I recently had the pleasure of seeing Everything Everywhere All At Once and The Northman. If we only look at the surface, it would be hard to find two more disparate films. But digging a little deeper reveals that these movies are actually (and surprisingly) quite similar.

Without going into spoilers, the primary thing these movies share is both sets us up for one kind of story by plot point one, and then continues to make revelations that subvert our expectations while still paying off the goods of their respective genres.

In Everything Everywhere All At Once, a person our protagonist has never met shows up to pull her away from a banal life to explain that she actually belongs to an alternate reality in which she has superpowers, and a mysterious antagonist is out to get her for reasons tied to her very existence. So at the top of plot point one, the film seems to be clearly playing a song in the key of The Matrix.

If that was all the film had to offer, Everything might have been a fun time at the movies, but perhaps not much more. Because: we’ve already seen The Matrix, and while dressing a proven set-up with new wallpaper sometimes works as a pitch, ultimately we aren’t pushing the story to do more than something that has already been done.

Thankfully, EEAAO has a deeper game in mind; it lays that Matrix track to set up our expectations so, when it takes different turns, those fresh choices land with that much more of a pleasant surprise.

However, what’s easily as important is: even though we jump off the road of simply plodding through the Matrix beats, we still give the audience a similar fun time at the movies. The film still gives us martial arts fights in reality-bending settings. It delivers the goods. The misstep would be to make subverting expectations the only mission, to such a degree that we take away the fun movie we spend the first act telling the audience they’re going to watch. We’re adding to the experience, rather than subtracting from it.

Similarly, The Northman spends its first act telling us we’re going to watch a Viking-theme revenge story. And we still get everything we expect from that set-up: berserkers, raids, fights, lots of shouting, and so on. But the story takes us in unexpected directions in such a way that we still get the Viking movie we bought a ticket to see, while avoiding the lure of simply checking off the expected boxes of this set-up and genre. Again, as with Everything, the subversion adds to the filmgoing experience, rather than subtracting from it.

And they’re both ultimately stories about relationships between adult children and their parents. So we get big genre action set pieces, but in both cases our story is built on universal thematic elements. If it was just punching and chopping, it would be nothing but incident. Instead, we’re telling two great stories.


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