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 Lighthouse (2019)

Watching Robert Eggers movies at a corporate multiplex feels like getting away with something perverse. Eggers has seemingly signed a deal with The Devil (A24) that allows him access to wide audiences for every aggressively Not For Everyone idea he has; the only catch is that the rooms these niche monstrosities play in are plagued by incrementally audible discomfort. As with The Witch, the audience I watched Eggers’s latest film with stormed out of the theater in a disgruntled huff – muttering variations of “What the fuck was that?” amongst themselves on the trail to the parking lot. To be fair, their confusion & frustration is entirely justified, as The Lighthouse is the kind of artsy-fartsy indulgence that you’d usually have to go out of your way to see at a tiny indie theater at the edge of town. A black & white period drama crammed into a squared-off aspect ratio, The Lighthouse mostly functions as an unholy, horned-up mashup of Guy Maddin & HP Lovecraft. It has no business sharing suburban megaplex marquees with the superhero spectacle of the week; at least not before earning the perceived legitimacy of Oscar Buzz. We’ve designated an entire festival-to-VOD distribution template to keep this kind of challenging, deranged nonsense out of the eyeline of the unsuspecting public. Watching Eggers’s films break away from its designated playpen to cause havoc in the burbs feels like cheering on a puppy that runs across the dinner table at an aristocratic banquet. The more people protest the funnier it becomes.

That’s not to say this is a stuffy Academic art piece without traditional entrainment value. The Lighthouse’s tight frame is packed to the walls with more sex, violence, and broad toilet humor than you’d typically expect from high-brow festival circuit Cinema. If you can push past the initial barriers of Eggers’s patient pacing & period-specific dialogue, the movie is a riot. Willem Dafoe & Robert Pattinson costar as a lighthouse-keeper odd couple who gradually grow insane with hate & lust for each other as the only company available on an isolated island rock. What’s “actually happening” in the story is deliberately obscured, as the combative pair’s descent into drunken madness continually disorients the audience to the point where it’s impossible to get our sea legs. The back half of the film is a roaring storm where time, place, and meaning are all drowned out by the two bearded seamen’s passionate clash of wills, and the film becomes more of a deranged experiment in mood & atmosphere than anything resembling linear storytelling. Still, their horniness for each other (and maybe-fictional mermaids), their constant farting in each other’s faces, and their drunken penchant for fisticuffs means this is never a dry academic exercise, despite Eggers’s painstakingly researched dialogue that makes it sound like an ancient, cursed novel. He even buried the title card that announces those research efforts deep into the credits instead of allowing it to immediately undercut the impact of the film’s transcendent conclusion, fixing the one problem I personally had with The Witch.

As delightfully bizarre & idiosyncratic as The Lighthouse can be, I don’t know that I can claim that there’s nothing else like it. Between The Forbidden Room, Cold Skin, and my beloved The Wild Boys you could piece together a neat little modern canon that this antique fever dream is nestled in, even if it is one of the clear standout specimens of that crop. The main difference to me is the value of the A24 marketing & distribution machine behind it, as the other movies of this cursed deep-sea ilk only made it to tiny arthouse theaters nearby, if they played on the big screen at all. The Lighthouse features two recognizable movie stars devouring scenery & each other at top volume. It’s like watching two Daniel Day-Lewises battling to drink each other’s milkshakes at the seaport to Hell. Even if I was the only audience member present who was tickled by those handsome seaside ghouls’ drunken struggles with merfolk, one-eyed seagulls, and divine lightbulbs, it was still heartwarming to see those perverse monstrosities eat up screen space at a corporate multiplex. The fact that the movie is so darkly fun on top of being such an obscured art piece only makes it feel like more of an outright prank on Normie America. In an age when tentpole franchise filmmaking is quarantining most of these bizarro art pieces to the straight-to-VOD wastelands, I’m always going to root for the stray beast that breaks free & runs wild – even if all it really has to say is “Having roommates sucks. And seagulls suck too.”

-Brandon Ledet