The only thing more powerful than superheroes is their enormous drawing power with audiences. Considering the massive success of Marvel and DC, filmmakers have been granted the opportunity to get more creative with their super-powered protagonists. This year alone, Netflix experimented with two unique franchise-starters (The Old Guard and Project Power), while horror stalwart Andre Øvredal (Trollhunter and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) delivers his own fresh-spin with Mortal. Øvredal’s low-budget offering has some noticeable blemishes, but the film thankfully defines its own avenue in the well-trudged genre.
Mortal follows Eric (Nat Wolff), a drifter traveling through Norway to find the source of his mysterious powers. When he’s taken into captivity by the police, he befriends Christine (Iben Akerlie), a sympathetic therapist who looks to aid Eric on his mission. The duo travels across the country while facing off against armed forces who look to contain Eric’s unknown abilities.
Viewers expecting a straight-forward action romp may be disappointed, but this eschewing of expectations is part of what makes Mortal work. Øvredal defines his film with a gritty, slow-burn approach, setting a foreboding atmosphere around Eric’s mysterious presence. Whereas most films define their super-powered protagonists as noble heroes, Øvredal isn’t afraid to imbue the character with a murky sense of morality.
Nat Wolff offers an assured performance as a super-powered nomad, conveying the character’s unstable emotionality with a sensitive light. Alongside the concerned side characters, the film intentionally has viewers guessing throughout whether Eric will utilize his powers for good or evil. I appreciate this ambiguous approach immensely, with Øvredal grounding his narrative in our society’s own concerns about undefinable entities (Batman V Superman integrated a similar approach).
That’s not to say Mortal lacks crowd-pleasing setpieces. Øvredal continues to operate as an overlooked craftsman, displaying an innate ability to morph minimal assets into immersive and grand action beats. Between helicopters flurrying out of the sky and lightning bolts engulfing cars, I was impressed by the number of inventive action beats Øvredal seamlessly works into the narrative framework. I also commend the director for his tonal management of these sequences, subbing out the usual awe-inspiring mysticism for something far more dangerous and unkempt.
Perhaps the great shame in Mortal’s unique approach is the lingering potential outside of the film’s grasp. The script lacks proper dimension, rarely employing its character’s with the nuance or confliction that they desperately call for (Iben Akerlie is solid as Christine, but her character is reduced to a thankless love interest). This would be more forgivable if the film stuck the landing with its third act, as the finale closes with an anti-climactic whimper. Abruptly cutting off amidst a tense and shocking encounter, it almost feels like Øvredal and company ran out of resources to execute their bold conceit.
While shrouded in imperfections, Mortal offers a refreshing change-up from the traditional superhero formula. I will continue to look forward to Øvredal’s future projects, with the upcoming talent exhibiting some genuine filmmaking prowess.
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