Can decline be reversed? Can decadence be resisted? These questions hang over Joe Biden’s America, land of $5 a gallon gas, looming recession, impending electrical-grid failures, 1970s-style urban crisis — not to mention a summer movie slate led by the umpteenth “Jurassic Park” sequel and “Lightyear,” a pathetic Disney cash grab based on fictional pop culture from inside a 1995 Pixar movie.
But for once I come to praise contemporary Hollywood, not to bury it. It’s been almost three months since a dispiriting Oscar season seemed to distill the collapse of The Movies, capital T, capital M, as the essential American art form. And in that span, as depressing as it’s been for American society in almost every respect, we have been graced with two glimpses of the movies as they once were, and might one day be again — two visions of pop-cultural renaissance, for our age of gilt and rust and C.G.I.
The two movies are in certain ways quite different. One is an auteur’s vision, alienating and challenging, ruthless and distinctive and intensely weird. The other looks, from a distance, like its own version of blockbuster decadence, pillaging one of the last unplundered properties of boomerdom.
But in fact they are spiritually and artistically akin: two dramas of masculinity and heroism, shot through with powerful — and very different — moral and metaphysical worldviews. And each is a technical spectacle, a visual and aural immersion, that justifies the big screen and communal moviegoing experience against its privatized and miniaturized successor.
The movies are “The Northman” and “Top Gun: Maverick.” The first is the work of Robert Eggers, a filmmaker dedicated to portraying the past as people in the past might have imagined it. In this case, he has tried to make the kind of Viking movie that an actual Viking might have made.
Thus Odin and the Valkyries are real, death in battle is the highest glory, and bloody-minded revenge is pursued without compunction. You can see alternative perspectives — Christian, liberal, feminist — flickering in the background of the story, but the movie declines to pander to them, declines to wink broadly to modern sensibilities. It’s a fusion of blockbuster and art-house spirits that outdoes most examples of both: The imagined world is more immersive than the Marvel or DC universes, and the worldview more challenging and unsettling than most “subversive” or “radical” art.
The new “Top Gun” is less challenging and more crowd-pleasing, a fact reflected in its much fatter box office, its broader demographic appeal. (“The Northman” is only a date movie if you aspire to impregnate your girlfriend and then abandon her to raise your kids alone while you head off to kill every single enemy who might someday threaten them.)
But Tom Cruise’s fighter-pilot sequel is subversive of current Hollywood conventions in a different way. Instead of taking a modern classic and “rebooting” it as a lousy shiny spectacle — the way of the Star Wars sequels or Disney’s live-action takes on its animated library — it takes a more middling hit and elevates it, with better action sequences, a leaner story, more going on beneath the surface of the spectacle.
Like “The Northman” and unlike all the endless pop culture pitched to 14-year-old sensibilities, “Top Gun: Maverick” is fundamentally a story about death, and what constitutes a good death. And though both are war movies, their answers are as different as, well, Viking paganism and Christianity. The Viking epic insists on the primacy of enmity and glory, softened only by the loyalties of blood and reproductive sex. The aviator blockbuster, in which the unidentified enemy exists primarily as a testing for the heroes, offers chaste romance, adoptive paternal and filial relationships, and a message from the New Testament: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
And — this is an interpretive spoiler, no apologies, the movie has been out for weeks — it offers it in a subtle but, once you notice it, unmistakably supernatural framework. Cruise’s Maverick isn’t actually leading his last mission in the real world: He dies in the movie’s opening act and he’s training pilots in some kind of purgatory, working through his life’s mistakes to work out his own salvation, to reach a Christian version of Valhalla.
This is not to rule out a more secular and political interpretation of the story, where “Top Gun: Maverick” is about American power poised among nostalgia, decline and possible rebirth. Indeed, to the extent that America is a formerly Christian society uncertain about its own religious future, the two interpretations complement each other. And to the extent that a kind of pagan revival offers one potential post-Christian future for American society, the moral-theological contrast between “Top Gun” and “The Northman” makes their shared aesthetic success that much more striking.
But now I’ve weighed them down with too much baggage, when it should be enough to say that both work terrifically well, both surprise and entertain — and from such simple goods and basic achievements, the movies as we knew them might yet be born again.