Nicolas Winding Refn’s Take On the Superhero Genre Is Drenched In Neon-Lit Despair [Venice]

Dec 9, 2022

What would it look like if Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn took a stab at a superhero show? If one guessed neon-soaked, with a penchant for nihilism and framed through the throbbing tempo of synthesizer beats, they would be correct, of course. 
NWR’s familiar triad of sorrow, synth, and neon guides his latest, Netflix’s six-part series “Copenhagen Cowboy.” The sprawling show trails Miu (Angela Bundalovic), an unlikely heroine presented as a non-descript magical entity whose powers go from healing long-lasting migraines to allowing post-menopausal women another shot at fertility. She is passed from master to master as a gift, her powers harnessed by crime lords and sex trafficking kingpins who mercilessly exploit the girl until they realize they should fear her instead. 
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It is in the house of one of Miu’s many masters that “Copenhagen Cowboy” begins. “Four hundred years ago, they would have burned you at the stake,” spits the bitter woman who locks the girl in her basement night in and night out. To the crook, Miu is a mere inconvenience — a blend between lackey and good luck charm, entirely devoid of humanity. It is a pattern that will follow the 18-year-old as she goes from hand to hand, seeking vengeance from those who were never able to offer her a glimpse of empathy. 
This quest leads Miu to the dark netherworld of Copenhagen, where joy is a commodity as scarce as gold. Amidst dark corridors and damp vaults, the heroine meets girls entrapped by men who preyed on their dreams to turn them into slaves; mothers led to the unthinkable by the same hands who snatched away their children; men turned into soldiers in a merciless war doomed to create a legion of unclaimed black body bags. 
The hellish underbelly of the Danish capital is harrowingly captured by Refn, who obscures nooks and corners to immerse the viewer in anticipated dread. Men are turned into literal pigs, snorting as they grind against limp bodies, obscenity placed front and center. Women are easily disposable — violence is not only normalized but expected. Such hate-filled disregard towards the other is embodied by the show’s antagonist, Nicklas (Andreas Lykke Jørgensen), a Danish Draco Malfoy with a slightly too-on-the-nose Oedipus complex. 
The relationship between Nicklas and his mother, as dysfunctional as it is, takes a coadjuvant stance when placed against the one shared by father and son. The patriarch drools over his boy, staring at the teenager as if drinking from the chalice of youth. He recognizes that a son and a mother have a special bond, but a son and a father are connected by the appendix of manhood. Yet, despite his father’s incessant emphasis on overt masculinity and the cult of the phallus (“I can feel you have no idea of its importance. It’s a great cultural asset,” he says of his own genitalia at one point), Nicklas is still an androgynous character, his chiseled features soft when in quiet contemplation and terrifyingly animalistic when engaged in primal violence. 
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Miu is an androgynous character, too, a trait emphasized by a work of costume design that sees her turned into a Dragon Ball Z character for Gen Z. It is an apt look for the character at the center of what is often built as a 90s Nintendo game. Slow-motion kung-fu fights between the two enemies punctuate episodes, sometimes as a crescendo, sometimes as a climax. These duels offer rare jolts of thrill in an otherwise relentless succession of despair, building a bridge between conventional superhero tropes and the director’s anarchic tendencies. 
And still, it all gets a bit too tired too quickly, the combined visual and mental hyperstimulation counterintuitive to the binge culture nurtured by streaming platforms. By episode three, this exercise in self-indulgence is clear in its purpose of serving its creator at the cost of the narrative itself, a much more forgivable sin when constrained to a tight two hours. 
Marking NWR’s return to the episodic format three years after neo-noir “Too Old to Die Young,” “Copenhagen Cowboy” is still firmly rooted in the Danish filmmaker’s cinematic world. When asked about this sense of continuity during a press conference for the world premiere of his latest at the Venice Film Festival, the director said: “I’ve done films in the past with a certain type of character that Mads Mikkelsen first played in “Valhalla Rising,” and then Ryan Gosling played him as a driver in “Drive” and then Vithaya [Pansringarm] played him as a lieutenant in “Only God Forgives.” 
In this sense, Miu feels very much an extension of NWR’s plagued hero, with the director himself labeling her a “female evolution” of his until then very male archetype. And if one is ever so inclined to indulge the filmmaker’s predilection for the self-congratulatory, then “Copenhagen Cowboy” will work a treat. If the opposite is true, then buckle up, as this is about to be one wild yet extremely unpleasant ride. [C+] 
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