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

Kimi (2022)

Of course, of all the big-name Hollywood filmmakers you’d expect to thrive in spite of COVID-era production troubles, Steven Soderbergh has been thriving the brightest.  Three decades into his career, Soderbergh still conveys a playfulness and adaptability that have got to be near impossible to maintain in an industry that’s increasingly hostile towards anything that’s not pre-established, multi-billion-dollar IP.  While most legendary auteurs have struggled to get no-brainer projects off the ground, Soderbergh remains a scrappy, resourceful innovator who’s still making exciting work at the margins of the industry – the kind of movies you’d expect out of a director in their twenties with something to prove.  Adding the circumstances of the COVID pandemic to his already unstoppable filmmaking routine is just another obstacle for Soderbergh to navigate his way around, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was genuinely delighted by the challenge.  Two years into the pandemic, he’s already made and distributed three feature films, making it look disgustingly easy while most of the Hollywood machine feels like it’s still on pause.  I’m halfway convinced that he’ll be up to four COVID-era features by the time I finish typing this paragraph.

Although Soderbergh has already delivered other experiments in COVID-era cinema (all for HBO Max), his latest dispatch, Kimi, is the first that feels like it was produced during the pandemic.  While Let Them All Talk & No Sudden Move would’ve felt right at home in any other year of Soderbergh’s post-“retirement” era, Kimi directly acknowledges the ongoing pandemic and integrates it into its narrative.  It initially plays like Soderbergh making an easy exercise out of updating Rear Window for the COVID era.  Zoë Kravitz stars as a low-level surveillance tech who reviews and solves technical issues for an Alexa-style personal assistant gadget called Kimi.  An agoraphobe whose anxiety about leaving the apartment is only worsened by the pandemic, she’s limited almost all of her in-person social interactions to physical communication with the tenants of the apartment building opposite her window.  Given how most COVID-era productions have shifted to screenlife thrillers contained to laptops and single-location living spaces, you’re trained to expect the entire movie to play out in this one beautiful, but restrictive Seattle apartment.  Instead, Soderbergh turns that familiar set-up into an excuse for a totally Unsane remix of The Net.  While working her surveillance data-collection job, Kravitz discovers evidence of a violent crime.  Reporting it puts her in danger of suffering a similar fate of the victim she’s trying to save, as the corporate suits at Kimi will literally kill to prevent the resulting public scandal.  So, she has to go on the run outside her apartment to escape violent, corporate thugs, which is really just an excuse for Soderbergh to play with the unique anxieties of what it feels like to exist in public right now.

The brilliant thing about Kimi is that it feels like a throwback to mid-budget tech thrillers of the 1990s like Sneakers and The Net—the exact kind of movies that most Hollywood studios neglect to make anymore—even though it has distinctly modern sensibilities in its technophobic satire & production circumstances.  The film’s paranoia about the illusion of online privacy, its dual use of the Kimi tech as both a weapon & a punchline, and Kravitz’s e-girl haircut are all firmly rooted in modern internet culture, but they’re treated with a retro Hollywood thriller sensibility in the film’s plotting.  Meanwhile, Soderbergh is having fun playing with his filmmaking toys, as always.  He shoots Kravitz’s nervous escape on the streets of Seattle with a sped-up skateboard video aesthetic that recalls the anxious discomforts of Unsane.  He stunt-casts comedians David Wain & Andy Daily in bit dramatic roles that recall similar casting pranks in The Informant.  Most importantly, he continues his reign of filming the ugliest, drabbest office settings in the biz, depicting our current corporate hellscape as a fluorescent-lit nightmare we’d all be lucky to wake up from at any second.  If there’s anything that unifies Soderbergh’s filmmaking sensibilities beyond his continued playfulness in craft, it’s that all his films maintain a sternly anti-Capitalist political bent – capturing the cruelty, tastelessness, and absence of Life in our soul-drained modern world like no other filmmaker working today.  It’s all very honest about the exact corporate power structures that are crushing the few good things left in this world, while also recalling the phoniest blockbuster thrillers of Hollywood past.  Exciting stuff.

I have no idea how much longer COVID will continue to disrupt the production logistics of traditional Hollywood filmmaking.  I’ve stopped trying to predict the future after these last two years of watching a global health crisis get unnecessarily prolonged in a game of profit-over-people politics.  Still, I can say with full confidence that Soderbergh will continue to make movies as long as he’s alive on this planet, and his movies will continue to confront those exact misanthropic politics for what they are.  They’ll also continue to be wonderfully entertaining; he’s always dependable for that, even if his modes of professional survival are forever in flux.

-Brandon Ledet