Major Grom: Plague Doctor (2021) is not the first superhero movie to come out of Russia, but it’s certainly the most significant, and the best made. It’s a movie that knows you’ve probably seen dozens of movies like it before. It knows you both enjoy the Hollywood formula and feel bored by it. It tries to give you all the things you like, but also enough things that are different, shiny, and new, so that you walk away from the experience feeling like someone gave you a new version of your favorite thing.
Based on a comic book from 2012 and set in a fictional version of Saint Petersburg, the movie follows police detective Major Grom (a real Russian surname that means “thunder”) as he crashes and slashes his way through the city’s thefts, burglaries, and murders. Grom is the quintessential cop who doesn’t play by the rules—after the movie’s big opening chase scene, where Grom apprehends some bank robbers while destroying a city monument, his boss summons him for a hearing and all the other cops place bets on whether Grom really will be fired for his antics this time.
Grom’s methods, however, seem to be just right for the latest crime spree sweeping the city. Just as Sergei Razumovsky, a shy and nerdy tech genius, publicly launches his groundbreaking social app, a “madman in a mask” commits a series of heinous murders against the city’s elite, making sure to share them on the internet. The murderer wears the costume of a seventeenth-century plague doctor—complete with the bird mask—and proclaims that his purpose is to cleanse the city of the plague of its corrupt elites.
In the purely Hollywood version of this story, Grom would team up with Dima, the junior cop who looks up to him, and Yulia, the plucky investigative reporter, to stop this menace. In the Russian version that also happens, but not in quite in the same way.
Grom is the stereotypical lone wolf, alpha male cop. He works alone, he needs no one; he can crash or punch anything in his way if necessary. The crux of the movie, however, lies in the fact that Grom is wrong. He is quite literally useless without his friends, his family, his community. For all his intelligence, experience, and physical strength, Grom fails in his confrontation with the Plague Doctor, until his friends step in.
This may seem like a trivial lesson to learn, but it’s practically antithetical to the way comic book movies work in their current Hollywood incarnation, especially when it comes to origin stories. Yes, the hero has friends and sidekicks, but in the final confrontation, the last major battle, the hero must stand alone and prove he’s worthy and capable of defeating the villain on his own.
The best comparison between Grom and a western superhero is probably Batman. For one, like Grom, Batman doesn’t have superpowers. He’s just a man in a suit, a detective trying to solve crimes. For another, they’re both loners whose closest relationship is with an older man who acts as a father figure (for Grom this is the police chief who practically raised him after the death of Grom’s parents). But in every single origin movie for Batman (and there have been several) the lesson Batman never learns is that his impressive abilities simply don’t cut it for the final battle unless he has help from his friends.
Another way in which Major Grom: Plague Doctor shows its genre savvy is that it actually questions the methods of its hero within the context of the movie itself. The premise of any superhero film is that an extraordinary man can be allowed to bend and break the rules everyone else has to follow (for example the state’s monopoly on violence) and instead of being terrifying it’s somehow comforting. Yes, normally vigilantes are a bad idea, but this specific man, whose intentions are noble and good, he will save us from the villains.
Major Grom: Plague Doctor at once leans into and questions that paradigm. There’s no doubt that Grom’s intentions are good and his actions ultimately successful in stopping the villain, but his methods … even Dima, his adoring fan, points out to him that there isn’t much of a difference between how Grom operates, going outside the rules, and how his opponents operate.
“The difference is, I’ve never killed anyone,” Grom counters.
“Yes, so far you haven’t killed anyone …” Dima says, implying that it’s just a matter of time until Grom’s luck runs out and his rough methods cause something more serious than an injury.
It’s pulling the covers off the fact that it’s usually clear in superhero movies that the heroes do absolutely kill people, but that we just accept the violence as cartoonish and pretend everyone who falls from a third-storey window gets off with a sprained ankle.
