When I was a freshman in high school, my favorite teacher took my English class through Beowulf, laying out its use of various foundational literary devices as we learned the story of a legendary warrior battling his way through monsters and kinghood. At some point near the end of the story, while talking about foreshadowing and the sense of looming morbidity that hung over the whole epic, she looked up at us and said, simply and without fanfare: “Beowulf is going to die.”
I remember some of my classmates reacting as if she’d just slapped them. There were murmurs of “Why’d you even make us read the story, then?” as she calmly ended the class. I wasn’t upset, but I do remember being a little stunned, walking away from that class thinking that there must have been a reason she preferred to announce Beowulf’s death with such matter-of-factness. Eventually, of course, I got it. She was trying to teach us that endings don’t always matter in the way we expect.
I thought about my favorite teacher, and her valuable Beowulf lesson, quite a bit in the days surrounding the release of another Scandinavian epic saga: Robert Eggers’ The Northman. Granted, no one in that film—a violent, primal howl of vengeance set against a backdrop of prophecy, magic and muscle that I loved a great deal—comes right out and says “Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) is going to die” like my English teacher did all those years ago. But the film also doesn’t hide its fatalistic ambitions, using its very first shot to show us the active volcano where Amleth will meet his end and drenching its screenplay in language that references lakes of fire and the inescapability of fate, all pointing the way to a final showdown in a lava field.
Narratively, The Northman is an impressive exercise in reminding audiences that what happens is often not nearly as important as how it happens. From where I sit, it’s been arguably just as impressive to watch the people who made the film fearlessly play up its climax during the press tour. At the premiere, Eggers talked about the necessity of adding digital genitals for both Skarsgard and Claes Bang (Amleth’s devious uncle Fjolnir), because the actors had to be protected by thongs during their climactic nude fight scene. A day later, Skarsgard went on The Late Show and revealed the blood-stained thong he wore for the scene, explaining both the volcano setting and the “wounded” nature of his character. By the end of the opening weekend, Eggers’ full breakdown of the final sequence had arrived at Entertainment Weekly—the headline touting the “nude volcano brawl” that had by then become such an integral part of hyping The Northman that it was showing up in trailers.
Now, to be fair, these discussions don’t tell would-be moviegoers exactly what happens in the film. They don’t spoil how Amleth dies, or how Fjolnir dies, or what happens to Amleth’s paramour and the mother of his children, Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy). But take it from someone who’s been covering genre films full-time since before the first Avengers: Watching an epic fantasy filmmaker and his cast lay out this much of their story in full public view without fear of spoiling anything has been downright refreshing.
Just last year, a portion of the internet practically imploded when a reporter at a major Hollywood trade dared to tweet out some facts from the latest Marvel superhero film after attending the premiere. In the weeks leading up to the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home, there were demands for critics to sign non-disclosure agreements with million-dollar price tags and other such absurdities so they wouldn’t dare reveal anything about the film prior to its opening. Studios have leaned into this philosophy, producing full-blown PSAs urging fans to “Say No to Spoilers.” Talk show hosts have made a game of the whole thing, prodding stars with questions they know said stars can’t honestly answer, just to watch them squirm and, in some cases, field yelling responses from a studio audience.
But it’s not just a wider media game played out among pundits, publicists and producers. I know colleagues who’ve been lambasted on the internet for saying anything more than “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” when coming out of a screening for an upcoming film. I have friends who will literally cover their ears to block out what I’m saying when the only question I’ve been asked is “Did you see [insert blockbuster movie here] yet?” Spoilerphobes, and people who simply prefer to go into a story as blind as possible, have of course always existed in some form, but it’s reached a fever pitch as studios have realized that the best way to get butts in seats is to, in the words of Francis Xavier Cross, make audiences “so scared to miss it, so terrified.”
The Northman is not a superhero tentpole, or the latest installment in a major action franchise, but it is a major genre film with a bonafide star and a director with a reputation among cinephiles. Its willingness to not just talk about its ending, but flaunt it as a centerpiece for why people should want to see the movie, matters in the larger movie landscape, particularly when stuff like the latest Thor trailer plays more like a “next time on Mad Men…” promo than a cohesive teaser for a story. Too many moviegoers have been terrified into silence by spoiler culture, convinced that knowing the wrong piece of information will ruin a story for them. The Northman hucks an axe into the face of that notion, and not just because of its promotional cycle.
You can’t spoil fate. Amleth’s eventual death hangs over The Northman like Beowulf’s eventual death hangs over his saga. The first shot in the movie is of the volcano where his life ends, after all. Amleth’s fate is a constant running through the film. What changes is the reason he chooses to meet that fate. His mantra—”Avenge father, save mother, kill Fjolnir”—is shattered by the finale, with the realization that his mother is a liar and his father might not be the man Amleth thought he was. What’s left for him is Olga, and their children, and the legacy he will leave, so when he promises to “cut the thread of fate,” he’s not promising to live in spite of Fjolnir. He’s promising to end the cycle of death and vengeance that’s defined his life, to stop it at the gates of Hell so that his greater fate, his legacy, is one of life. Like Beowulf, it is a textbook example of the journey mattering more than the destination, and a rebuke of a spoilerphobic culture that’s forgotten that story and plot are not the same thing—and how neither are all that a movie can be.
Of course, it’s also an excuse to talk as much as possible about a nude sword fight in a volcano, and that just rules.
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.