‘The Northman’ Takes History, Spirituality, and Young Men Seriously

There are three topics that popular Western storytelling, especially at the movies, currently struggles to engage seriously: history, spirituality, and young men. When history is portrayed, it is almost always through a postmodern lens. It is judged and manipulated, for better or worse, to fit contemporary worldviews and issues. Consider films like The Last Duel, which pretends 14th century French women were more despised and disbelieved than we know from the film’s source case to make a point about current Western politics, or The Revenant, which compresses the American West’s timeline to judge Native American genocide and the overexploitation of natural resources. However useful these manipulations may be for storytelling, they are not an objective way to understand history.

When spirituality appears in film, it fares somewhat better than the other two topics but is still often twisted or ignored. Look at last year’s Benedetta, in which the Catholic church is cartoonishly villainized and its protagonist’s spirituality eroticized beyond recognition, or Marvel flicks like Black Panther and Shang-Chi, which both take specific cultures’ mystical beliefs and portray them as sanitized conglomerations. These religions were and are important to people for reasons never explored in the films.

Then as far as young men are concerned, most movies feel beyond worrying about their needs at the moment in favor of bringing attention to historically oppressed people groups. With varying levels of success, recent MCU, Star Wars, and Matrix franchise entries let guys know it’s time for the girls to take over; movies like Knives Out portray their male characters as evil, ridiculous, or idiotic; and toxic masculinity is constantly excoriated without providing a tenable alternative in films like The Invisible Man.

Many of these films are good and contemplate worthy themes, but they are exemplary of a certain cultural unseriousness. Enter The Northman, a film that tries to remedy this situation for postmodern audiences by looking to premodern poetry.

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