pop & The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the omnipresence of Fruedian psychology (represented onscreen by Christopher Meloni), depictions of teens freely ordering drinks in barrooms, the drugged out loopiness of H.R. Pufnstuf, and era-honest inclusions of casual racism & homophobia. It’s tempting to say that an affair with a 15 year old in that context would not have been as big of a deal as it is now, it being “different times” & all, but c’mon . . . Monroe feels intense guilt for the affair, because he knows it is wrong. Still, he blames Millie for his own transgression, as does every other person who learns of the affair (another indication of the times). When Monroe becomes increasingly frustrated with Millie’s adolescent behavior, he explodes “You’re a fucking child!” Well, he’s not wrong there, which is a large part of why he should’ve known better & why he’s so much at war with his own conscious.

To her credit, Millie is often blissfully unaware of just how detrimental her affair with Monroe actually is. Convinced that Monroe is only continuing to sleep with her mother to avoid suspicion, Millie mostly worries about whether or not he loves her back, not how much longterm damage he’s causing her psyche. In a lot of ways, Monroe is just one part of Millie’s coming of age story, which also involves experimentation with ditching class, hard drug use, bisexuality, self body image, skinny-dipping, prostitution, running away from home, and attempts to connect with her favorite comic book artist, Aline Kominsky (a real life talent & real life wife of Robert Crumb). Stuck halfway between an older man who can’t keep up with her overactive libido & her teen sexual partners who aren’t nearly as good in bed (not to mention often freaked out by her pursuit of her own orgasms), Millie is alone in a crowd. She both makes intentionally provocative statements like “I hate men, but I fuck them hard, hard, hard, and thoughtlessly because I hate them so much,” & hypocritically shames friends who are struggling with the same pursuits of sexual & personal autonomy.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl pulls no emotional punches as Millie perilously navigates these deeply troubled waters, often lightening the mood both with its protagonist’s endearing sense of humor & teen-specific lack of self-awareness, but never letting its characters off the hook for their often-cruel transgressions. All of this heft is backed up by a vivid visual collage format that allows ink drawings to come to life, wallpaper to transform into a jungle, and a bathtub to suddenly expand to an ocean, making great use of that concession without it ever outwearing its welcome. What results is an incredibly adept debut feature for Marielle Heller & an remarkable display of range for actress Bel Powley. I’m just as excited to see where their careers are headed in the future as I am to revisit this film as soon as I can get my hands on the novel (and experience it with a more intimate, on-my-wavelength audience).

-Brandon Ledet