When I first heard that Netflix was actually making that American Death Note movie that we’d had rumours about for almost a decade I didn’t think much of it. I assumed that we were getting just another shitty cash-grab movie, another Dragonball Evolution or Ghost in the Shell. Something that’d butcher the original works and ultimately not stand on its own feet either. Too tied down to source material to do its own thing, and too American to get what the source was doing. Hell, I doubt I truly get what Death Note was in Japan. I doubt I ever can.
At any rate, very little could have prepared me for what Netflix’s Death Note really tried to be.
(The following contains spoilers for Death Note, Death Note and Death Note)
In many respects Wingard‘s Death Note shares very little with its source materials. Sure, we have characters called Light, L, Watari, Ryuk and Mi(s)a but they share very little in terms of character and role with the original, or anime adaptation counterparts. Light is no longer the perfect student. Instead he is depicted as being simply a whiny nerd, full of shit. He does other kids homework. He gets beaten up as he badmouths bullies to their face in the most obnoxious and obtuse way. Teacher’s don’t care about his “think of the big picture” excuses for his breaking of rules. From the very start Light is nothing more than a big-headed kid. A kid the movie actively dunks and shows is all talk and no bite as much as it can. For most of the movie, Light does nothing particularly smart despite being ‘clever’ in at least the Highschool academic sense. He’s simply a horny teen in love with the idea of being a superhero.
L and Watari on the other-hand share plenty of character traits with their animanga counterparts. L is a wellspoken but eccentric genius detective, and Watari is his dedicated but solemn carer/friend. L’s quirks with sweet food, his harsh logic, and his apathy towards most people remain. However, his role as Light’s foil is long since gone. He isn’t the socially repugnant hero of justice to fight the socially beloved hero of justice. These are no longer two hyperidealised archetypes clashing in an array of twisted logic. Light isn’t socially beloved. He’s a fucking nerd. And whilst L still exists as this childish, brattish, game theorist he has no equal within Wingard’s vision (Which in part leaves his eventual break down and weird idiocy, alongside the world in general somewhat odd choices).
The cat-and-mouse chase is dead.
Light never stood a chance.
Ryuk is the only character within Wingard’s Death Note to remain almost identical to his animanga depictions. Why wouldn’t he? He’s a God. Unknowable. Terrifying. And with values that alienate and destroy mortal comprehension. Much like L in this version, he has no equal. Light may have toyed with and manipulated shinigami with in the animanga versions, but Wingard’s Light, again, is just a bratty kid. This terrifying, haunting, and self obsessed god of death has nothing holding him back. He doesn’t devolve into this comedic gag character who occasionally shows his demonic ways. He’s simply always demonic. With no counterpoint or foil Ryuk primarily exists as a spectre to torture Light. He actively dislikes Light and would much rather the Death Note be wielded by Mia instead.
Mia, Light’s ‘girlfriend’ character is only very vaguely based on Misa in the original Death Note. Where Misa in the original is presented as a manipulative and powerful Note wielder in her own right, she’s quickly relegated to be simply an infatuated tool of Light’s. A pawn to his machinations. The treatment of Misa, as a character, within the original works is basically unanimously agreed on to be gross as fuck. Not really helped by the author’s insistence that after the end of Death Note she kills herself on Valentines Day as she cannot live in a world without Light. All her traits, her intelligence, her charm, and her dedication ultimately don’t matter and are removed from her as the plot of the original progresses.
Wingard doesn’t do that. In fact, if there’s a character within his adaptation who is even slightly like Light. It’s her.
This isn’t to say Mia is the apersonal serial manipulator who cares for noone else. Nor is it to say she doesn’t act as a bratty and apathetic teenager similarly, but more ruthlessly, as Light does. However, she’s still the primary motivator for Light’s ‘world changing’ dreams. Light’s speeches of changing the world, and the bigger picture are always shown to be nothing but the excuses of a brat. Her dreams on the otherhand, as delusional and oppressive as they are, are the real deal. She whole-heartedly believes in her mob vigilantism. She believes in the honesty of mob mentality. It is her ruthlessness that pushes Light forward. Whilst Light cries and whines and makes mistake after constant mistake, Mia cleans up without him knowing. It is her intelligence and ruthlessness that allows that few ‘shared’ scenes within the works to happen. The ‘trick’ that Light uses to get rid of his tails in the original work is instead performed by her without Light’s knowledge or consent.
Light may wax on about becoming a God, a vision for the people. But it’s always framed as him waxing poetically without any real depth behind it. He first does it to try and get out of detention. He later does it as part of a mixed montage which conflates his speeches with having sex with Mia, with the gorey murder of multiple criminals. His speeches are nothing more than impulsive quips.
Wingard’s Death Note is sort of a romance. A story of lust between Light and Mia, between a whiny nerd and an edgy cheerleader, who utilise hyper-violent murder as an aphrodisiac of all things. But it’s also a ‘romance’ between the movie and its source material and a romance between the movie’s creators and camp B-movie horror. Death Note loves Death Note. It loves the the over-top-ridiculousness of such iconic scenes like “I take a potato chip and eat it”. It loves the twisted logic that’s the central feature of the original manga.