But aside from these delightful meta touches, the movie is also just plain enjoyable to watch, in large part thanks to its humor, aesthetic, and clever play on visual tropes. A good example of this is visually showing us Grom’s thought process during fight scenes. Whenever Grom finds himself facing a powerful opponent he mumbles “Think, Igor, think,” and we see the scenarios he imagines. Once he imagines a scenario that would lead to his death, meaning the movie shows us Grom’s funeral only a few minutes after we’ve met him. Sometimes he sorts through these scenarios and chooses the best one, but sometimes he can’t find one that works and chooses a bad one, upping the stakes for the audience. At one crucial moment in the film, instead of saying “think,” he says, “what’s there to even think about?” and takes action without considering the consequences, because it’s clear he’s risking certain death and also clear that he has no other choice.
I also can’t skip over the movie’s villain. There’s a classic Jekyll and Hyde trope at play here, as mild-mannered tech genius Sergei Razumovsky turns out to be the murderous Plague Doctor, but the way in which the reveal is handled is nothing less than masterful. Early on in the movie we discover that Razumovsky’s best friend since childhood, Oleg Volkov, is the Plague Doctor, and is using Razumovsky’s money to finance the fancy weaponized suit. We watch Razumovsky, terrified of Volkov, sob and beg him to give up the mask, and finally be torn over whether to hand his friend over to the police after Razumovsky and Grom meet and begin to collaborate. It’s not until the final act that the movie reveals its Fight Club trick, when Volkov turns out to be a soldier who died recently during a tour overseas, and we find that Razumovsky imagined his presence as a way of coping with his own murderous tendencies.
These clever storytelling tricks are supported by the movie’s overall heightened, fantastical visual style that creates a completely fictional version of Saint Petersburg. The movie works extra hard to make it clear that Grom doesn’t operate within our reality. No indoor space—from the police station to Grom’s apartment to an orphanage—looks even remotely similar to how those places might look in reality. Even the police uniforms look like they were copy-pasted from some generic US procedural, instead of looking like the actual uniforms worn by police officers in Russia. The only real thing that remains is the outdoor shots, Saint Petersburg’s beautiful architecture, streets, and monuments.
Which is the point, I guess, where I have to talk about the politics of the film. It’s certainly … an experience to watch a Russian superhero movie in 2022 where the main hero is a police officer totally loyal to the system he’s part of. Reviews within Russia itself have been divided on whether it’s possible to ignore the film’s plot, no matter how “unrealistic” its setting, given that Grom essentially saves corrupt elites from mob justice, and the movie shows massive protests over injustice as something that quickly turns to violence and chaos.
But it would be easy to brand this movie as a piece of propaganda in the context of an English-language review that is, by definition, for people outside of Russia. The reality is, the bigger and more expensive a movie is, the more it relies on the support and consensus of the country it’s made in. It’s why Marvel movies are made with the support of the US military, and in some cases act basically as recruitment ads.
On the one hand, I think the debate over this movie that is already happening in Russian is fascinating and important; on the other I don’t know how to briefly explain the relevant context unless you already know who Pavel Durov, Aram Gabrelyanov, and Margarita Simonyan are, at the very least.
Part of what makes this dilemma so relevant is how rapidly the political landscape has changed in Russia since the movie came out, never mind since the comic it’s based on was written. In 2022 especially, Putin’s authoritarian control over the country’s media and all political opposition have escalated drastically.
All of which still leaves me wondering what the relevance of these events is for viewers outside Russia. The pro-government message of Major Grom: Plague Doctor is clear for anyone to see, but so is the imperialist messaging of any Captain America movie. To cast the Russian movie as nothing more than state-sponsored propaganda allows a foreign audience to ignore the same tendencies in the Hollywood blockbusters they accept without question.
So where I fall on it is this: Major Grom: Plague Doctor is a really good, funny, entertaining, even innovative superhero/comic book movie. It has fun characters, beautiful visuals, and a flavor of the Marvel formula that will feel fresh to habitual viewers of the genre. It is the product of the political system in which it was created, like any analogous Hollywood endeavor. Watch it, enjoy it, talk about it. Nothing good comes of burying the art of countries where the regime is trying to stifle opposition.
Or watch it for yourselves to form an opinion and then tell me I’m totally wrong in my assessment. I promise you’ll still have a good time.