In a world more than ten years into a historic Marvel Cinematic Universe run, the only word to describe someone outside the Hollywood system deciding to make a film about a young man with the same powers as Norse mythology’s most iconic God is bold. Why? Because it won’t really matter whether André Øvredal’s Mortal is good or not. He’s willfully going up against the zeitgeist and many audience members will scoff at whatever direction he’s taken simply because it diverts from what they think they know from a Disney-fied version of a religion they actually know little about. This reality isn’t unlike the one born from the Mouse House’s idealistic cartoons based on dark fairy tales nowhere near as sanitized. So give Øvredal a round of applause.
The director of Trollhunter doesn’t have to worry about such things, though. Not when he’s bringing his more grounded version of “God on Earth” theatrics back home to Norway. He and his co-writers Norman Lesperance and Geoff Bussetil don’t have to worry about financing in a market already oversaturated by Chris Hemsworth—that’s American distributor Saban Film’s problem. All Øvredal need concern himself with is figuring out how to bring a Thor-like character to life in an era where unchecked strength and power is to be feared rather than understood. What happens when those with open minds willing to listen and learn aren’t enough to protect this highly volatile being from losing control? He can either heal or destroy. He can either be respected or feared.
Ask Eric (Nat Wolff) which he deserves at the start of Mortal and he’ll be the first say the latter. We meet him at a time where he fears himself because he has no idea what’s happening. He came to Norway from America to find his relatives and learn about his heritage. What he got instead was a burnt farm, five dead, and burns over seventy-percent of his body. So he hides in the woods—alone, confused, and afraid. Eric wants to believe the fire didn’t originate from him, but he wakes each night to find trees aflame all around him. He hopes to isolate himself so no one else gets hurt, but there’s little he can do to stop himself when aggressive strangers come too close.
What’s this sleepy village to do? The sheriff (Per Frisch’s Henrik) has a grieving parent he knows by name on one side and a scared foreigner barely older than his victim trying to melt into the corner of an interrogation room on the other. There’s no denying what happened: Eric killed this boy. But how? Ole barely touched him before falling to the ground. Eric didn’t take malicious action. It was all utterly impossible to explain. So rather than throw the book at his suspect and risk even more deaths, Henrik calls a young psychologist to advise (Iben Akerlie’s Christine, because having an attractive, potential romantic partner assist creates narrative room for emotional repair and fracture later). She enters to help while the American military arrives to contain.
Like most stories with an unknown entity at their center, Eric ultimately goes on the run with the only person he can trust: Christine. They search for answers while the American sent to assess the situation and put him down if necessary (Priyanka Bose’s Hathaway) works to mitigate the damage. We watch as Eric learns to breathe slowly and remain calm when stressful episodes are triggered. We wonder as he does if the ability to alter the atmosphere and wield water and lightning as weapons means he can also use them as tools. So two races against time commence. Can he put a lid on his destructive capabilities before Hathaway kills him? Can he discover who he is and why this is happening before destroying himself?
It all leads to a very interesting question. Hathaway posits that exposing the public to what Eric can do will inevitably get them to start calling him the God of Thunder. What will be the ramifications of that reality? In a utopic world we’d hope for benevolence and foster it upon seeing that it’s his goal too. In the world in which we currently live, however, such benefit of the doubt would be impossible. Even Superman caused a wave of unprovoked anxiety in a fictionalized 1970s-set adventure. So at a time when countries and citizens are being divided upon religious lines, how can evidence of a foreign God not spark war? Would Christians and Muslims accept they’ve been wrong? Or will they see Norway’s God as the Devil?
It’s a query that struck me as Øvredal’s way to ensure his version of this Norse myth truly says something unique and profound. Unfortunately, it’s more or less ignored. Some might say that Hathaway’s actions answer it for us, but I disagree. What she does is very much rooted in a military-based utilitarianism rather than a spiritual wrath. That’s not to say the American army isn’t rooted in Christianity—it is. Letting that implicitly stand as an answer to Hathaway’s question isn’t enough, though. Especially not when her actions are as obvious and as clichéd as possible when it comes to these types of superhero/supervillain origins. She’s acting in response to a threat, not a God. So his being a God ends up being rendered inconsequential.
Does it ruin the whole? No. It merely reveals that the whole has little to say that hasn’t already been said countless times before. An abrupt ending hinting at a sequel might mean Øvredal is hedging his bets to say something new later (how he leave things gives this thought credence), but that only exposes this installment’s shortcomings in the process. Mortal is a fascinating take nonetheless with some cool set pieces (a bridge standoff) and a willingness to increase stakes by killing characters and dealing with the complexity of the aftermath. It doesn’t quite take the next step to be truly original, but its darker sensibilities do offer a welcome contrast to Marvel at a moment when it can exist alone due to the studio’s pandemic-driven postponements.
Mortal opens in limited release November 6 and hits VOD November 10.