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The Most Surprising Superhero Movie of the Year Stars Russell Crowe

Could a modest hit become an unhinged cinematic universe?

Daniel Zovatto and Russell Crowe in The Pope's Exorcist
Sony Pictures
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The Pope’s Exorcist, if you can believe it, is based on the life of a real theologian. Father Gabriele Amorth penned two novels — and claimed to have performed tens of thousands of exorcisms — before Russell Crowe was tapped to portray him in Julius Avery’s new thriller. But even if you aren’t familiar with Amorth, it’s clear Crowe took quite a few liberties in depicting him. He feels much closer to the hero in a Dan Brown novel than a traditional man of the cloth, but that’s just one element that keeps The Pope’s Exorcist from becoming yet another exorcist movie with nothing new to say.

For the record, The Pope’s Exorcist is still a fairly generic demon-slaying flick that follows familiar beats. A troubled family moves into their new home on the Spanish coast, unaware it’s a hotbed for demonic activity. An innocent child is possessed, a plucky single mom tries everything she can to save him. None of her solutions work, and not even the local pastor can confront the evil. It falls to Father Amorth to face this ridiculously strong demon. He ends up uncovering a ghastly conspiracy, one that goes back centuries, while Avery delivers the head-spinning scares that have come to define exorcist stories.

At just over 100 minutes, the film is a perfectly serviceable thriller, which is probably why it became one of Netflix’s top titles overnight. But there’s a bit more to this story than meets the eye. It’s an exorcist film, sure, but it’s also kind of a superhero movie.

As the Pope’s top exorcist, Father Amorth is the last of a dying breed. The Catholic Church no longer takes stock in the things that go bump in the night, partly because Amorth is so good at his job. Even Amorth is growing numb to the threats he’s faced. Something of a jaded legend, it’s the Pope (portrayed by pulp icon Franco Nero) that keeps Amorth’s faith in these “fairy tales” alive. He’s the M to Amorth’s James Bond, the Nick Fury to his Iron Man. And while The Pope’s Exorcist is a standalone thriller for now, Avery and Crowe lay the groundwork for a potential franchise.

Get ready to face your demons. And this kid’s demons.

Sony Pictures

The Pope’s Exorcist contains a few surprises too. It jabs at the Church’s worst offenses (its history of sexual abuse, for one, and its role in the Spanish Inquisition), and it blends history and myth, faith and fantasy, in a manner perfectly attuned to modern filmmaking. The film remixes the classic story of fallen angels into a tangible threat to our world, and posits Amorth as the one man capable of wiping that evil from the face of the Earth.

Paired with his trusty assistant, the adorable Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto), Amorth is a folk hero in the making. It doesn’t hurt that Crowe is clearly having a ton of fun. We may be reaching new levels of franchise fatigue, but there’s no way anyone would be opposed to another one of these movies, especially if we get more of Crowe riding his little Vespa.

The Pope’s Exorcist is streaming on Netflix.

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