Rarely is it a good sign when a feature film opens with a dictionary definition, especially when the word being defined is pretty familiar to most viewers. Perhaps the best that can be said about the new Norwegian-American thriller Mortal is that after defining the eponymous word, the film mostly avoids being quite so thuddingly obvious. (Did anyone out there need to be reminded what that word means?) But the disadvantage for a film such as this, attempting to deconstruct the superhero mythos in dark fashion, is that it arrives so late in the superhero craze that it adds nothing to the conversation that films such as Chronicle did nearly a decade ago.
Nat Wolff plays Eric, an American with Norwegian roots who we first meet wandering the woods of Norway looking for answers regarding the curious ability he seems to have in setting fires. It’s a talent that’s killed people in the past (always by accident), and in the first act of Mortal, he kills someone else after they harass him. Eric’s power is intense – when he kills the young man, he does so without touching him – but so too is his compassion. That, at least, is meant to explain the connection he forges after the murder with a young psychiatrist (Iben Akerlie), as she helps him unearth his connection to a very familiar character of Norse myth.
You may well be wondering if the “very familiar character of Norse myth” is the same one you may have watched in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the long-haired gentleman who wields a very large hammer. And yes, that’s what Mortal is playing at: a simultaneous deconstruction and reconstruction of the myth of Thor, the God of Thunder. Co-writer and director André Øvredal is essentially doing a grimdark riff on Thor with Mortal, which is a challenge for a few reasons. Though the Marvel iteration of Thor doesn’t exactly boast the strongest connection to Norse mythology, the way that Chris Hemsworth carries himself as the hero, and the personality bursting out of Thor: Ragnarok makes Mortal stumble underneath a too-heavy burden.
Mortal isn’t trying to be loquacious or quippy or snarky; perhaps aping the same style would be an even worse choice. But Mortal’s personality is much like the gray clouds that permeate each scene, making for a fairly dry 104-minute slog sometimes punctuated by action scenes that lean heavily on somewhat clunky special effects. Wolff and Akerlie acquit themselves about as well as can be expected in a story that is maddeningly unwilling to explore the actual details of how a young man (of any origin) could just manifest titanic superpowers with little explanation. Even the ostensible on-the-run element, as the two leads try to outrun a commando squad led by an enigmatic American (Priyanka Bose), is as low-key as the ways in which Eric is able to convince the winsome shrink that he’s not worth tossing away in a mental institution.
The truest problem with Mortal is with its story and the nagging sense that the writers have nothing new to contribute to the vast wealth of superhero cinema we have at our fingertips. A young man grappling with his powers, and sometimes lashing out violently but accidentally, isn’t a new idea. And unlike the aforementioned Chronicle (which, to note, is decent without being terribly impressive), Mortal isn’t visualized in such a way to upend expectations. If anything, this movie feels like a chamber piece at times with flashes of action peppered in with little thought of how it fits together. This is nothing to say of the ending, which will go unspoiled here; as much as this film seems to not want to be named in the same breath as MCU titles, Mortal ends on an inexplicable cliffhanger, not even offering a vague sense of resolution as opposed to an abrupt shock.
It would be one thing if Mortal opened poorly, with that wholly unnecessary reminder of what the word means. The problem is that Mortal ends poorly too, beginning and closing with a nasty taste in the mouth. What comes between the soporific opening and obnoxious finale is competently made without being remarkable. (Seeing as Øvredal last directed the solid sleeper horror film Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, it’s frankly a bit disappointing to watch what feels like a cinematic step backwards.) Mortal wants to offer a new take on the superhero myth, but comes up awfully short.
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