The best superhero film of 2023 has been released. It’s “Emily,” a biopic about the 19th-century British writer Emily Brontë. Forget Marvel and DC, whose comic book movies just get louder and gaudier, even as they offer less and less emotional payoff. “Emily” is genuinely more thrilling than any of the caped crusader movies coming out of Hollywood. We shouldn’t complain about the state of our popular culture if people don’t support this engrossing film.
“Emily” is led by a brilliant performance by Emma Mackey as Brontë. Brontë, of course, was the author of the 1847 classic Wuthering Heights, which is still one of the strangest and most darkly intense novels ever written. It describes the passionate but destructive affair between two lovers, Heathcliff and Catherine. It’s a staple of high school and college literature classes and has become a pop culture benchmark, including a famous song by Kate Bush.
“Emily” the film explores what might explain the psyche behind the creation of Wuthering Heights. The film was released at the same time as the widely panned new Marvel movie “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” “Emily,” in contrast, has all the things that were once the hallmarks of great American films: an incisive script, adult characters, psychological insight, and action that is not dumb or overbearing.
“Emily” is also the best superhero movie that’s been released in years. From Batman to Spider-Man, superhero movies all have a similar arc—an obscure or weak individual discovers his or her powers or is transformed by some event, allowing that person to fulfill some inspiring destiny, despite what the regular world might think. Emily Brontë lived at a time when there were not the kind of opportunities for women that there are today. Her father was a Christian minister. One of four siblings, Emily was called “the strange one” by the people of Haworth, the small Yorkshire town where she spent most of the 30 years of her life.
Yet Emily had a superpower: She could write. As depicted by Mackey, Emily was almost a proto-rock-and-roller, idiosyncratic and sarcastic but also smarter than everyone else in the room. (There’s also some drug use, as opium was legal and widely prescribed back then). Written and directed by Frances O’Connor, however, the men in Emily’s life are not cardboard stereotypes of patriarchal evil. They are complex characters living at a time when social mores were very different from those of the modern world. The female characters are also complex, some of them acting in a more oppressive way toward Emily than the men.
Early on in the film there is a scene that in the superhero genre would be the “transformation” scene—the one where the hero gets or reveals his or her power and destiny. It’s Peter Parker getting bitten by a spider or Bruce Wayne falling down into a cave. Emily, her sisters, and two male friends are playing a game of charades that involves a theater mask. Each of them puts on the mask and adopts the persona of a famous character, and the others have to guess who it is. Emily becomes her mother, who died several years earlier.
It is nighttime, the room is in shadow, and the wind from the British moors is banging at the doors and windows. Emily’s possession by her mother’s spirit is immersive and terrifying. As the wind blows the doors open and everyone freaks out, it is clear: Emily is a force of nature who has a destiny that cannot be contained. Frames O’Connor’s direction and choreography are brilliant here, as they are throughout the film.
Wuthering Heights itself is a kind of gothic horror novel, with characters living in a rural version of Gotham City, where everyone is abused or psychologically broken in some way. Heathcliff is an orphan who is called names and shows cruelty towards animals. Catherine is “a wild wicked slip of a girl” whose “spirits were always at high-water mark, her tongue always going—singing, laughing, and plaguing everybody who would not do the same.” She is prone to “senseless wicked rages.” One academic critic has speculated that the characters in Wuthering Heights are suffering from trauma—in Catherine’s case, it stems from the loss of her mother, a loss also suffered by Emily Bronte.
In this, it’s almost like the original Batman story—orphans traumatized by the loss of their parents set off on a path to try and fix the world.
The media is filled with endless content about how bad today’s films are and the glut of superhero nonsense. “Emily” is a ravishing and real alternative.