But it doesn’t try to imitate or recreate such scenes.
Light and Mia’s fucked up relationship, they’re awkward, terribleness is the central narrative of the film. The opening montage depicts them as tragic antiheroes, with how serious Light’s expression is as he takes money in an out of the way place for doing other students’ homework. How Mia leaves during middle of cheerleading practise to lean against a fence and smoke, literally walking through a crowd of teenagers. How this all transitions into a huge literal storm as the Death Note falls from the sky. It’s so in your face. It’s so overt. Exactly the kind of camp film-making a Death Note movie should get, without simply lifting from its anime adaptation.
The various horror cues that exist within the film also serve such an absurd comedic role. Ryuk may be genuinely disturbing and terrifying (along the Note itself which is filled with the scrawls of its previous users and textured less like paper and more like.. An Eldritch book of human skin) but this is juxtaposed by Light’s whiny mumbling. When he first is told to use the note by Ryuk, a harsh removal of the agency that the original Light had, he complains he does not have a pen. Followed by a series of cuts where we see Ryuk’s leathery hands just casually pull out, click, and pass to Light a biro.
The contrast between this monstrous figure who destroyed the classroom as he entered leaving Light a screaming, crying mess, just casually passing him a biro to scrawl in a book of human skin is genuinely hilarious. Such a complete shift in tone achieved in a just a few cuts aims to subvert even fans of the original’s expectations. This isn’t the Death Note you know, and maybe love or hate, but a Death Note intimately related to those texts. That wants to have fun. This scene is immediately followed up with a Final Destination-esque murder. In fact, a large portion of the murders we’re shown are of this absurd gore-y style. Including, but not limited to, what I can only describe as “The Another Umbrella scene but this time a dude really fucked up at eating steak.”.
Describing this explosion of gore and his first kill later is what hooks him up with Mia.
The first hour or so of the movie is dedicated to Light and Mia’s fucked up ‘romance’. Light feeds Mia bullshit about saving the world, as they get off on causing magical murders around the world. Mia herself urges Light on. She influences and even, as it’s later revealed, takes control of the situation when there’s a chance they’ll get caught. This is really where the strengths of the movie lay. Wingard’s Death Note knows that its characters are terrible shallow people. It knows it that even the original Death Note was at it’s best when it was playing up how ridiculous and silly it was being. So, this movie indulges fully in it. Declarations of love are as shallow as any kind of ‘attempt’ one could say the movie makes to actually dealing with the themes it plays with. The actual emotions of Light and Mia never really mature into anything beyond teenage apathy for the world. Their goals, their lusts, and their desires are completely empty. As iconographs of that kind of teenager, they fit the bill.
The ending of the movie takes all of this and somehow decides that wrapping everything up into an actual Death Note twist, but with their trashy versions is a good idea.
L’s broken down from a suave but disconcerting detective to being a distraught child after having his primary caregiver taken from him. His sweet quirks, his pacifistic approach. It’s all taken from him. It isn’t till the epilogue, the scenes after the final climax that he even gets a chance of achieving his revenge. A revenge he does get, but at the expense of his original position in the narrative.
The same can be said for Mia. Her brilliant manipulations of Light and her attempt to gain control of the Death Note, of the movie itself, also amount to nothing. Given Misa’s shafting in the original series her attempts, and ultimately failure, here leave me with mixed feelings. It is good that she had such an attempt at claiming for her own. From shafting Light from his own franchise, even if it is the bratty, useless, shitty Light of Wingard’s. But she too fails. Used as a final tool for Light to escape the vision of the police, and to escape from L.
However, her death isn’t the sacrifice of a pawn intended to be sacrificed. Light’s boner for her, what he calls love, makes it otherwise. Simply put, Light weaponizes her own ambition against her, so that if she turns on him his plan will be carried out. An oddly out of character moment of chain manipulation, gambling and intelligence that… really doesn’t belong to Wingard’s Light. Regardless, Mia too fails. In her role to claim her narrative from Light.
Which leaves Light. A useless kid in a moment of panic who we are to take to have a moment of brilliance. Does his moment of brilliance achieve anything?
The movie ends with Light in the hospital, his Dad finally believing him to be Kira and with L having sentenced him to death due to his own ineptitude. He’s lost everything that mattered to him, and having been called out as being a whiny kid Ryuk will soon take his life.
Wingard’s Death Note is a film where no-one achieves anything. Where mass murder is splashed around as eroticism for teenage sex. Where the entire world is just as fucking stupid as a horny teen. It’s something between a complete mess, and a wonderfully camp explosion of colour. It’s both predicated on systematically tearing apart the original manga whilst also predicated on capturing the camp humour of the anime.
Its ending song is The Power of Love.